Brisbane Braces for More Floods, More Deaths

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Torsten Blackwood / AFP / Getty Images

A motorist defies official warnings and drives through a submerged road as floodwaters inundate Brisbane on Jan. 12, 2011

At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, the central business district of Australia's third largest city was virtually desolate. Brisbane's traffic lights were rendered useless as streets usually jammed at this hour had fewer than a handful of cars driving through. Cafés were empty and the power company Energex was gradually cutting off electricity in the center, transforming this city of 2 million into a ghost town.

Today Brisbane is preparing itself for a flood that's expected to ravage more of the city's downtown and suburbs this afternoon. The Brisbane city council says flood modeling estimates that nearly 20,000 homes and 3,500 commercial residences in 2,100 streets will be flooded, as the Brisbane River levels are expected to rise to 14.7 ft. (4.5 m) with the high tide by this afternoon. Five evacuation centers are operating in the city's center, as an estimated 6,500 people do not have family or friends to stay with.

Two-thirds of Queensland is now declared a disaster zone in the wake of floods that have inundated the region for the past three weeks. But things got worse on Monday, when flash floods hit the region and made their way to Brisbane. Ten people were confirmed dead overnight in the nearby town of Toowoomba, bringing the floods' death toll to 20, and 67 people are still missing in the region. This morning's respite from the rain is likely to bring bad news for those unaccounted for. "I think we're all going to be shocked by what they find in these towns that were hit by that tsunami yesterday," said Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to Sky News this morning. Today will be "a potentially gruesome day for our emergency workers and a heartbreaking day for families who are still holding out hope. So, difficult times there," said Bligh. Temporary morgues are being set up west of Brisbane as health authorities expect the arrival of those killed in yesterday's flash flood.

The rising floodwaters are expected to surpass the devastating floods of 1974, which were responsible for the loss of 14 lives and $200 million worth of damage. Back then, floodwaters reached 17.8 ft. (5.45 m), but by 4 a.m. on Thursday they are expected to reach 18 ft. (5.5 m). The areas that were flooded 37 years ago are expected to be submerged within the next two days. The Brisbane River had already burst its banks in the city's southern suburb of Yeronga. Southwestern suburb Jindalee and Western suburb Toowong are also inundated. In Fairfield this morning, cars were floating down Ashby Street and water had reached the tips of traffic lights and covered phone boxes.

Those that aren't in imminent danger are starting to prepare. The IGA supermarket in Spring Hill, a suburb, was almost out of bread. "I had tried to go to [Woolworths supermarket] last night and it was packed for a Tuesday night," says a resident who identified himself as George, but declined to give his last name. "Milk and bread were completely sold out." Sandbags lined the downtown Port Office Hotel in preparation for this afternoon. A picture of the same venue from 1974 shows chest-deep murky water surrounding the building. Less than a mile away on Eagle Street Pier, ramps and stairs were already inundated with water overflowing from the river, and sections of jetties were floating past in the raging current.

"I've eaten at that café," says David Pedler, a Brisbane resident who was downtown taking a photo of brown water splashing over a white circle, barely recognizable as tabletop. An IT consultant, Pedler was told on Wednesday morning to work from home because of flooding. He says his office car park was already submerged, parts of the street were overflowing and water was lapping up the pavement rapidly. "Probably not the best choice for parking," says Pedler, pointing to other cars parked outside on the road.

While the city is in the throes of preparation today, many residents are wondering why some precautions weren't taken earlier. At his downtown office, a government building, colleagues who didn't receive get message to say home were staring at the damage to their workplace. "It's a new government building," said one passerby. "Surely they would know not to build there." Pedler said another department had a flood mark as a reminder of 1974. "We always used to laugh at that and think why on earth would you build something below a floodline," said Pedler. "They obviously thought that a flood like that would never happen again."