Australia floods cover area the size of France, Germany

By Michael Perry, Reuters

Posted at Dec 31 2010 02:10 PM | Updated as of Dec 31 2010 11:48 PM

SYDNEY, Australia - Flood water rose across Australia's northeast on Friday, covering an area bigger than France and Germany combined, inundating 22 towns and stranding 200,000 people, and closing one of the country's major sugar export ports.

Flooding has already shut major coal mines in Queensland state and its biggest coal export port, forcing a long list of miners such as Anglo American and Rio Tinto to slow or halt operations.

The worst flooding in about 50 years has been caused by a La Nina weather pattern which has resulted in torrential rain over the past two weeks across northeast Australia.

"This disaster is a long way from over," Queensland state premier Anna Bligh told reporters on Friday.

"We now have 22 towns or cities that are either substantially flooded or isolated. That represents some 200,000 people spanning an area that's bigger than the size of France and Germany combined," said Bligh.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured the flood-hit sugar city of Bundaberg, which closed its port on Friday after flood debris was washed downstream into shipping channels and damaged navigation beacons.

"This is a natural disaster across Queensland," said Gillard in announcing a A$1 million ($1 million) government contribution to a flood aid appeal which now totals A$6 million.

Shipments of sugar from Australia, one the world's leading exporters of the sweetener, have been disrupted because of Bundaberg's port closure. The port normally ships about 400,000 tonnes of raw sugar annually, with three 30,000-tonne vessels due to arrive in the next few days.

"If the port is closed for only a few days it won't be a big issue but any extended delay would cause some concern," said Brian Mahoney, an executive with Marybrough Sugar Factory Ltd that ships through Bundaberg.

Inland sea cuts coal, sugar exports

The inland sea that now stretches across Queensland is dotted with the roofs of flooded homes, islands of dry ground crowded with stranded livestock and small boats ferrying people and emergency supplies.

Bundaberg resident Sandy Kiddle hugged Gillard as she told of the heartbreak of seeing her house flooded.

"It was just a sea of water and I thought the beach would never come to our house," Kiddle told Gillard from the evacuation centre she now calls home.

Australia has recorded its wettest spring on record, said the nation's weather bureau, causing six major river systems in Queensland state to flood. Several rivers in New South Wales state have also caused flood damaging the nation's wheat crop.

Possibly as much as half the Australian wheat crop or about 10 million tonnes has been downgraded to less than milling quality because of rain damage, tightening global supplies and helping send prices for the grain up about 45 percent this year, the biggest surge since 2007.

The floods have also pushed coking coal and thermal prices sharply higher and tight markets are keeping a close eye on further disruptions. Queensland's ports have an annual coal export capacity of 225 million tonnes.

Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coking coal used for steel-making and accounts for about two-thirds of global trade. Its is also the second-biggest exporter of thermal coal used for power generation.

Emergency authorities in Queensland said the flooding was not expected to reach a peak in some areas until Sunday and would not recede for at least a week.

Authorities are warning of rising health risks from floodwaters in Queensland, along with the danger of crocodiles and snakes in flooded homes.

($1 = 0.983 Australian dollars)

Additional Reporting by Bruce Hextall; Editing by Robert Birsel