Tracey Ferrier, Kym Agius, Steve Gray and Petrina Berry
There are grave fears for an unknown number of Queenslanders caught in flash flooding west of Brisbane, with at least four dead, six missing and the toll certain to climb.
Authorities say dozens of people, and possibly more, are facing a terrifying night surrounded by raging flood waters and stranded on roof tops for help that won’t come until first light on Tuesday.
Premier Anna Bligh says “freak of nature” flash flooding that tore through the city of Toowoomba on Monday afternoon is ravaging communities in the Lockyer Valley at the foot of the Toowoomba range.
Advertisement: Story continues below
Large groups of people are trapped in the valley communities of Grantham and Withcott, with fog and atrocious weather grounding choppers that had been tasked with rescuing them.
Mass evacuations have been ordered across the valley with more flash flooding expected overnight.
“There are many Queenslanders tonight in critical and dire circumstances,” the premier told reporters on Monday night.
“Many people are facing a very terrifying night … we pray and hope that they will be safe when first light comes tomorrow morning.”
She said the state was facing the darkest hour of its flood crisis.
“Mother Nature has unleashed something shocking out of the Toowoomba region,” she said, adding a “large number of people” were stranded on rooftops throughout the valley.
“We have unconfirmed reports out of Grantham that have us holding very grave fears for the safety of a number of people in the Grantham township,” the premier said.
“We are unable to reach some 30 people in the town of Grantham. They have all gathered together in a primary school … they are completely isolated by fast moving flood waters.”
At least one person is missing at Grantham, and five at Withcott. The six include at least three young pedestrians, and others in two vehicles.
“They are minimum numbers, absolute minimum numbers,” Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said.
The official death toll stood at four on Monday night, but that’s certain to rise.
The dead include a woman and a male child, found dead in the Toowoomba CBD.
At the valley community of Murphys Creek, a man and a male child were found dead after being washed away in, or from a house, Ms Bligh said.
The flooding hit at “lightning speed” forcing 43 helicopter rescues before the aircraft were grounded.
“The event that started in Toowoomba can only be described as a complete freak of nature, an extraordinary deluge that almost came out of nowhere,” Ms Bligh said, adding river levels at Gatton, east of Toowoomba, rose by a staggering 9 metres in the course of the afternoon.
Police have told all low-lying residents to the east, south and west of Toowoomba to get to higher ground, along with low-lying residents in the Lockyer Valley with more flash flooding expected.
The torrent that resulted from 36 hours of rain in an already flooded catchment is expected to push up flood levels in the Brisbane River, compounding the threats to Brisbane and Ipswich where flooding is already expected on Wednesday.
Urgent modelling is being done to determine how much worse the situation will be in the two major cities, the police commissioner said.
Toowoomba Mayor Peter Taylor said there was still no clear picture of the damage but it was enormous and the loss of life was heartbreaking.
“There is massive damage … this is unbelievable damage,” he told the ABC, adding roads had been torn up, shops smashed, and cars swept up and dumped in city streets and into waterways.
A Toowoomba resident told of watching part of a bridge float by the city’s library.
Lockyer Valley Regional Council Mayor Steve Jones told AAP up to 5000 residents could be evacuated.
“It’s very severe, it’s a very, very big concern. It could be as big as (the) 1974 (floods).”
He said some homes had been hit with such force that they’d been swept from their stumps at Postmans Ridge and Grantham.
The Lockyer Creek reached a record 18.92 metres at Gatton at 6.30pm (AEST). The previous record was 16.33 in 1893.
The Bureau of Meteorology does not know how much further it will rise, saying only that “severe record major flooding” is expected in areas downstream of Gatton overnight and on Tuesday.
At Withcott, petrol bowsers were torn from a service station and dumped half a kilometre away, and cars were swept into shop fronts.
Queensland’s multi-billion dollar flood crisis is also rolling on in other parts of the state.
The Mary River at Gympie is on track to peak at 20 metres, and reached 19 metres late on Monday night. More than 110 homes and businesses are expected to flood at that level.
At Dalby, flood waters in the Myall Creek peaked just on dark at 3.74 metres, inundating 200 homes and flooding 2000 allotments. It’s worse than the December 27 flood when 100 properties went under.
At Chinchilla, west of Dalby, flood waters are rising rapidly and are expected to reach 7 metres by early Tuesday, with evacuations continuing there.
The town of Condamine is also facing a second major flood in less than a fortnight, with the Condamine River again expected to get to the 15-metre mark by the end of the week.
Brisbane residents too have been warned they’re not immune from the unrelenting tide, especially given the new deluge heading towards the Brisbane River from Toowoomba.
Ms Bligh said the Wivenhoe dam, built after the 1974 floods devastated thousands of Brisbane and Ipswich homes, was seeing “massive inflows” to rival that disaster.
“We are seeing one million megalitres or two Sydney harbours flow into the Wivenhoe catchment every day,” she told reporters earlier on Monday.
“Without a doubt the Wivenhoe Dam has already saved Brisbane from a catastrophic flood in the next 48 hours but we have to keep releasing water from it so it can keep doing the job it’s doing.”
Brisbane City Council has ordered 30,000 sandbags, which will be filled and available for distribution from council depots.