Australian flood victims begin return to mud-deluged homes

Evacuation victims have begun returning to homes caked in sludge as Australia's flood crisis continues amid warnings of further storms and the dangers of waterborne diseases.

Residents in one sand-bagged town watched nervously yesterday as a swollen river level crept higher and forecasters warned of more rain.

Officials in the stricken region said they were moving from the emergency phase into clean-up as flood water levels stabilised in the hard-hit coastal city of Rockhampton and dropped further in towns further inland.

Queensland state has been in the grip of Australia's worst flooding in some 50 years, since drenching tropical rains fell for days starting just before Christmas. At its worst, an area the size of France and Germany combined was covered with water, some 40 townships were inundated and nearly 4,000 people evacuated.

Some of the 150 people of Condamine have returned home in a convoy for the first time since everyone in the small cattle-ranch supply town 190 miles west of Brisbane, the state capital, was evacuated on December 30 to escape rising floodwaters.

On their return they found the waters gone but 42 of the town's 60 houses had been inundated by the flood and the properties and contents ruined

"It's just flattened everything," said pub owner Shane Hickey. "All the grass is mud, all the plants have been torn out of the ground, the trees have gone over and are just covered in silt and mud."

The town still has no drinking water and officials are warned of waterborne disease. Mayor Ray Brown said electricians, plumbers, portable toilets and water and food were being brought in.

As the clean-up began in some towns, others were bracing for the worst of the floods yet to arrive.

In St George, where levies of earth and sandbags have been built around dozens of homes, officials said the floods' peak was now expected to be lower than originally thought, meaning fewer than 30 homes in the town of some 2,500 people were at risk.

In Dalby, east of Condamine, officials said floodwaters were rising faster than expected and were expected to peak yesterday rather than the weekend. The town's swollen creek is expected to inundate yards and a caravan park, but not to enter houses.

Authorities have also renewed warnings for people to stay out of floodwaters, saying they were still dangerous even as they eased.

"I think people often underestimate the awesome power of floodwaters," Queensland premier Anna Bligh said.

"It is a very dangerous body of water. You are only being asked to move for your safety and the safety of your family and emergency workers."

Nearly 4,000 people across Queensland have been evacuated from their homes since driving rains that began just before Christmas left much of the region under a sea of murky water. Around 1,200 homes have been inundated, with another 10,700 suffering some damage in the flood zone.

The total cost of the floods is not yet known. Ms Bligh has said the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure coupled with economic losses could be as high as five billion dollars (3.2bn).

The mayor of Rockhampton, a city of 75,000 that was the hardest hit, said it would take 12 months before the town recovered. The city's overflowing Fitzroy River is very slowly receding, after spilling on to 3,000 properties and leaving 200 homes with water above the floorboards. More than 500 people were moved from the city.

At least 10 dead in disaster

Police say 10 people have died in swollen rivers or floodwaters in Queensland since late November.

The flooding also shut some 40 coal mines in the state, pushing up global prices, and has hurt wheat, mango, sugar cane and other crops. Road and rail links have been washed away, and officials warn it could be months before they are restored so activities can return to normal.