Military helicopters searched Tuesday for scores of people missing after a tsunami-like wall of water ripped through an Australian valley, tossing cars like toys in the deadliest episode of a weekslong flood crisis.
Cars and pedestrians were swept away on Monday night when a “super rainstorm” sent water raging through the streets of Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. At least nine people were killed and officials held grave fears for 59 people still unaccounted for almost 24 hours after the flash flood hurled untold millions of gallons of water down Queensland state’s Lockyer Valley on Monday, state Premier Anna Bligh said.
The valley funneled rain from a freak storm — forecasters estimated up to 6 inches fell in half an hour fell near Toowoomba — into a stream that formed a path of destruction, lifting houses from foundations.
The torrent slowed and spread out as it moved downstream toward the state capital of Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city with some 2 million people.
The Brisbane River overflowed its banks Tuesday and officials warned that dozens of low-lying neighborhoods and parts of the downtown area could be inundated by Thursday.
The violent surge near Toowoomba on Monday escalated Australia’s flood crisis in Queensland state and brought the overall death toll to 19. Until then, the flooding had unfolded slowly as swollen rivers burst their banks and inundated towns while moving downstream toward the ocean.
Emergency services officers plucked more than 40 people from houses isolated overnight by the torrent that hit the Lockyer Valley, and thousands were being evacuated. In one small community in the path of the floodwaters, Forest Hill, the entire population of about 300 was being airlifted to safety in military helicopters, Bligh said.
As Tuesday progressed, the death toll rose from eight to nine and the list of missing shortened from 72 to 59 as more people were accounted for. At a late afternoon news conference, Bligh said officials held grave fears for 15 of those missing. She did not elaborate.
The search and rescue effort was being hampered by thunderstorms and more driving rain. Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman said authorities were preparing for about 6,500 properties to be flooded in the city in the next few days, affecting about 15,000 people in 80 suburbs. The flood peak was expected on Thursday, when parts of downtown were expected to be awash.
The city is protected by a large dam built upstream after floods devastated downtown in 1974. But the reservoir was full, and officials had no choice but to release water that would cause low-level flooding in the city, Newman said. The alternative was a much worse torrent.
Bligh said four children were among those killed and that many of those still stranded or unaccounted for are families and young children. On Tuesday morning, she said the death toll was eight and the missing numbered 72. Later, she confirmed another death and said five of the missing had been accounted for.