Australia – A swollen river submerged bridges and inundated homes and stores Sunday in Australia's already sodden Queensland state as more heavy rain added to the country's worst flooding in decades.
Maryborough became the latest of some 40 towns to be partly awash as a river running through it burst its banks and entered parts of the town of 22,000, which has been heavily protected by sandbags and levies. Downstream, residents of Gympie were frantically sandbagging their town in anticipation of flooding there on Monday.
The latest flooding was not as bad as in recent weeks, when entire towns were submerged beneath an inland sea the size of France and Germany combined, but was a sign that the ground has little capacity left to soak up any more moisture, so any new rain is likely to make matters worse, officials said.
Some areas of Queensland have had more than eight inches (200 millimeters) of rain the past 24 hours, the Bureau of Meteorology said late Sunday.
"This year, with all of the catchments primed and the rivers already flooding, that 200 millimeters of rain will mean something very different," said Warren Bridson, acting chief of the state emergency services. "It could mean the difference between a minor flood and a major flood."
Ten people have died since late November and about 200,000 have been affected by the floods. Roads and rail lines have been cut, Queensland's big-exporting coal mine industry has virtually shut down, and cattle ranching and farming across a large part of the state are at a standstill.
Towns in the path of floodwaters have had time to prepare with sandbags and levies, and officials say the rain falling now is not expected to make the crisis significantly worse. A massive relief operation has moved from emergency operations to recovery.
Residents of some of the 40 affected towns have returned home and begun mopping up sludge left behind by the floods, while others — including in the city of Rockhampton, home to 75,000 people — are still waiting for floodwaters to recede to start the cleanup.
Officials say it will be another week before the river level drops, and the situation will stay miserable in the meantime for many people, with dirty water sloshing through 400 homes and 150 businesses.
"The issue of the stench, the question of the mosquitoes, sand flies and black flies ... will be very uncomfortable to our community," Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter said.
Senior officials got a personal dose of the bad weather on Sunday, when a small plane carrying the army officer in charge of the rebuilding effort, the state premier and other officials was hit by lightning. It sent a flash of light through the cabin and left black scorch marks on both wing tips and the tail, the premier's office said.
In Maryborough, two houses, a mobile home park and about seven businesses near the river were inundated, and two bridges were covered with water as the floods peaked, police Superintendent Stephen Wardrope said.
A Gympie official, Tony Perret, said the floodwaters were headed toward the town, and some properties close to the river were expected to be inundated Monday.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard flew Saturday to several towns that were cut off or partly submerged by floodwaters, and promised residents they would be fully restored. Maj. Gen. Mick Slater, who is in charge of the recovery operation, said it might take years to fix all the damaged roads, rail lines and bridges.
Queensland officials have said the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure, coupled with economic losses, could be as high as $5 billion.
Australia's worst flooding in some 50 years was caused by tropical rains that fell for days, starting just before Christmas. Some 1,200 homes were inundated and almost 11,000 more have water damage. Nearly 4,000 people were evacuated, and many are still staying with friends or in relief shelters.