Military aircraft have dropped supplies to towns cut off by floods in north-east Australia to the 200,000 people affected by waters covering an area larger than France and Germany combined.
Residents were stocking up on food or evacuating their homes as rising rivers inundated or isolated 22 towns in the state of Queensland.
Prime minister Julia Gillard toured an evacuation centre in the flood-stricken town of Bundaberg today and announced that families whose homes had been flooded or damaged would be eligible for disaster relief payments of $1,000AUS (£650) per adult and $400AUS (£260) per child.
“My concern is for the people in these very difficult times,” Gillard said.
A day earlier, she pledged $1,000,000AUS (£650,000) in federal aid to match a relief fund already set up by the state government.
Officials say half of Queensland’s 1,852,639 km² is affected by the relentless flooding, which began last week after days of pounding rain caused swollen rivers to overflow.
While the rain has stopped, the rivers are still surging to new heights and overflowing into low-lying towns as the water makes its way toward the sea.
The muddy water inundating thousands of homes and businesses has led to a shortage of drinking water and raised fears of mosquito-borne disease.
“This is without a doubt a tragedy on an unprecedented scale,” Queensland premier Anna Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Bligh warned that drenched communities could be stuck under water for more than a week, and clean-up efforts were expected to cost billions of dollars.
The Department of Community Safety said supplies of food and bedding were delivered by road and by military aircraft today to the towns of Rockhampton, Emerald, Springsure and Blackwater in central-east Queensland.
North-east Australia often sees heavy rains and flooding during the Southern Hemisphere summer, but the scope of the damage from the recent downpours is unusual.
The entire population of two towns has already been forced to evacuate as water swamped their communities, cutting off roads and devastating crops. The next city in the water’s path – Rockhampton, near the coast – is bracing for flood levels forecast at 9.4m by today (Tuesday 4 January).
Roads and railway lines and the city’s airport shut down over the weekend.
“This is a very serious situation,” said Rockhampton mayor Brad Carter, saying that level would affect up to 40% of the city. “Police are ordering people in affected areas to leave their homes.”
Officials are evacuating residents, starting with the elderly and those living in low-lying areas.
There were concerns over food supplies in the city, with many stores already sold out of bread, milk and fresh meat, Mr Carter said.
Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes this week. In the central Queensland town of Emerald, about 1,000 people were evacuated in the last 24 hours.
The town is facing food shortages, power outages and sewage-contaminated floodwaters, county mayor Peter Maguire said. Three evacuation centres have been set up to help displaced residents.