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Australian flood victims return to muddy homes

Some victims of Australia's worst floods in decades returned to their homes to find them caked in sludge on Friday as others nervously watched the skies for more rain and waited for swollen rivers to recede.

Officials in waterlogged Queensland state said the worst appeared to be over from the flooding that left an area the size of France and Germany covered in murky brown water for longer than a week, and attention was turning to rebuilding.

The army general appointed by the federal government to head the operation said the scope of the damage is not yet known and that it could take years to fully repair all of the infrastructure washed away or ruined by the water.

"We still don't know what it looks like underwater," Maj. Gen. Mick Slater told reporters in the partially submerged city of Rockhampton. "Major roads, rail lines and bridges are all damaged, but we don't know yet how much."

While progress will be made in months, "there are some aspects of the rebuilding of the infrastructure that will take potentially years," he said.

Queensland has been in the grip of Australia's worst flooding in some 50 years since drenching tropical rains fell for days starting just before Christmas. At its worst, some 1,200 homes in 40 communities were inundated and almost 11,000 more have suffered water damage, officials say. Nearly 4,000 people were evacuated.

Police say 10 people have died in swollen rivers or floodwaters in the state since late November.

The flooding shut some 40 coal mines in the state, pushing up global prices, and has hurt wheat, mango, sugarcane and other crops. State Premier Anna Bligh has said the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure coupled with economic losses could be as high as $5 billion.

On Friday, the news for those in the flood zone ranged from good, to bad, to little change at all.

Some of the 150 people of Condamine drove home in a convoy on Thursday for the first time since military helicopters helped evacuate everyone on Dec. 30 before a swollen river nearby swamped the cattle-ranch supply town.

"Nothing does justice to the devastation you come back to, it's just phenomenal," said pub owner Shane Hickey. "Everything is gone, the water just took everything with it."

"All the grass is mud, all the plants have been torn out of the ground, the trees have gone over and are just covered in silt and mud," he said.

The town still has no drinking water and officials warned of waterborne disease. Local Mayor Ray Brown said electricians, plumbers, portable toilets and water and food were being brought in for residents returning Friday.

Further south, people in St. George town were watching floodwaters inch higher by the hour on the earth and sandbag levies they have rushed to build around their homes in recent days. One ray of good news — officials revised downward the level they expect the floodwaters to reach before receding, meaning fewer than 30 homes in the town of some 2,500 people were at risk.

In Rockhampton, the largest community hit, the floodwaters peaked two days ago but were holding steady at a level that have inundated large parts of the city of 75,000 people.

Heavy rain fell Friday in several areas of the state, and the Bureau of Meteorology said the conditions could continue through the weekend. Officials said the rain was not enough to make the floods worse, but was hampering recovery efforts and could mean it would take longer for the crisis to ease.

The city's Fitzroy River spilled onto 3,000 properties and left 200 homes with water above the floorboards. More than 500 people were evacuated from the city.

Authorities again urged people not to relax their guard just because the situation was not getting worse, saying people were still at risk of being washed away and should stay away from torrents.

"I think people often underestimate the awesome power of floodwaters," Bligh said. "It is a very dangerous body of water. You are only being asked to move for your safety and the safety of your family and emergency workers."