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After the deluge, Brisbane finds 'a nightmare under every rooftop'

Marie Gough initially did not want to see her home of 23 years.

"I'm not going," she said, spurning offers of a lift across the muddy lake covering Fig Tree Pocket, a once-bucolic Brisbane suburb.

She eventually relented, but did not like the sight that awaited her. "It was awful," she said later. "The water's been right up to my roof. I felt sick when I first saw it."

Until the floods hit the Queensland capital this week, Fig Tree Pocket was as picturesque as its name suggests. Situated next to the river six miles from the city centre, it had parks, an ornamental pond and even a koala sanctuary. Brisbane families picnicked there at weekends and children flew kites.

Now "The Pocket", as residents call it, is a forlorn sight – a watery wasteland where only rooftops attest to the presence of a formerly thriving community. A sofa floated in a drowned front yard; a wicker garden chair perched on a roof.

"At least I know now," said Mrs Gough, stepping out of a boat that was transporting locals to and from their submerged houses. "I know it's going to be six months or more before I can go home."

While the floodwaters were receding across Brisbane yesterday, the daunting task of rebuilding shattered lives, homes and communities was only just beginning. The Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, warned that the clean-up and reconstruction work would take up to two years. He was referring only to the physical rebuilding of a city where dozens of suburbs have been swamped by foul-smelling floodwaters. The psychological scars will take longer to heal.

Majbritt Jansan stood at the bottom of Fig Tree Pocket Road, gazing at the watery brown expanse dotted with mementoes of people's lives: a sodden book, a beach ball, a bicycle helmet. By turns laughing and crying, she recalled a 5am drive through rapidly rising waters in a car loaded with her most precious possessions, including her two daughters.

Thirty-six hours later, she was angry. "There was no warning – that's what gets me the most," she said, her voice shaking. "Had we known earlier, we could all have been way out of here. My house is a write-off. I know I have to start again, but you know what – I got my kids out and my pets are all right."

The stoicism of flood victims, not just in Brisbane but across Queensland, has been a striking aspect of this natural disaster. So has the willingness of people to help themselves, and each other. The man ferrying passengers around Fig Tree Pocket all day, without payment or complaint, was just a local with a boat. Thousands more like him were performing similar acts of kindness. Civic authorities hope to harness that generosity of spirit in weeks and months to come.

Mr Newman issued a rallying call for volunteers to help clean up Brisbane. "Anyone with a bulldozer, front-end loader or dump truck, we want to hear from you," he said. "We will send you in when the water goes down."

Meanwhile, the death toll from this week's floods rose to 15 yesterday; a man was sucked into a storm drain while inspecting his father's Brisbane home and two more bodies were discovered in towns to the west. At least 61 people were still missing last night.

As the waters retreated, leaving a trail of mud and debris, Brisbanites salvaged what they could of their pre-flood lives. Returning to the badly hit suburb of Milton, Jan Dalton found some of her most treasured possessions – children's books, a journal, personal papers – floating in the street. She also learnt that a passer-by had picked up a 40th birthday card her parents sent her in 1998, along with a blank cheque she never cashed. The man, who guessed at their sentimental value, had kept them for her.

She came across an anniversary card from her mother to her father. "I looked at it and thought it was like Mum and Dad saying it's all going to be OK," said Ms Dalton, who broke off frequently to weep and hug her daughter. "I suppose it's a reminder that this is not about things, it's about people.

"We'll be OK. There are so many people that are worse off. But the first time you see it [her damaged home], it's so horrible. I never thought something like this would happen to me. It just feels surreal. I feel like I'm on a movie set rather than this is my life."

The state premier, Anna Bligh, wept at a press conference as she described flying over the city and seeing only rooftops protruding from the murky waters. "Underneath every single one of those rooftops is a family," she said. "Underneath every single one of those rooftops is a horror story. I think it's going to take some days for it to totally sink in in Brisbane, what's happened to our city."