Australia Begins Flood Cleanup; Insurer Compassion Urged

By Ed Davies | January 14, 2011

Australia’s third-largest city started cleaning up stinking mud and debris on Friday after some of the country’s worst floods on record, but in a sign of the task ahead, it could take six months to pump flood waters out of Queensland’s coal mines.

Many suburbs in the state’s capital Brisbane, a city of two million people, remained submerged after floodwaters inundated the riverside city on Thursday.

The floods in Queensland, which started in December 2010, have killed 19 people. Tens of thousands of homes have been inundated with floodwater and more than 60 people are missing.

“Right now we are still rescuing people, we are still evacuating people. So we are right in the middle of the emergency response,” said Queensland state premier Anna Bligh, who has described Brisbane as looking like a war zone.

“We need to brace ourselves, when this goes down and its going down quite quickly, its going to stink — an unbearable stench,” said Bligh.

The disaster has crippled Queensland’s infrastructure and its coal exports, pushing up world prices by around a third.

The event has been blamed on the strongest ever recorded La Nina weather phenomenon in the Pacific, which has also affected other countries.

Heavy monsoon rains and flooding across a third of Sri Lanka have killed 23 people, forced 100,000 to leave their homes and threatened food supplies on the island.

Sri Lanka’s agricultural ministry said at least a fifth of the nation’s rice crop had been destroyed, raising concerns over supply shocks and higher food inflation.

Rising food prices are stoking global inflation with many agricultural commodity markets driven higher by bad weather in key producing countries. Record food prices are also raising the risk of riots in developing nations and trade protectionism.

COAL EXPORTS

Bligh said her government would concentrate efforts to help the state coal industry meet demand in Asia, after Commonwealth Bank estimated the floods would remove 14 million tonnes, or 5 percent, of global coking coal exports this year.

“This is critical right now, to get that supply chain fully functional,” Bligh told reporters.

Australia’s Gladstone Ports Corporation said on Friday it will restart some coal export shipments on Saturday as rail lines serving the terminal reopen and it begins to replenish stocks that have fallen to two days of supply.

Freight operator QR National said on Thursday that its Blackwater line serving Gladstone could resume service as earlier as Jan 20.

The line has been closed since December and serves the state’s biggest coal miners, including BHP Billiton , Rio Tinto and Xstrata . They have all declared force majeure, unable to meet export contracts.

Still, a lack of equipment means that it could be up to six months before mines can return to full operation, mining contractors said.

“There’s just nothing left to hire, all the pumps are working non-stop,” said Dave Walker, who manages water pumping for Total Water Management. “It could be months before all the water is out.”

Australia provides almost two-thirds of the world’s metallurgical coal exports, most destined for Asian steel producers. Ninety percent comes from Queensland.

CYCLONE THREAT

Military aircraft and trucks fanned out across Queensland state, ferrying food and clothing over an area the size of South Africa, as the weather bureau warned the threat of cyclones and fresh rains would last until March.

But a cyclone forming in the Coral Sea, which had threatened the coast, had begun moving north into the Pacific, said state premier Bligh.

“We’ll keep watching it, but maybe our luck is about to change,” she said.

The flooding, which started before Christmas, continued in other areas of Queensland, with the 6,000 residents of Goondiwindi, southwest of Brisbane, facing a record flood.

As the country’s wild weather continued, police evacuated communities in neighbouring New South Wales state overnight as flooding threatened the border towns of Boggabilla and Toomelah.

Torrential rain in Victoria state also led to evacuations in Halls Gap and Glenorchy, northwest of Melbourne, with a flood peak expected on Friday morning.

The town of Beaufort was also under threat with a nearby lake threatening to burst banks, police said.

STINKING MESS

In the centre of Brisbane, a drop in the swollen Brisbane River left foul-smelling mud covering areas beside the city’s cultural centre and Wheel of Brisbane tourist site.

Aerial views of the city showed a sea of brown with rooftops poking out, but the water was receding.

Boats have been used in many areas to reach houses, with sofas and fridges floating in water. Residents have no idea when they might be able to return to their homes.

“Nobody told me this would become this serious, this terrible,” said Su Liu, a Chinese student studying marketing at the University of Queensland.

She fled her home near the riverside university on Tuesday as water poured into the second floor of her apartment building and was now sheltering in an evacuation centre.

Power has been restored to 170,000 homes, but power company Energex said 66,000 homes across southeast Queensland remained without electricity.

Bligh called on insurance companies to show compassion and flexibility. Many Queenslanders, thinking they were covered against floods, have discovered that is not the case, she said.

Economists have estimated the flood damage at A$5 billion, with $1 billion (A$1 billion) of that to be underwritten by insurers.

“It’s not in the interests of anyone in our community, including those companies, to stall or delay recovery,” said Bligh, whose disaster handling has won wide praise, reviving ruling Labor’s flagging hopes of re-election in the state.

Polling last year showed only 28 percent of Queenslanders would support Labor at elections due next year, while Bligh’s own popularity was so low that resurrecting her support was an “impossible mission”, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper said.

(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in CANBERRA and Amy Pyett in SYDNEY) (Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Michael Perry)

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