BRISBANE, Australia – Military planes were flying food and other supplies toward a major city being slowly swamped in Australia's flood emergency Monday, and police were increasing patrols in evacuated regions amid reports of looting.
Floodwaters that cover an area the size of France and Germany combined are draining slowly toward Australia's northeastern coast, filling rivers to overflowing and inundating at least 22 towns and cities in the cattle and fruit and vegetable farming region.
A 41-year-old woman was swept to her death in front of her family Saturday in Burketown, in hardest-hit Queensland state. She was the only confirmed victim so far of the flood crisis, which began building shortly before Christmas after days of drenching tropical rain. Searches were under way for two other people, men in separate locations in Queensland, who were missing after being last seen in the floodwaters.
State authorities say about 200,000 people have been affected by the floods, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday extended emergency relief to those affected, including low-interest loans to farmers to begin cleaning up and get their businesses running again.
"This is a major natural disaster, and recovery will take a significant amount of time," Gillard said in a statement.
In Rockhampton, a coastal city of about 75,000 people, waters from the still-swelling Fitzroy River closed the airport and cut the main highway leading to the state capital of Brisbane. Scores of families abandoned their homes for relief centers set up on high ground.
Authorities warned the Fitzroy would continue rising until late Tuesday or early Wednesday local time.
Officials have been evacuating Rockhampton residents for days. Mayor Brad Carter warned about 40 percent of the city could be affected by the surging waters, and residents could be forced to wait at least two weeks before returning home.
Residents emptied supermarket shelves of food and bottled water in recent days as they stocked up to reduce the need to get around once waist-deep waters arrive.
Queensland's Deputy Police Commissioner and State Disaster Coordinator Ian Stewart said military planes would be used Monday to resupply Rockhampton, flying supplies to towns farther north that would then be trucked in to the city.
Stewart said police had increased their patrols of flooded towns — television footage and news photographs showed uniformed officers wading thigh-deep through floodwaters — and had not confirmed any reports of looting.
Some residents, however, said cars and homes had been broken into and items stolen.
Rockhampton resident Tanya Hallam said she was woken up by dogs barking in the street before dawn and found her car broken into when she went to investigate.
"But they didn't just do our car — they did nine in total in the street. So it's disheartening that people sink to that level," Hallam told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The rains that triggered the flooding has eased, and water levels were dropping in some towns. But officials said about 1,000 people were living in evacuation centers across Queensland, and it may be a month before the floodwaters dry up completely.
(This version corrects city in headline.)