World

Australian flood crisis threatens city and towns

Rural towns in Australia's southeast and the nation's third largest city were on flood watch Friday as rivers surged in a weekslong flood crisis that has created widespread devastation across the continent.

Residents of Brisbane, the capital of northeast Queensland state which was devastated by flooding last week, were sandbagging low-lying homes again as a high tide was expected on the main river that snakes through the city.

People living in low-lying areas were urged to be prepared, according to a statement issued by Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman. The Brisbane River is expected to remain high until Sunday.

In southeast Victoria state, rising rivers expected to peak on Friday were threatening homes in the small towns of Jeparit and Beulah, which cannot be reached by road because of flooding, the State Emergency Service said in a statement. Hundreds of local residents are watching nervously on Friday from high ground at emergency evacuation centers.

Upstream in Victoria, a river that flooded the town of Kerang had peaked on Thursday but the State Emergency Service continued to monitor a straining levee that serves as the main protection between the muddy waters and residents' homes.

Eastern Australia has endured weeks of massive flooding that the government says could be the nation's most expensive natural disaster ever. It shut down much of Queensland's lucrative coal industry and has caused 30 deaths.

Australia is the driest continent after Antarctica and was recently in the grip of the worst drought in more than a century. But 2010 was Australia's third wettest year on record, despite the country's drought-stricken southwest region enduring its driest ever year.

The government has yet to estimate the cost of the damage which will reach billions of dollars, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was considering introducing a flood tax to pay for reconstruction.

Some estimates already were at $5 billion before muddy brown waters swamped Brisbane last week.

Walls of water miles (kilometers) wide are surging across northern and western Victoria in the wake of record rainfall last week. Seventy-two Victorian towns have already been affected by rising waters, 1,770 properties have been flooded and more than 3,500 people have evacuated their homes.

Floodwaters in the Kerang region were the highest they've been in more than 100 years, the SES said.