Brisbane Wakes Up to Good News, Long Road Ahead

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Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

Water overflows from drainage as parts of the Brisbane city centre flood on January 13, 2011

On Wednesday night, Megan Junker, a Brisbane resident, had a barbeque with her neighbors. They drank wine and watched the Riverwalk concrete walkway tearing away from the pavement and getting hurled down the river. Junker and her neighbors had packed their bags, ready to evacuate at a moment's notice. She had also boiled several liters of water as a measure against contaminated water supplies, and packed food in case supermarkets were sold out.

This morning Junker woke up to a pleasant surprise: an apartment that was completely intact. "We can't believe our place didn't go under," she said on Thursday morning. "I live right near that walkway and things looked like they were getting pretty bad for a while. But it turned out to be ok."

Junker was enjoying a free sandwich outside a partially flooded shopping mall, in New Farm, an inner suburb of Brisbane. The local Coles' supermarket, had had its power cut off and was trying to cook food before it went to waste. Nearby on Brunswick Street, one local was wading through waist deep water to deliver plastic bags from one side of the street to another. A man on a kayak rowed past next to him before disappearing around a corner. Inside the mall's courtyard, the pile of meat that needed to be cooked before expiring was high, and a queue was forming quickly.

On Thursday morning, Brisbane was more than aware that they had gotten lucky. Floodwaters that were expected to reach 5.5 meters overnight peaked at 4.46 meters, failing to eclipse the devastating floods of 1974. But with a rising death toll in nearby towns and a billion dollar clean-up bill, their luck was relative.

Overnight, the death toll from this week's flash floods in southeast Queensland reached 15, raising the total deaths from the month-long regional disaster to 25. Jordan Rice, a 13-year-old from Toowoomba, was among the dead. He was clinging to the roof of a car with his family but told his rescuer to retrieve his ten-year-old brother first. Rice and his mother were swept away in the deluge shortly after his brother was saved. The number of dead is likely to rise as authorities hold grave fears for 12 missing.

Survivors throughout the state are now on alert for a long list of insects and diseases that could be a potential danger to them in the floods aftermath. Sewage infrastructure in Brisbane has been damaged and raw sewage is entering the Brisbane River. Andrew Laming, a former doctor and the opposition's regional health spokesperson, says that Rockhampton is experiencing an outbreak of food poisoning due to food and water contamination and St. George, an inland city, has been hit by a sand fly epidemic. Laming is concerned about people coming into contact with water, especially in areas where bodies and livestock could potentially be recovered. "I don't want to see any heroics," he says. "If anyone has come into contact with the water and have flu-like symptoms, they should seek help immediately."

Wildlife displaced in the floods has added to residents' woes. A telephone technician spotted a deadly red-bellied black snake tightly wrapped around a pipe he was inspecting, and there have been unconfirmed reports of a bull sharks in the main street of Goodna, a suburb in Ipswich, a town west of Brisbane. Thousands of those forced to leave by the floods, will have to exercise caution during their return.

So far, 70 towns and cities have been affected by what could be Australia's worst natural disaster on record. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters this morning that the state was "facing a reconstruction effort of post-war proportions." In Brisbane alone, more than 15,000 residential and commercial properties have been affected by the flooding. The price of the damage is so far difficult to assess, but a representative from Suncorp Insurance in Brisbane, told Time that they have already received some 5000 claims from the greater Queensland area.

"The impact will be significant," says Brian Redican, a senior economist from Macquarie Bank, in Sydney, "It will be the difference between Australia's economy growing and Australia's economy shrinking." Redican predicts that the disruption to tourism, agriculture and mining as a result of the flood will shave nearly $6 billion from Australia's $1.3 trillion G.D.P. Queensland's tourism was already suffering before the floods, due to Australia's high dollar, he says. "Australians found it cheaper to go overseas to Bali, and Americans found it too expensive to come here. Now of course the floods have made everything significantly worse."

Despite the losses, Bligh tried to encourage Queenslanders to stay positive. "As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are," she told reporters. "We're the people that they breed tough. We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again."