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Originally published January 12, 2011 at 10:27 PM | Page modified January 13, 2011 at 7:12 AM

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Brisbane reels from flooding devastation

Floodwaters washing through Brisbane crested Thursday just shy of a record but high enough to submerge neighborhoods and cause damage one official likened to the aftermath of war.

The Associated Press

BRISBANE, Australia — Floodwaters washing through Brisbane crested Thursday just shy of a record but high enough to submerge neighborhoods and cause damage one official likened to the aftermath of war.

One man died in Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, after being sucked into a storm drain by the muddy waters, Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said. Thousands of homes were swamped, and officials said it will be days before many residents can return to their houses. Others were told their homes will never be habitable again.

In one spot of bright news, the swollen Brisbane River's peak was about three feet lower than predicted, a depth slightly below that of 1974 floods that swept the city. The river began to recede by Thursday afternoon, though it was expected to stay high for several days.

Waters in some areas had reached the tops of roofs, shut down roads and power, and devastated entire neighborhoods. Mayor Campbell Newman said 11,900 homes and 2,500 businesses had been inundated, with an additional 14,700 houses and 2,500 businesses at least partially covered in water.

"Queensland is reeling this morning from the worst natural disaster in our history and possibly in the history of our nation," Bligh said. "We've seen three-quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters and we now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions."

The flooding, which has killed 24 people since late November, has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster, which is shaping up to be Australia's costliest, with early damage estimates of $5 billion.

At least 74 people are missing, and the death toll is expected to rise. Many of those unaccounted for disappeared from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods Monday sweep away cars, road signs and people. Thirteen died in that flood alone, with police finding the latest body in a field Thursday. Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned that number was likely to rise as search-and-rescue teams accessed more devastated areas Thursday.

"We've got to brace ourselves for more bad news," Stewart said.

Almost 115,000 homes were without power across Queensland by Thursday because electricity was switched off to prevent electrocutions and damage to electrical systems.

In Brisbane, roads were flooded, railway lines were cut and sewage began spilling into the floodwaters. People moved about in kayaks, rowboats and surfboards. Boats torn from their moorings floated down an engorged river. Brisbane's office buildings stood empty with the normally bustling central business district transformed into a watery ghost town.

A 300-yard stretch of a pedestrian boardwalk weighing 300 tons broke loose and drifted downstream before two tug boats were able to steer it away from bridges.

Despite the devastation, many remained thankful the river had spared them the worst of its fury.

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"There's a fair bit of relief around this morning; we're thanking our stars a bit, that's for sure," said Andrew Turner, whose house in the flooded suburb of Graceville escaped inundation. "We were pretty much braced for the worst and were all but packed up and ready to go."

Lisa Sully, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sherwood, did have some water in her home — but she still felt lucky Thursday.

"I can handle this," she said. "Mentally, I was prepared for worse."

The death toll has shocked Australians, no strangers to deadly natural disasters like the wildfires that killed 173 in a single day two years ago.

One tale has particularly transfixed the country: a 13-year-old boy caught in the flood who told strangers to save his 10-year-old brother first and died as a result.

Jordan and Blake Rice were in the car with their mother, Donna, when a wall of water pummeled Toowoomba on Monday. After the water knocked one rescuer over, another man managed to reach the car, The Australian newspaper reported. At Jordan's insistence, he pulled Blake out first, according to a third brother, Kyle.

"Courage kicked in, and he would rather his little brother would live," the 16-year-old told the newspaper. Jordan and his mother were washed away before the men could get back to them.

By Wednesday, Jordan's name was among the top 10 most used terms on Twitter, as a wave of tweets hailed him as a "true hero" of the Queensland floods.

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