Australia flooding of 'biblical proportions' slashes coal, agriculture exports

Australia flood rescue and relief efforts are under way to deal with what officials have called a "disaster of biblical proportions."

Daniel Munoz/Reuters
An emergency personnel boat drives past a street sign partially covered by floodwaters 6 km south of Rockhampton Queensland on Jan. 3. Military aircraft flew supplies to an Australian town slowly disappearing beneath floodwaters on Monday, as record flooding in the country's northeast continues to cut coal exports and devastate wheat production.

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It hasn’t quite been 40 days and 40 nights of rain, but the Australia flooding has already been described as a “disaster of biblical proportions,” slashing coal exports, ruining crops, and stranding 75,000 people in a coastal town-turned-island.

The flooding in northeastern Queensland covers an area the size of France and Germany combined, with at least 22 towns cut off or flooded. Authorities are saying that more than 200,000 people are affected, according to the Associated Press.

The Australian government is stepping in to assist, with New Zealand and the United States also offering help. The military is airlifting supplies to the worst-hit areas and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has pledged emergency grants of up to $25,000 for small businesses, $1,000 for every adult with immediate needs, and low-interest loans for affected families as part of the country's largest-ever flood relief package, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The floods have reportedly caused some $1 billion in infrastructure damage, and the premier of the state of Queensland said today that flooding could last weeks longer, reports the BBC.

"Given the scale and size of this disaster, and the prospect that we will see waters sitting potentially for a couple of weeks, we will continue to have major issues to deal with throughout January," Anna Bligh said on local radio late Monday.

"Rockhampton is now completely stranded – a town of 75,000 people – no airport, rail or road," she added. Residents must boil their own water and live off their personal food stockpiles in addition to whatever is flown in by the military.

Snakes take highway

Reuters describes the scene in the seaport about 300 miles north of state capital Brisbane: “Rescue workers escorted stranded patients out of hospitals, police ordered reluctant residents to leave their homes, and electricity company teams made their way up to abandoned homes to ensure power was switched off. Snakes slithered their way across the waterlogged highway a few km outside the devastated town.”

Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter said the flooding would take a long time to recede, reports Agence France-Presse. "We expect to have our airport closed for the best part of three weeks," he told reporters Monday.

Rockhampton's overflowing Fitzroy River is measuring about 30 feet above normal height but is expected to peak this week. Local newspaper the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin is reporting details.

Three deaths have been reported in the past few days, in addition to at least six more deaths since late November when the heavy monsoon-season rains began.

While thousands of families have seen their homes ruined, the flooding is also hurting the agriculture and industrial mining sectors. According to The Australian, early assessments of Queensland's agriculture sector alone have put the cost of the floods at more than $1 billion in lost production.

Coal, sugar exports slashed

Industry group Canegrowers estimated that nearly one-fifth of the state's 2010 cane harvest has been abandoned and early plantings for the 2011 crop were submerged, reports Reuters. While the state is a top grower and exporter of sugar, it will now "need to buy more raw sugar from rivals Brazil and Thailand to meet sales commitments because of drenched canefields," according to Reuters.

The flooding also ruined as much as half the wheat crop – nearly 10 million metric tons – of the world's fourth largest wheat exporter, reports Reuters.

Floods have halted operations at 75 percent of Queensland's coal fields, according to Agence France-Presse. Reuters reports that coal shipments are unable to be shipped to the coast, and ships are unable to dock at the waterlogged ports. Anglo American and Rio Tinto have canceled shipments and declared force majeure, which is when a company claims it is not liable for being unable to meet contractual obligations due to natural catastrophe.

Nearly 50 ships floated offshore the major Queensland coal port of Dalrymple unable to dock, reports Reuters, and at least 18 ships more were waiting outside the port of Gladstone, which was operating at greatly reduced capacity.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the floods could cut Australia's gross domestic product by 0.25 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010. State Treasurer Andrew Fraser called it "a disaster of biblical proportions."

Sign of climate change?

According to Reuters, the floods were triggered by cooling "La Nina" ocean currents that produced monsoon rains over the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

As is often the case when extreme weather hits, speculation turned to whether the Australia flooding is an example of global warming and climate change or merely poor planning on the part of the government.

Despite the unseasonably wet months in Australia, climatologists warn that global warming will cause increasingly dry weather. "The basic long-term trend over the next 100 years is for a steady global warming, and over most of Australia we can expect to see rainfall decline," Barry Hunt, an honorary research fellow at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), said in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Despite the variability from year to year, there will be a long-term drying trend over most of Australia," he added.

For now, however, waterlogged communities will likely be more concerned with the immediate task of rebuilding.

IN PICTURES: Australia floods

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