POSTMANS RIDGE, Australia — Deadly floodwaters that swamped Australia’s third-largest city were receding Friday, revealing streets and homes covered in a thick layer of putrid sludge.
Thirty-thousand homes and businesses were swamped by the muddy waters and tens of thousands of homes remained without power in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters. In towns upstream of Brisbane, soldiers picked their way through debris looking for more victims. The death toll stood at 25, and 61 people were still missing.
“We all need to be very patient,” Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told the Nine Network. “Inevitably, we will see a lot of pain and grief.”
The slow-motion inundation of Brisbane on Wednesday night — played out live on television before a nation transfixed — was a critical moment in flooding that has built for weeks as rain fell incessantly across Australia’s tropical northeast.
The emergency is not over, but Brisbane’s escape from what forecasters had predicted would be a flood worse than one that laid waste to much of the city 37 years ago triggered relief nationwide.
One man drowned Thursday when he was sucked into a storm drain as he tried to check on his father’s home in a swamped Brisbane neighborhood. Officials said they expect to find more bodies farther upstream as they finally got access to hamlets struck by flash flooding on Monday.
The deadly floodwaters began dropping shortly after cresting about three feet (one meter) below the depth of 1974 floods that swept through Brisbane and set a benchmark for disaster. Still, 30,000 homes and business were inundated — many all the way up to their terra-cotta roof tiles.
Water was still high in some areas Friday, but had pulled back dramatically in others to reveal mountains of muddy debris. Garbage trucks began moving through the city’s sludgy streets as the cleanup began — a task Bligh warned would be massive.
“We’ve seen three-quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters and we now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions,” Bligh said.
The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster, which is shaping up to be Australia’s costliest. Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before the floodwaters swamped Brisbane.
At least 61 people are still missing, most of them from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods on Monday. Fourteen died in that flood alone, including two whose bodies were found on Thursday. Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned that number was likely to rise as search and rescue teams are able to move into more devastated areas.
“We’ve got to brace ourselves for more bad news,” Stewart said.
With decent access to the region between Brisbane and Toowoomba for the first time, more than 200 police and soldiers fanned out across the stricken Lockyer Valley in buses, helicopters and amphibious military vehicles on Thursday.
At Postmans Ridge, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of Brisbane, about two dozen soldiers wearing jungle camouflage uniforms and police in dark coveralls picked their way methodically through large trees flattened along a creek banks and a floodplain strewn with debris. Tractor-trailer trucks lay broken in two, boats were crushed and the body of a horse was wedged between a downed tree and the sodden ground.
Nearby, Barry and Catherine Bull boiled potatoes and cooked rump steak given to them by a neighbor over a gas-fired camp stove set up outside their house, built of brick and one of few left standing around them. All that remains of the neighbor’s wood-framed house is the concrete foundation slab. A car was suspended in the sagging branches of a tree.
They fear the elderly woman across the street is one of the people for whom the soldiers are searching.
“One of the neighbors went to get her, got her out of the house, but she went back for the dog,” Catherine Bull said. “That was the last anyone saw of her. If you’d seen the torrent and the way the water was moving, I think you know the rest.”
Officials told evacuated Brisbane residents it could be days before it was safe to return to inundated neighborhoods, though no bans were in place preventing people from surveying the damage. Some homes would never be habitable again.
Mayor Campbell Newman said 11,900 homes and 2,500 businesses had been completely inundated, with another 14,700 houses and 2,500 businesses at least partially covered in water.
Police officers were patrolling Brisbane’s flooded streets around the clock. Three men were charged with looting after police said they tried to steal dinghies from the swollen river.
The death toll has shocked Australians, no strangers to deadly natural disasters such as the wildfires that killed 173 in a single day two years ago.
Though the full extent of the damage won’t be known until the water is gone, even before Brisbane was threatened, Bligh estimated a cleanup and rebuilding to total about $5 billion.
Add to that, the damage to the economy: Queensland’s coal industry has virtually shut down, costing millions in deferred exports and sending global prices higher. Vegetables, fruit and sugarcane crops in the rich agricultural region have been wiped out, and prices are due to skyrocket as a result.