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Australia PM pledges financial help for flood-hit Queensland

08 Jan

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard flies in a Black Hawk helicopter as she views flooding near the northern Australian city of Rockhampton, in this January 8, 2011 handout photograph. Gillard pledged financial support for Australia's flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow. REUTERS/Australian Department of Defence/Handout

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SYDNEY, Jan 08 (KATAKAMI / Reuters) – Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged financial support for Australia’s flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow.

In a series of visits by military helicopter, Gillard went to towns whose streets have been turned into waterways by a Christmas deluge that left an area the size of France and Germany combined under water.

The floods have swamped coal mines and hit agriculture hard, washed away roads and railways, killed four, and brought the country’s $50 billion coal export industry to a near standstill.

Some river levels have hit records and some are still rising with further rain forecast for this weekend. Months more wet weather is predicted, brought by the La Nina weather phenomenon.

“The scale of the floodwaters, the sheer size of this is best appreciated from the air and we are talking about huge areas, lots of water, a lot of it still very fast moving and so it’s going to be a long time back,” Gillard told a news conference in the flooded town of Rockhampton, 600 km (370 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane.

Asked how much it would cost Australia’s federal government, she said: “I’ve been very clear that we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, and in many towns locals and relief workers have taken to getting around the streets in boats. Authorities say around 200,000 people have been affected.

Gillard pledged funding to help improve flood protection for Rockhampton, a town of around 75,000 situated near the mouth of the Fitzroy River which peaked at 9.2 meters on Wednesday. On Saturday, it was still at 9.15 meters and predicted to stay above 8.5 meters until next Friday.

Rendering some highways flood-proof would be a priority, she said, after the state’s major rail and road links were seriously disrupted and in some cases washed away.

Earlier in the flooded town of St George, 450 km (270 miles) west of the state capital Brisbane, Gillard said A$4 million ($4 million) in emergency payments had already been paid and more was on the way to help “families who are doing it tough.”

Gillard pledged to work with state Premier Anna Bligh to “help Queensland through.” The Balonne River in St George was forecast to peak at near 13.4 meters over the weekend.

On Saturday a fourth person was confirmed dead in the latest flooding, a 55-year-old truck driver whose truck veered off a road while transporting water to the inundated town of Condamine. The scale of the disaster has prompted fears of disease in the largely tropical areas affected, and in some areas drinking water has been in short supply.

Flood warnings were still current on Saturday for more than 10 rivers in Queensland. Up to 200 mm of rain was forecast in some areas over the weekend, but forecasters said the worst would likely spare the areas most heavily affected by the floods.

The man tasked with overseeing the recovery, Major General Mick Slater, has warned it is likely to take years and said the damage cannot be properly assessed until the waters recede. While traveling with Gillard on Saturday, he said the crisis was “not over yet.”   (*)

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2011 in World News

 

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