BRISBANE, Australia — Thousands of Australians huddled in shelters Tuesday as torrential rains flooded cities and towns in the northeast, killing four people and prompting around 1,000 helicopter evacuations.
With floodwaters expected to peak in most of the worst-hit areas later Tuesday, officials were rushing to move those in the highest-risk areas to safety.
In the hard-hit city of Bundaberg, 385 kilometers (240 miles) north of Brisbane, rescue crews plucked 1,000 people to safety after the river that runs through town broke its banks, sending fast-moving, muddy water pouring into streets and homes. Around 1,500 residents fled to evacuation centers, while patients at the local hospital were being airlifted to Brisbane as a precaution.
“Listen to the roar of the water — that’s not helicopters,” Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said. “You see a lot of locations where there are literally sort of rapids. There’s white water out there, so it is very dangerous.”
Queensland residents and officials were being particularly cautious, after floodwaters from heavy rain in late 2010 and early 2011 left much of the state under water in the worst flooding Australia had seen in decades. The 2010-2011 floods killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city, under water for days.
The current flood crisis was not as severe, though some areas in northern New South Wales were hit by more than half a meter (about 20 inches) of rain, State Emergency Services Deputy Commissioner Steve Pearce said. Four people have died, including a 3-year-old boy who was hit by a falling tree in Brisbane.
“We’re expecting flash flooding, we’re expecting trees to be brought down, wires to be brought down by these winds,” Pearce said. “We’re expecting a very challenging 24 hours in front of us.”
In the New South Wales city of Grafton, 600 kilometers (370 miles) north of Sydney, 2,500 people were ordered to leave their homes as the Clarence River continued to rise.
“We are in a dangerous situation that requires a timely response and I think the best thing to do is to evacuate,” said Richie Williamson, the mayor of Clarence Valley Council.
The flooding was caused by the remnants of a tropical cyclone that also caused severe weather including tornadoes and created sea foam that came ashore on the Queensland coast. The foam covered roads in places, causing traffic to be diverted. Elsewhere, beach-goers waded into the bubbles to pose for photographs.