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Australia’s Flooding Disaster Forces Many to Flee

January 12, 2011 at 5:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The third largest city in Australia, Brisbane, was a ghost town today, after scores of people fled from massive floods. The disaster has left dozens of towns in Queensland state submerged. Today, the Brisbane River hit its peak, and isn’t expected to recede until tomorrow.

John Irvine of Independent Television News reports from the flood zone.

JOHN IRVINE: For weeks, the people of Brisbane have been spectators, watching on television as disaster unfolded elsewhere. But now, suddenly, they are experiencing the big flood firsthand. Much of Australia’s third-largest city has been built on the floodplain of the Brisbane River, which is expected to peak at 20 feet above flood level.

Throughout the day, Brisbanites have watched as various pieces of detritus large and small have been carried downstream towards the sea. This may be just a foretaste of what’s to come here.

The streets around the river are largely deserted. Shopkeepers have been sandbagging their properties, and people have been stockpiling food and fuel. But, then, they know all too well what has happened to their neighbors in the nearby town of Ipswich.

In this part of Queensland, there’s not much land still visible. It’s become a vast muddy lake instead. Normal life is being stifled.

Just ask the Johnson family. They have lost their house and its contents and are now in a Brisbane shelter.

WOMAN: The water was up to the traffic lights just before we left.

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: Yes, just reaching the lights.

MAN: Yes, literally.

WOMAN: We just had to leave with two bags.

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: That’s it. That’s our property.

JOHN IRVINE: Many others will have to take shelter here in the days ahead. Brisbanites went to bed tonight fearful of what they might wake up to.

Because of this creeping menace and the sense of impending doom, thousands of properties here, homes and businesses, have been abandoned by people who know that, for the time being, at least, they must surrender much of their city and leave it at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

The Australian prime minister has spent the day in Brisbane. She’s provided what comfort she can.

JULIA GILLARD, Australian prime minister: Australia is standing with you, working with Queensland to help Queensland through this crisis. And we will be there shoulder-to-shoulder, not only for the days ahead, but for the many months of recovery and rebuilding to come.

JOHN IRVINE: This part of Australia, the land down under, will be even further under this time tomorrow, and there’s nothing anybody can do to prevent that.

JIM LEHRER: There’s also been widespread flooding in Sri Lanka, after days of heavy rains. At least 18 people have died in mudslides there, and more than 200,000 are now homeless.