Australian Flooding Turns Deadly

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Dangerous floods have hit the northeastern part of Australia, affecting more than 200,000 people since last week. There has been one confirmed death so far, and the high waters are still advancing toward the low-lying coastal areas of Queensland. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Greg Goebel of the Australian Red Cross about the situation.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Australia, dangerous floods have hit the northeastern part of the country, affecting more than 200,000 people since last week. There has been one confirmed death so far and the high waters are still advancing toward the low-lying coastal areas of Queensland.

Joining us on the line from Brisbane is Greg Goebel. He's the executive director of the Australian Red Cross. I guess it's good evening to you.

Mr. GREG GOEBEL (Executive Director, Australian Red Cross): Yes. Good morning to you, Liane.

HANSEN: Thank you. You know the area has been described - the area affected by the flood, as the size of France. How big is it actually?

Mr. GOEBEL: Well, it's actually the size of France and Germany combined. The area is actually something like about 850,000 square kilometers, so it's about - almost a third of our state is underwater, and it's affected, as you said, something like 200,000 people. So it's probably the biggest flood in the history of Queensland, and quite an amazing body of water.

It's a little bit different because you see floods in Europe that tend to have raging waters and you see mudslides. In Queensland, the water's a little bit like a crocodile. It just kind of creeps up and creeps up and creeps up, and all of a sudden, you say, oh, my goodness, you know, where did that come from?

HANSEN: And how high has it gotten so far, and how high is it getting?

Mr. GOEBEL: Our main town, Rockhampton, which has a population of 75,000 people, and in that town the roads are already cut, the rail lines are already cut, and the airport runway is now almost underwater. So the whole town is virtually cut off and we've started a number of forced evacuations now in that town.

HANSEN: Yeah. And how is the massive evacuation going? How are you carrying it out?

Mr. GOEBEL: Well, we've had mass evacuations so far in two towns. The town of Condamine was evacuated in the early hours of the morning, mainly by Black Hawk helicopters, into a town called Dalby. So it's a massive exercise. And those evacuations generally were by boat or by helicopter.

HANSON: And is there any relief effort underway for the people who are stranded and the evacuees?

Mr. GOEBEL: Well, the evacuees stay at - Red Cross runs the evacuation centers, so we have a number of staff already pre-positioned, I might say, in the town of Rockhampton. So I've got about 150 staff out there at the moment. And our aim really at this stage is to make sure that people are safe, they're well. But the main aim is to really make sure they're out of harm's way, and they'll stay there for as long as is needed.

HANSEN: Do you know why it happened? I mean, this is epic.

Mr. GOEBEL: Well, we've had a lot of water for this time of the year. I mean, Australia is a - it's a strange continent. We have floods in Queensland, we have dreadful bush fires in our southern states, and we've got massive heat waves in the western area. But we've had a lot of water, and then we were hit with a cyclone Tasha that dumped a huge amount of water.

In fact, there were a couple of low pressure systems that just coincided at the same time. And that water couldn't escape because the land had already been saturated by previous rain. So rather than be absorbed into the earth, it simply follows, you know, the land mass.

And unfortunately, the plains of Queensland are very flat, and it doesn't take much for them to flood.

HANSEN: Greg Goebel is the executive director of the Australian Red Cross. We reached him in Brisbane. Thank you and best of luck to you.

Mr. GOEBEL: Thank you very much.

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