A massive and sudden tidal wave of mud and water enveloped an Australian city near Brisbane this afternoon, sweeping four people to their death, with serious fears for another three children missing, last seen swept away in the raging torrent.
Authorities are desperately searching for many others missing and have ordered the immediate evacuation of 5000 residents in the path of deadly water downstream from Toowoomba, just an hour's drive west of the Queensland capital Brisbane. Steve James, the local mayor of Lockyer Valley, described it as "absolute devastation".
Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned more lives were under threat.
"We've had multiple calls requesting urgent assistance from people caught in vehicles, caught on the street, caught in floodways," he said.
"This has just evolved. There has been no warning of this event."
The sudden catastrophic surge of water took the Queensland town by surprise even though the surrounding region – the size of Britain, France and Germany combined – has been hit by the worst floods in a generation in the past week.
Dramatic television footage taken from an helicopter above the mud deluge in the town of Toowoomba today showed a family of three who had climbed onto the roof of their four wheel drive vehicle being rocketed helplessly down the flooded river. The car was perilously perched forward and tossed around violently.
Neither the people, nor their car, have been sighted since the helicopter left the scene to pick up nearby rescue personnel. Other cars were tossed around the river and were left piled five high when the torrent receded. A downtown building collapsed. Another residential building collapsed as a neighbour frantically called police to help two people trapped in the first floor.
State authorities have called for an urgent evacuation of all towns in the ongoing path of the mud surge down the Lockyer River.
Toowoomba Mayor Peter Taylor said there was still confusion about the extent of the loss of life and damage. So ferocious was the force, petrol pumps were ripped out, and houses and bridges swept away.
"There has been loss of life. I don't know how many at this point ..." Mr Taylor told the national broadcaster ABC.
"There is massive damage ... this is unbelievable damage."
Heavy rain has battered the areas just north and inland of Queensland capital Brisbane for the past 24 hours, with one town receiving 327mm in a day. There are many small towns isolated. Brisbane has been put on a flood alert – its first since a nearby dam was built to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic flood back in 1974 – as it is unable to contain all of the water washing down the state.
One town, Gympie, is facing a river peak of 20 metres overnight, which will bring widespread devastation to 200 homes and businesses.
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