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20,000 Brisbane homes in danger

BRISBANE, Australia — Deadly floodwaters that have cut a swath across northeast Australia seeped onto the streets of the nation's third-largest city Wednesday, forcing people to flee both suburbs and skyscrapers.

City Mayor Campbell Newman said almost 20,000 homes in low-lying areas of the city of about 2 million were expected to be swamped by the time the river system it is built on reaches its expected peak Thursday. The figures were constantly being revised as the threat became clearer — and it was getting consistently worse.

Meanwhile, Queensland state Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said the confirmed death toll from Monday's flash flooding west of Brisbane — described as "an inland instant tsunami" — remained at 10, with the number of people missing dropping to 67 from more than 90. Helicopters and other emergency vehicles were moving into the worst-hit towns, and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh warned that the death toll would likely rise.

The Brisbane River broke its banks on Tuesday and was continuing its rise Wednesday — partly controlled by a huge dam upstream that has had its floodgates opened because it is brimming after weeks of rain across the state.

Boats torn from their moorings were floating down the swollen river, and a popular waterside restaurant was expected to sink, Bligh told reporters. Some streets and riverside parks were covered with water, though no major flooding was reported early Wednesday.

Two evacuation centers have been established in the city and Newman said up to 6,500 were expected to use them in coming days. Officials have urged anyone in a growing list of low-lying suburbs to prepare their homes, then get out to stay with friends and family and keep off the streets.

"This incident is not a tourist event — this is a deeply serious natural disaster," Bligh said. "Stay in your homes. Do not travel unless it is absolutely necessary."

Some residents queued for up to four hours on Tuesday to get sandbags being handed out at emergency services depots. Supermarket shelves in some parts of town were emptied of bottled water, milk and batteries.

Energex, the city's main power company, said it would switch off electricity to some parts of the city starting Wednesday as a precaution.

Darren Marchant spent all day Tuesday moving furniture and other household goods to the top floor of his home, near the river in the low-lying Brisbane suburb of Yeronga, which is expected to be inundated. His wife and four children left to stay with relatives after police came and asked everyone on their street to evacuate.

Marchant and two neighbors watched in awe as dozens of expensive boats and pontoons drifted past.

"We were watching all kinds of debris floating down the river — one of the (neighbor's) pontoons just floated off," he said Wednesday. "It was amazing."

Flooding that has unfolded since late November across the waterlogged state of Queensland turned suddenly violent Monday, with a cloudburst sending a raging torrent down the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane. Hundreds had to be rescued by helicopter Tuesday.

Relentless rains that have been pounding the region cleared Wednesday, but Bligh said while the break in the weather would help rescue officials, it would have no impact on the flood threat to Brisbane.

"We can take no comfort from that blue sky," Bligh said. "The water and the rain have already done their damage — they are in the catchment, and they are on their way down the river system."

The city of Ipswich, home to about 15,000 people, was being hit Wednesday by the water heading Brisbane's way. Floodwaters reached the awnings of stores in the town, where some 3,000 properties were expected to be swamped, Mayor Paul Pisasale said.

Monday's deaths raised the total number of flood deaths since late November to 20. For weeks, the flooding had been a slow-motion disaster, with drenching rain devastating wide swaths of farmland and small towns.

On Monday, a sudden and intense storm sent a 26-foot (eight-meter), fast-moving torrent crashing through the city of Toowoomba and smaller towns downstream. Houses were washed from their foundations and cars tossed about like bath toys. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson described it as "an inland instant tsunami."

In Brisbane, officials warned people on Wednesday not to drive, to conserve drinking water and prepare for power cuts.

Rivers are expected to crest Thursday at levels higher than those of a devastating 1974 flood, though the damage is expected to be less because that flood struck with little warning.

"This is a truly dire set of circumstances," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Newman said officials estimated that 19,700 would be badly affected by the coming flood, and tens of thousands more could have flooded yards.

Steph Stewardson, a graphic designer, said there was an exodus from a downtown area around lunchtime Tuesday when the river broke its banks. Stewardson, 40, hopped in her car and crossed the swollen river to collect her dog Boo from daycare while waters started covering the boardwalk stretching along its banks.

Stewardson took shelter in her house, and plans to stay there — for now.

"I'm about 800 meters (half a mile) from the river on a hill, so I think it's going to be OK," she told The Associated Press.

Queensland has been swamped by floods for weeks that covered land the size of France and Germany combined. Entire towns have been swamped, more than 200,000 people affected, and the vital coal industry, ranching and farming have virtually shut down.

Bligh said last week the cost of the floods could be as high as $5 billion, the latest figure available.

The floods have also reached the bordering state of New South Wales, with about 4,500 people stranded, though the situation was not yet as dire as in Queensland. New South Wales is Australia's most populated state and contains its biggest city, Sydney.