BRISBANE, Australia (Reuters) - Massive floods shut down the centre of Australia’s third-largest city, sent thousands fleeing from their homes and sparked panic buying of food on Thursday as rescuers searched desperately for nearly 70 people missing in floodwaters.
The biggest floods in a century have so far killed 16 people since starting their march across the northern mining state of Queensland last month, crippling the coking coal industry, destroying infrastructure, putting a brake on the economy and sending the local currency to four-week lows.
The flood surge is expected to peak in Brisbane, a riverine city of two million people, before sunrise on Thursday and last for days. However, the peak will arrive within the next few hours in Ipswich, a satellite town to the west.
“The water is rising and swallowing up the city. It’s really heartbreaking,” said Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale.
Brisbane residents on Wednesday pushed food-laden shopping carts through drowned streets, others waded in shoulder-high water to rescue possessions, while boats and pontoons were ripped from moorings in the Brisbane River and smashed into bridges as the muddy brown tide gathered strength.
At flooded intersections people paddled surfboards through floodwaters, balancing their possessions on the deck of the boards, while boats ferried evacuees to dry ground.
“I am feeling a sense of horror and awe at the power of the river. Sadly in coming hours we will see bits of people’s homes float down the river,” Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman said, warning the torrent could take three to four days to subside.
Rescue crews took advantage of some rare sunshine to look for 67 people still missing from tsunami-like flash floods that tore through townships west of the city this week.
“We can take no comfort from that blue sky,” Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told reporters, predicting almost 20,000 homes could be flooded at the river’s peak in what she called Queensland’s worst natural disaster.
“The water and the rain have already done their damage. This is a deeply serious natural disaster.”
The worsening floods are forcing economists to raise estimates of the economic impact, with one central bank board member on Wednesday saying the disaster could cut 1 percent off growth -- equal to almost $13 billion (8 billion pounds), double the previous highest estimate.
The Australian dollar sank to a fresh four-week low of $0.9803 on the comments from Warwick McKibbin, an academic and a member of the central bank’s policymaking board. Treasurer Wayne Swan in November forecast GDP growth of 3.25 percent in fiscal 2010-11, up from a 3.0 percent projection, but said spending would be cut to ensure a surplus of A$3.1 billion or 0.2 percent of GDP in 2012/13.