Drowning: Death tolls climb and more floods are on the way

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No halt to the misery as La Niña brings disaster to the southern hemisphere

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The suffering in the southern hemisphere grinds on. Torrential rain triggered fresh flood warnings in four Australian states yesterday just as the clean-up began in the Queensland capital, Brisbane. Meanwhile, 10 more people were reported dead in Sri Lanka's floods, and in Brazil the death toll from floods and mudslides is now rising inexorably towards, and possibly beyond, 600.

Uncommonly heavy rainfall – Sri Lanka's hardest-hit area, the eastern port of Batticaloa, has had more rain in the past two weeks than its annual average – has saturated several parts of the southern hemisphere. Meteorologists have linked the floods in Australia and Sri Lanka with an unusually strong La Niña weather cycle, which has also been blamed for the current drought in Argentina.

In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology has also linked the current heavy rains in Queensland to La Niña, and said that 2010 was the third wettest year on record as a result. The miseries of Brazil, where much the largest loss of life due to flooding has occurred, are however not linked to the weather cycle. In fact, according to the Met Office, the country should be drier than usual.



Australia

The muddy waters that engulfed much of Brisbane last week had largely receded by yesterday, giving locals the chance to start cleaning up. On what the city's mayor, Campbell Newman, dubbed "Salvation Saturday", thousands of volunteers joined military personnel to shovel, mop and sweep away the thick, foul-smelling sludge left behind when the Brisbane River dropped.

The city's worst floods for more than a century had been forecast for Thursday morning, when the river was scheduled to reach its peak. While that prediction was not borne out – in the event, they were the worst since 1974 – scores of residential neighbourhoods were inundated, along with a large chunk of the city centre.

And in a separate and entirely unforeseen event, a massive amount of rain on the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, sparked flash floods that killed at least a dozen people and left 28 others missing. The tsunami-like floods barrelled through a series of towns and hamlets, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.The loss of life, and the suddenness with which the tragedy unfolded, means traumatised locals may take longer to recover from the floods than their city counterparts. In the small town of Grantham, described by the Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, as the "absolute epi-centre" of those events, residents have not even been allowed back to view the damage to their houses.

While Brisbane dodged a bullet, the floods – Queensland's worst natural disaster – are not over yet. Vast swathes of the state remain inundated, and meteorologists warn that, with two months of the wet season left in northern Australia, and the effects of La Niña more pronounced, further serious flooding is a real possibility.

And not only Queensland is affected. Northern New South Wales has suffered widespread flooding in recent weeks, and yesterday 7,000 people were still isolated by floodwaters. Further south, in Victoria, 2,500 residents have been forced to flee after flood warnings were issued for five rivers. Tasmania is also on flood alert after receiving the equivalent of an entire summer's average rainfall in one day.

In south-eastern Australia, continuing heavy rain and overflowing rivers have created a new flood danger in many areas. Conditions in Victoria, in particular, were expected to worsen overnight, with houses threatened in towns such as Glenorchy and Dadswells Bridge. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who said she was "very concerned" about Victoria, will visit flood-affected areas there tomorrow. Yesterday she was in Grafton, in northern New South Wales, where 7,000 people have been stranded by rising floodwaters. Entire towns have been evacuated, but in one welcome piece of news yesterday, the State Emergency Service said a cyclone off the Queensland coast was expected to spare New South Wales.

While the floods have brought out the best in many people, with Brisbanites rallying round last week to help their neighbours pack up and leave ahead of the river peaking, there have also been isolated incidents of looting.

The Queensland Police Commissioner, Bob Atkinson, yesterday announced a 200-strong task force to protect evacuated suburban streets in Brisbane and the neighbouring town of Ipswich. The looters have been using boats to commit their crimes. In one incident, two men were arrested after stealing alcohol from a flooded pub. On Friday, two men in a red canoe tried to break into a convenience store in Brisbane but were chased away by security staff.

Mr Newman, Brisbane's mayor, expects the clean-up to be completed within months, but he warned that the rebuilding of Australia's third-largest city could take up to two years. More than 30,000 homes and businesses have been flooded. Seventy towns and cities have been affected across Queensland, an area the size of France and Germany combined.

With the state's lucrative coalmining industry at a virtual standstill, thanks to waterlogged mines and transport routes, and agriculture production also in limbo, some economists believe the disaster has lost Queensland AU$13bn (£8bn).

Mr Newman said yesterday that an inquiry into the disaster would review planning regulations and consider a programme for buying back homes in flood-prone areas. The Australian Local Government Association claims that during the drought years the state government and developers pressured local councils to approve building on land vulnerable to flooding.



Brazil

The death toll had risen to 598 by Saturday, and there were fears it would climb sharply higher once remote areas were reached.

Mudslides have caused most of the fatalities in Brazil, where torrential rain sent avalanches of mud and boulders smashing through communities in the mountains outside Rio de Janeiro. Survivors complained yesterday that the government was being slow to rescue people trapped on remote hillsides and to find the bodies of the dead.

In the face of official inaction, many people are undertaking that work themselves, according to Sergio Joaquin de Jesus, a construction worker who was rounding up a crew of colleagues to dig for bodies. Mr de Jesus, whose wife's brother and sister are both missing, plans to carry provisions up to survivors stuck high in the mountains.

The mudslides hit an area of nearly 900 square miles in lush, forested mountains about 40 miles north of Rio. The deaths are centred in Teresopolis and three other towns, where many wealthier citizens of Rio have weekend homes. Rio state's Civil Defence department said yesterday that 260 people were killed in Teresopolis and 267 in Nova Friburgo, a 45-mile drive to the west that draws hikers and campers to mountain trails, waterfalls and dramatic views of lush green slopes. Fifty-three died in neighboring Petropolis and 18 in Sumidouro.

In the centre of Teresopolis, hundreds of homeless are sheltered in a local gymnasium in the town, where food and medical care are abundant. While the disaster has destroyed the homes of rich and poor alike, the deaths are overwhelmingly seen in humbler areas, where homes are flimsier, most lacking foundations, and located in steep areas known to be at high risk of mudslides. In those areas, horror stories are trickling out as survivors make it to town.

Fernando Perfista dug out the body of his eldest child from the mud, then looked for the 12-year-old's three missing siblings. He sheltered the boy's remains in a refrigerator to keep scavenging dogs at bay while he searched.

After failing to find his other children in the Fazenda Alpina area of Teresopolis, the 31-year-old ranch hand built a gurney from scrap wood, carried his son's body down a mudslide-wrecked slope before dawn on Friday and buried him in a homemade coffin.

Then Mr Perfista waited with a crowd in the rain outside the Teresopolis morgue for a chance to plead with officials to help him continue his search. He clutched plastic-covered pictures of his three other children: a chubby one-year-old and two smiling girls, ages 6 and 10. "My children are in there, in that river bank, under that mud," he said blankly.



Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka the death toll from floods caused by unusually heavy monsoon rains rose to 38 yesterday. The UN is planning to issue an appeal for emergency aid, saying that funds are required, in particular, to replant waterlogged rice fields and to compensate farmers. More than a fifth of the country's staple rice crop, which was ready to be harvested, has been destroyed. Money is also needed for mosquito nets, clean water and food, according to the UN.

More than 390,000 people have been made homeless by the floods, which destroyed 3,744 houses across a third of Sri Lanka, as well as setting off mudslides, swamping roads and bursting hundreds of dams and reservoirs. Forty-nine people have been injured, and 12 are missing.

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