Brisbane is drowning. The usually placid river that winds through its heart has become an angry torrent swallowing up large chunks of the city and triggering the worst floods in the Queensland capital for nearly 40 years.
About 27,000 homes were inundated overnight – 12,000 fully submerged – as the Brisbane River, swollen by weeks of heavy rain, reached a height of 17ft. When the river peaked at around 5.15am (7.15pm last night GMT), it was almost 3ft lower than had been feared – lower than the last great flood of 1974, a date etched in Brisbanites' memories.
"I haven't seen this since I was a girl," said one woman, surveying the swirling waters engulfing her neighbourhood.
The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, said this morning that the state was facing a reconstruction effort of "post-war proportions". She said that people in evacuation centres would be unlikely to be able to move back in to their homes for "many months".
Brisbane's Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, said the lower-than-expected peak had saved many businesses and high-rise apartment buildings. Water levels were falling in the worst-affected areas, but another threat was expected at the 4pm high tide (6am GMT).
The city centre was unnaturally quiet yesterday, with shops shuttered and sandbagged. Many roads, already waterlogged, were closed; a few curious tourists wandered the streets. All day the river rose, inundating waterfront office blocks and apartments as well as the South Bank shopping precinct.
A mile away, in the suburb of Paddington, families were packing their lives – fridges, couches, ironing boards, computers, children's bicycles – into pick-up trucks. Karen Junor and Daniel Smith didn't know where they would go. "Karen woke me at 6am and there was water bubbling out of the cement underneath the house," said Mr Smith.
Meredith Evans moved her worldly goods upstairs after watching the flood advance up her back steps at a rate of one step every hour. In Milton, a nearby suburb, water was lapping at the eaves of houses and locals were ferrying their possessions to dry land in tin boats and canoes.
Australia's third-largest city had little time to prepare. Brisbane had been expected to escape the worst of the floods that have affected towns across Queensland, destroying infrastructure and halting the state's lucrative coal-mining industry. Then the storm hit Toowoomba, 80 miles to the west, and the water from flash floods had only one way to go: to the coast.
The death toll in the Toowoomba area rose to 12 yesterday after search teams entered wrecked townships for the first time. Among the victims was Jordan Rice, 13, who was swept to his death after pleading with rescuers to save his brother's life first when their family's car was swamped.
Meanwhile, 43 people were still missing. But with the Brisbane River predicted to peak at 4am today, the attention of most Australians was on the Queensland capital, with prayers offered up for the safety of its two million residents. Yesterday dawned sunny and clear in Brisbane, but no one was deceived. "The water's on its way; there's no stopping it now," said one local.
Mr Newman spoke of "a sense of horror and awe at the power of the river". That power was on display, as the fast-moving waterway swept everything before it, including boats torn from their moorings. In dozens of low-lying suburbs, an army of young men waded chest-deep through muddy pools, forming human chains to help neighbours empty their houses. Jason Amos plucked stranded souls off balconies in Milton, then went out rescuing cats and dogs.
About 127,000 homes were without power yesterday, and more than 4,000 people spent last night in evacuation centres. One centre, in the Brisbane Showgrounds, was visited by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who observed: "There's a real sense of everyone pulling together." Elsewhere, the former prime minister and local MP Kevin Rudd looked at the damage to his electorate and said: "We're used to extremes. This is the extreme of extremes."
Some took the emergency in their stride. Matt Newkirk and Ryan Parsons were sitting on their balcony in Milton, drinking gin, cranberry and soda. The first storey of their house had vanished, as had a car parked in the driveway. Venturing downstairs, he had found his fridge floating in the hallway, and grabbed some dumplings out of the freezer. The youth worker shrugged when asked when he planned to leave. "Dunno – maybe when we've drunk enough. We can swim, and we've got surfboards."
A boat trip through this watery landscape was a singular experience. There were street signs but no streets. Parking signs, and a sign indicating bus route 476, peeked out of the brown expanse. Pink roses had sprouted, apparently from nowhere. In a school playground, only a basketball net was visible.
Back on dry land, it was unsettling standing on the edge of the flood – you could see the water inching its way forward. "It's quite scary," said Lorna Wilkinson, who sought refuge at the Showgrounds after she and her husband, Colin, were forced to leave their riverside apartment.
The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, warned: "Brisbane will go to sleep tonight and wake up to scenes many will never have seen before in their lives."
'Save my brother first'
Amid the devastation one boy's story has emerged to transfix a nation.
When floods hit the town of Toowomba near Brisbane on Monday, Jordan Rice, 13, became trapped with his mother and younger brother in their car. When a truck driver arrived to pull the family to safety, Jordan told him to save his 10-year-old brother Blake first.
Blake survived, but rescuers were unable to return for Jordan and his mother, who both died. His father, John Tyson, said: "I can only imagine what was going on inside to give up his life to save his brother, even though he was petrified of water. He is our little hero."
The damage so far
22 people have been killed in floods since late November. At least 43 others are recorded as missing.
£3.2bn Cost of clean-up and rebuilding work estimated by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.
127,000 homes are without power as provider turned off supplies for safety reasons.
4,000 people crowded into evacuation centres after they were forced to flee their homes.