Flooded Australian town declared disaster zone

January 4, 2010 4:08:11 AM PST
Authorities declared two flooded farming regions in southwestern Australia natural disaster zones Monday as residents in one town nervously watched a river peak without breaking its levees. Parts of Coonamble and Bourke districts in New South Wales state, several hundred miles (kilometers) northwest of Sydney, have been isolated by floodwaters since heavy rains last week. While meteorologists said the worst of the rain was over, rivers and reservoirs were still rising from the extra water.

Coonamble's Castlereagh River peaked Monday afternoon without breaking its levees, and the water level was expected to begin falling, State Emergency Services spokesman Dave Webb said. He said evacuated residents would return home overnight after the levees were examined for damage.

New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally declared the two districts disaster zones Monday, entitling them to state emergency funds including loans and subsidies.

"That will provide much needed longer term help to residents, primary producers, business owners and councils," said Keneally while on a tour of Coonamble. "It will help them to rebuild."

On Sunday, emergency officials advised 1,200 residents in Coonamble to relocate to safer parts of town away from the rising Castlereagh River. People rode away in motorboats and ranchers herded horses and cattle through the deep water to higher ground. Brown water submerged main roads into town.

The Castlereagh River peaked at 17 feet (5.2 meters), according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The levee stands 19 feet (5.9 meters) high in most places; in others it is as low as 17.7 feet (5.4 meters).

Bourke, a district with a population of about 4,400, was deluged by some of its heaviest rain in a decade, leaving dozens of properties cut off from roads and forcing some farmers to fly livestock to higher ground.

The Darling River is expected to overflow in Bourke by Thursday, causing further minor flooding as it swells from rainfall farther upstream, the Bureau of Meteorology predicts.