Threatened Australian town gets flood reprieve

A town in the path of Australia's huge floods received a reprieve Saturday when forecasters said the waters would peak at a lower level than previously thought, and only a handful of houses were under threat.

The prediction that floodwaters in the town of St. George in Queensland state would top out later Saturday about 2 feet (60 centimeters) lower than earlier thought meant just 10 homes would be under threat in the heavily sandbagged town.

Saint George is among a few towns where floodwaters that have covered a huge area of Queensland state are still rising. Elsewhere, the floodwaters have peaked and begun draining slowly away.

Ten people have died and some 200,000 people have been affected by the floods spawned by torrential rains falling on and off since late November in the huge Outback state.

About 40 towns received some level of flooding, roads and rail lines have been cut, and Queensland's big-exporting coal industry virtually shut down as the waters covered an area the size of Germany and France combined.

Officials say a massive relief operation has moved from the emergency phase to one of recovery, as they wait for waters in the city of Rockhampton and other towns to drop, and begin the mopping up of sludge from dozens of others.

Floodwaters draining east toward the ocean were still rising in some places, such as Saint George, where some 2,500 residents are bracing for the second major floods in just a few weeks.

But officials said Saturday the floodwaters would peak lower than previously expected. "It gives us a flood peak that puts our mind at rest," Mayor Donna Stewart said of the forecast.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh toured flood affected towns together Saturday along with Maj. Gen. Mick Slater, the army officer assigned to lead the rebuilding effort. He said Friday repairing some road, rail and bridges damaged could take years.

Australia's worst flooding in some 50 years was caused by tropical rains that fell for days, starting just before Christmas. Some 1,200 homes were inundated and almost 11,000 more have water damage. Nearly 4,000 people were evacuated, and many are still staying with friends or in relief shelters.

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