Rescue workers in Queensland launched a desperate search this morning for 72 people missing after a flash flood likened to an "inland tsunami" devastated communities near Brisbane, claiming eight lives.
The rural town of Toowoomba, west of the state capital, bore the main brunt, with cars and pedestrians swept off the roads and people left clinging to trees and telephone poles after the wall of water smashed through. But many of the missing are from the nearby township of Grantham, where at least 50 people sought refuge in a primary school cut off by floodwaters.
The state premier, Anna Bligh, warned that Queensland was facing "our darkest hour of the last fortnight". She said yesterday: "This is going to be, I think, a very grim day, particularly for the people in that region, and a desperate hour here in Queensland. Mother Nature has unleashed something shocking on the Toowoomba region."
After ravaging the coastal city of Rockhampton and other parts of north Queensland, the floods are now inundating the south-east of the state, one of Australia's most densely populated areas. There were fears that the floodwaters, fed by torrential rain and rivers bursting their banks, would soon hit Brisbane, a city of two million people.
Amid more heavy rain yesterday, a "massive wall of water" hurtled through Toowoomba, 80 miles west of Brisbane, tossing cars into the air like toys and blowing out windows. A woman and two children were found dead in the town centre, and two women and a child were killed in Grantham, while a man and a boy died in the nearby township of Murphy's Creek. Speaking to Sky News after the waters subsided, the local federal MP, Ian Macfarlane, said: "We are seeing the water rushing in and blowing the windows out. Cars were just lifted up and went bobbing down the street."
Queensland's police commissioner, Bob Atkinson, said: "This has been a terrible day ... What hit Toowoomba could best be described as an inland tsunami, with a massive wall of water that's gone down through the Lockyer Valley."
Grantham, which was totally cut off, lies in the Lockyer Valley, between Brisbane and Toowoomba. The co-ordinator of Queensland's disaster efforts, Ian Stewart, said he had serious concerns about "potential extra loss of life" there, and about the number of homes damaged or destroyed. In another township, Withcott, police said nine people were missing.
In Toowoomba, some residents were still waiting to be plucked off rooftops this morning, after the search-and-rescue effort was abandoned overnight because of darkness and fog. Helicopter teams dispatched at first light were hampered by further downpours. Ms Bligh told the Nine Network: "Right now we have every possible available resource deployed into this region to search for those people that we know are missing."
Heavy rain and thunderstorms were forecast for most of today, and the bureau of meteorology warned there could be more flash flooding. Late last night, Ms Bligh said a 26ft wall of water was heading east towards Brisbane through low-lying communities. Residents of towns in its path were urged to move immediately to higher ground.
In Toowoomba, the floodwaters – which subsided almost as quickly as they arrived – burst into a furniture store, carrying away its contents. In some spots, cars were piled on top of each other. Some of those killed were found dead in their vehicles.