July 1, 2005

Deadly snakes hamper flood rescue in Australia

By Paul Tait

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Venomous snakes hampered the search forpeople missing in swirling floodwaters on Friday as parts ofeastern Australia were declared a disaster area afterdrought-easing rains swamped rural towns.

New South Wales state premier Bob Carr declared a disasterin Lismore, about 600 km (370 miles) north of Sydney, a dayafter 3,000 residents of the farming town were advised toevacuate their homes. At least one man died.

In neighboring Queensland state, volunteers on surfboardsjoined police and emergency officials in the search for a25-year-old man and 21-year-old woman missing since their carwas swept from a flooded causeway on Thursday on the GoldCoast.

Grave fears were held for the couple's safety. Queenslandpolice said strong currents and even venomous snakes made thesearch more difficult.

"Conditions have been a little bit difficult and Iunderstand searchers have encountered a few brown snakes aswell," police inspector Jeff James told reporters.

On average one or two people die each year from snake bitein Australia, and about half of all recorded deaths have beendue to bites from the brown snake.

North of Lismore, police said the body of a man aged in his50s had been recovered from floodwaters in the popular coastaltourist hub of Byron Bay.

Floods from the Wilson River near Lismore peaked at morethan 10 meters (33 feet) late on Thursday, just below the topof levees built after floods in 2001.

While most of the town was spared, dozens of homes andbusinesses were inundated, with the damage bill in New SouthWales and Queensland expected to reach several million dollars.

Carr said national disaster funds would be made available,including low-interest loans of up to A$130,000 ($98,800) andsubsidies for businesses and farmers hit by the floods.

"Anyone in a financially stretched position can getemergency cash assistance and that means that they can go outand get the bedding or the new electrical equipment they needto have their household functioning," Carr told reporters inLismore.

Queensland Emergency Services Minister Chris Cummins saiddisaster relief arrangements had also been activated inaffected areas of his state.

But the heavy rains were welcomed by farmers in areasfurther inland which had been dustbowls only weeks ago afterfour years of drought.

Heavy rains in eastern and southern Australia set newrecords for June in some areas, meteorologists said, and rainacross Australia's eastern grain belt in the past week couldeven result in record wheat crops.

"It really has turned around massively in a month. It'samazing what a month makes with Mother Nature," Grains Councilof Australia executive director David Ginns said.

Australia is the world's second-largest wheat exporterafter the United States and a major supplier to Asia and theMiddle East.