Emergency airlifts for flooded Queensland

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The Independent Online

A huge relief operation was under way in Queensland last night as the military airlifted emergency supplies of food and medicine to thousands of people hit by widespread flooding.

At least 50 tonnes of essential goods was being flown to the worst-hit areas, including Rockhampton, where the Fitzroy River is expected to peak tomorrow. The coastal city has been effectively cut off since the weekend, when the airport runway was closed and main roads flooded. At least a thousand residents were expected to seek refuge in an evacuation centre, as nearly half of the town was expected to disappear underwater.

Panic buying in shops added to the crisis as locals moved to stock up, leaving grocery and vegetable shelves almost empty. The Mayor of Rockhampton, Brad Carter, said he feared that residents could be forced to wait for at least two weeks before returning home.

In Sydney, Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the floods as a "major natural disaster", and opposition leader Tony Abbott said the scale of the tragedy was hard to comprehend. On a tour of the central Queensland town of Emerald, he admitted: "I've never seen anything like it."

As waters continued to rise, a third person was confirmed dead when his car was washed away in the outback town of Aramac.

State Premier Anna Bligh said the waters may not recede for weeks, with more than 20 towns cut off or flooded and more than 200,000 people hit. The flooded area is greater than France and Germany combined.

"Rockhampton is now completely stranded – a town of 75,000 people – no airport, rail or road," Ms Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Wildlife experts warned that people were at risk from poisonous snakes and insects trying to escape the rising waters. Additional supplies of snake-bite antidote were also being flown into north Queensland as householders returned to their homes.