MELBOURNE, Australia – An inland sea of muddy floodwaters swamping southeastern Australia pushed its way toward rural communities Tuesday, threatening homes and businesses as the death toll from the disaster climbed.
Emergency services were focusing their efforts on Swan Hill, a town 210 miles (340 kilometers) northwest of the Victorian state capital of Melbourne, where the Loddon and Murray rivers meet. Floodwaters are expected to peak there next week when the sea arrives, the State Emergency Service said.
Australia's flood crisis began with record rains in November that left huge parts of the northeast state of Queensland under water. On Monday, Queensland police said they had found the remains of two more flood victims west of the state capital, Brisbane. Since November, the floodwaters in Queensland have killed 35 people, police said.
The Queensland floods damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and caused at least $3 billion in damage to crops and lost coal exports. Brisbane, the country's third-largest city, was swamped for days.
The flood disaster is now moving across southeast Victoria, where driving rains have forced swollen rivers over their banks. The State Emergency Service said 76 towns in Victoria have been affected by flooding, with 1,770 properties suffering some water damage.
Volunteers have spent the past week piling tens of thousands of sandbags around Swan Hill, a town of 10,000 people that lies in the water's path.
But on Tuesday, State Emergency Service operations director Tim Wiebusch said smaller communities surrounding the town were the areas of most concern, with 250 properties at risk of inundation.
"We are expecting at this time the main levee around Swan Hill will hold, protecting the main township," Wiebusch told Australia's Nine Network. "It's really those communities and houses on the outside of the main township's levee that we have concerns for at this time."
Hundreds of residents from those towns have been evacuated since Sunday. At 55 miles (90 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide, the inland sea is 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) larger than the area Paris covers.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has appointed a task force of some of Australia's wealthiest corporate leaders to help formulate plans to deal with the crisis, which the government says will be one of the costliest in the country's history.
Gillard met with the task force in the stricken city of Brisbane on Monday and said afterward she wanted its members to keep pushing for business donations to help recovery efforts.
Some economists have warned the floods could shave almost 1 percent from Australia's economic growth this year, which is variously forecast at between 3 percent and a little less than 4 percent.
The government has not yet given it's estimates of the cost of the disaster, but Treasurer Wayne Swan said this week the impact will be felt for years. The government will announce its first cost estimates on Friday.
"We still don't know what the total damage bill is," Gillard said. "We've got to be very clear here — the federal government is going to step up and do everything we need to do to rebuild Queensland."