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Australian flooding to threaten towns for days

A vast lake created by floodwaters will spread across southeastern Australia and threaten rural towns in its path for up to 10 more days, an official said Saturday as the nation’s flood crisis continued to create havoc and destruction.

The flooding began more than a month ago in Australia’s northeast Queensland state, where 30 people died, more than 30,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and at least AU$3bn (£1.8bn) in crops and coal exports have been lost.

Record rains have shifted the emergency focus to southeast Victoria state, which is usually parched during the southern summer.

State Emergency Service spokesman Lachlan Quick said a lake about 90km long northwest of the Victorian capital Melbourne would continue coursing inland for the next seven to 10 days until it spills into the Murray River.

The flood was about 35km from the river, SES said.

Quick said 75 towns in the state have been affected by flooding and another five to 10 towns are still in the floodwaters’ northern path across flat wheat-growing country.

Almost 2,000 homes and businesses were flooded or isolated and close to 5,000 people have been evacuated, SES said.

“It’s not moving as one big, swamping wall, it’s not a wave as such,” Quick said. “It’s just a big, wide, long swathe of water.”

“I’m from up that way and it’s totally unprecedented to have a flood in January,” he added.

At this time of year, Victoria is usually tinder dry and at the peak of its wildfire season. The state was the scene of Australia’s worst wildfire disaster on 7 February 2009, when firestorms killed 173 people, scorched some 3, of land and razed 2,000 homes – including entire towns.

The government has yet to estimate the cost of the flood damage, but says it could be the nation’s most expensive natural disaster ever.

A government minister said he will seek insurance reforms because an estimated half of all insured flood victims cannot claim for their damage because their flood policies cover storms or flash floods, but not rising rivers.

“There is a real need to get some certainty into insurance policies so consumers know exactly what they are getting,” assistant treasurer Bill Shorten told reporters in Melbourne.

Prime minister Julia Gillard has said she is considering introducing a flood tax to pay for reconstruction, an option rejected by some business groups.

Business groups have also called on the government to abandon its economic plan to return the national budget to surplus by the fiscal year ending June 2013 because of the scale of the flood disaster.

Gillard hopes that Australia will become one of the first developed countries to balance its books following the global financial crisis, but business groups argue that spending on flood reconstruction is more important.

The government has given AU$225M (£139M) in emergency grants to 184,000 flood-affected people in less than two weeks, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported Saturday.

In the country’s third-largest city of Brisbane, Queensland premier Anna Bligh joined thousands of volunteers Saturday in cleanup work following last week’s inundation of several suburbs.

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