BRISBANE, Australia (AFP) – Flood waters receded from Brisbane on Friday leaving residents to pick through putrid, treacly mud and debris to reach devastated homes and businesses, as search teams discovered another body.
Australia’s third-largest city began the painful task of cleaning up after its worst floods in decades, as waters drained from the city to expose the full horror wrought when the Brisbane River burst its banks.
Search teams recovered the body of a woman in the nearby Lockyer Valley and officials warned there may be more grisly discoveries in the days ahead.
Brisbane residents nervously returned to see what remained of their homes and businesses, as the muddy brown soup that had covered buildings up to their roofs dropped to reveal its aftermath.
“There is a lot of heartache and grief as people start to see for the first time what has happened to their homes and their streets,” Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said a day after the river peaked.
“In some cases we have street after street after street where every home has been inundated to the roof level, affecting thousands of people.”
She urged locals to help each other as the city of two million people began its daunting “post-war” rebuilding effort.
“I encourage people please to make an effort to help your friends, help your families,” she said, as locals slopped out thick layers of stinking mud from their homes and businesses and tried to salvage any possessions that survived.
The river dropped two metres from its peak of 4.46 metres (14 feet, eight inches), reached on Thursday, exposing damage that will add dramatically to Queensland’s estimated flood reconstruction bill of Aus$5 billion ($5 billion).
More than 26,000 homes were flooded in Brisbane, 11,900 of them completely, and their owners are likely to be homeless for weeks or even months. Electricity remained cut to thousands of homes, and many key roads were still blocked.
An unbearable stench filled the air while the twisted remains of boats, parts of buildings, a large chunk of a concrete walkway and other debris lay on mud banks throughout the city.
At least 16 people have been confirmed killed in the floods in the last four days, most of them when flash floods hit the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, and the town of Toowoomba on Monday.
Officials said the body of one of those who died was recovered 80 kilometres (50 miles) from where that person went missing, indicating the possibility that the bodies of some of the flood’s victims might never be found.
State coroner Michael Barnes visited the Lockyer Valley, where most of the 16 confirmed dead were from, with detectives and forensic experts. Fifty-three people from Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley are still missing.
Barnes, who is likely to oversee the inquest into the tragedy, told reporters that it was “possible that some of those swept away may never be found”.
He said investigations had already begun into how the disaster occurred, and whether any changes to emergency management or responses were needed.
Bligh visited the valley town of Grantham with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and described it as the “epicentre” of the destruction that saw entire houses washed away and cars tossed around in the water like paper cups.
The scenes in Grantham could “only compare to a war zone”, Bligh said, “the town has been literally picked up and turned around and deposited in fields and roads… it’s going to be very difficult for people to come home.”
As troops and emergency personnel combed areas of the valley for the missing, Gillard doubled the number of soldiers tackling the floods to 1,200, the nation’s biggest deployment for a natural disaster since 1974.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, on a visit to Brisbane, suffered a small cut in the flood waters which later became infected requiring brief hospital treatment, AAP reported late Friday.
But there was good news for communities further south, with officials revising down concerns for the 6,000-strong town of Goondiwindi and some residents allowed to return to their homes.
In Brisbane, police arrested three people for looting in what they branded a “disturbing” development. So far 10 people have been arrested on such charges and police said they were carefully patrolling all flood-hit areas.
Meanwhile, as Queensland launched into recovery, parts of the southeast states of Victoria and Tasmania were evacuated as torrential rain — thought to be connected to the northern rains — caused flooding as rivers and dams burst.