Australians rush to join flood rescue efforts

A nation-wide emergency response effort targeting the flooded northern state of Queensland is underway in Australia. Some 1,500 people have stepped up to volunteer to help in the past 24 hours.

REUTERS/Mick Tsikas
Residents fill sandbags outside an apartment building in the Brisbane suburb of West End Jan. 11. Australia's third largest city is expected to be hit by major floods on Thursday as the Brisbane River, which runs through the city, reaches major flood levels in the next 24 hours.

Australia’s army, police, fire departments, and some 3,000 emergency service volunteers are part of a nation-wide emergency response effort targeting the flooded northern state of Queensland.

More than 75 percent of the state, an area bigger than Texas and California combined, has been declared a disaster zone. Scores of police, emergency workers, and military personnel are on standby as the country battles rising waters that have killed 12 people so far.

More than 3,500 residents have sought refuge in some 57 temporary emergency shelters set up in schools, community centers, and sporting facilities throughout Queensland. The number of evacuees is set to increase sharply as Brisbane, the state’s capital and Australia’s third largest city, is inundated. Power has been cut to the central business district as police went door to door throughout the city ordering evacuations and patrolling flooded suburbs on jet skis.

When the waters peak, expected at 4 a.m. Thursday (Australian Eastern Standard Time), up to 40,000 properties in the city will have been flood damaged, officials say.

The Australian Red Cross, which is manning many of the rescue centers, has flown in emergency response teams from New Zealand. Some 200 army personnel and 25 helicopters are at the forefront of rescue efforts.

Time to 'band together'

With emergency services stretched to the limit and battling unpredictable weather, which has produced deadly flash flooding, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has called upon residents to band together.

“Now is a time to be checking on neighbors, on elderly people in your neighborhood, to be checking on family and friends,” Bligh said on Tuesday. “If you live on high ground in Brisbane, now is a time to be reaching out to friends and offering help and offering where necessary a bed for the night over the coming two to three days.”

Neighbors worked together to help clear households and businesses ahead of rising waters and local council staff, more accustomed to mowing lawns and emptying rubbish bins, carried our impromptu rescues. Some 1,500 people have contacted national authorities to volunteer for flood relief efforts over the past 24 hours.

Images of residents trapped on roofs as swiftly flowing waters lap higher, of crying mothers holding hand-written signs reading "no phone, no power" to news helicopters, of four-wheel drives, boats, and buildings being swept through city thoroughfares has prompted a national outpouring of support.

Donations coming in

More than $30 million has been raised via a national relief appeal as television stations switch to 24-hour coverage of the disaster. Donations have ranged from $1 million from the country’s corporate sector, to small amounts of cash stuffed into envelopes.

The small community of Kinglake in the southern state of Victoria, where residents are still living in temporary shelters following the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which killed 173 people, has raised some $6,000 to help flood victims.

National supermarket retailers Coles, Woolworths, and Metcash have joined forces to ensure food supplies are maintained, diverting trucking routes and even considering sending barges stocked with essentials including tinned food, bottled water and diapers into the worst-affected areas.

Social networking sites are also shaping crisis coverage and the response to the flooding, with Twitter and Facebook providing updates and messages of support. Not all have been useful and authorities have been forced to deny a number of false reports including the central business district of Brisbane was being evacuated yesterday.

Australia’s public broadcaster has set up a dedicated digital radio channel providing interactive maps of flooded areas, an initiative it has labeled an “experiment in citizen journalism."

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