Thousands of people in Brisbane were evacuating their homes and moving to higher ground last night as the worst flood in decades bore down on the city.
Anna Bligh, the state premier who has spearheaded the official response to the disaster, said Australia's third largest city would wake up to unprecedented damage.
"Brisbane will go to sleep tonight and wake up to scenes many will never have seen before in their lives," she said.
The death toll from devastating floods swamping south-east Queensland climbed to 12 yesterday, with another 43 people missing. Brisbane braced itself for more than 50 suburbs to be inundated with rapidly rising water.
Official estimates suggested that 20,000 homes, 3,500 businesses and 2,100 roads would be flooded as the swollen Brisbane River peaked at 17ft early this morning.
In preparation, residents in affluent riverside suburbs rushed to save their most precious belongings as the water inched higher throughout the day. Some people used canoes and boats to float their possessions out of waterlogged streets, while scores of volunteers helped form human chains to transport furniture and pets over the waters to waiting cars.
By mid-afternoon, muddy water had reached chest-height inside some houses and was expected to reach the eaves by nightfall.
But the crisis was not confined to the suburbs.
Brisbane's city centre, located in a bend in the river, was also in the path of the flood. The usually bustling grid of streets resembled a ghost town as large parts of the public transport network were suspended and power was cut to several blocks.
Queen Street Mall, normally thronged with shoppers, was empty after businesses shut their doors and sandbagged their shop fronts.
Police directed traffic as a few curious onlookers stopped to gawk at the extraordinary sight of main thoroughfares under several feet of water.
On the river, which had risen to engulf parks, riverside restaurants and walkways, authorities were preparing to destroy several large barges and ferries that were in danger of breaking loose from their moorings and shooting downriver "like torpedoes".
The river itself was a torrent, with boats, pontoons, piers and other debris sweeping downstream and mingling with sewage overflowing from flooded homes.
Rains abated but the power of the deluge that created flash floods that smashed through towns high in the Great Dividing Range, to the city's west, on Monday, was still growing.
Two people who were swept away, presumed dead, later turned up alive, in what police commissioner Bob Atkinson called "a small piece of wonderful news". "I can only describe it as a miracle," he said.
Water levels overnight were expected to be slightly below Brisbane's last major flood in 1974, which killed 14 people and crippled the city. However, authorities warned that the impact of the current floods would be worse, because the city was now more populous.
The crisis in Brisbane comes after a month of flooding across Queensland, with water covering an area the size of France and Germany combined. (© Daily Telegraph, London)