BRISBANE, Australia - For weeks, the flooding in eastern Australia has been a slow-motion disaster, with drenching rain devastating wide swaths of farmland and small towns. Now, rivers are rising in Brisbane, the country's third-largest city, forcing people to flee both suburbs and skyscrapers.
Flooding that has unfolded since late November across the waterlogged state of Queensland turned suddenly violent Monday, with a cloudburst sending a raging torrent down the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane. Hundreds had to be rescued by helicopter Tuesday.
Greg Kowald was driving through the center of the town of Toowoomba when the terrifying wall of water roared through the streets, carrying away cars and people.
"The water was literally leaping, six or 10 feet into the air, through creeks and over bridges and into parks," Kowald, 53, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "There was nowhere to escape, even if there had been warnings. There was just a sea of water about a kilometer (a half-mile) wide."
The flash flood killed 10 people in one day and left 78 missing. That raised to 20 the number of confirmed dead in all the previous weeks from high water.
Windows exploded, cars bobbed in the churning brown water and people desperately clung to power poles to survive. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson described it as "an inland instant tsunami."
"What we saw in Toowoomba was the water rise at lightning speed. Mother Nature has unleashed something shocking out of the Toowoomba region and we've seen it move very quickly down the range," said Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.
A deluge of up to 6 inches (150 millimeters) in a half-hour fell over a concentrated area, sending a 26-foot (eight-meter), fast-moving torrent crashing through Toowoomba and smaller towns. The flash flood dropped as quickly as it came, leaving debris and cars piled together.
"There was water coming down everywhere in biblical proportions," Toowoomba council member Joe Ramia told the AP.
When the flood struck, he parked his car and ran for higher ground while watching the carnage below: cars turned into scrap metal flung into a railway line, giant metal industrial bins tossed about as if made of paper, a man clinging desperately to a power pole as the relentless tide surged around him.
A rescuer pushed through the churning water and yanked the man to safety as Ramia watched. Others, including five children, were swept to their deaths.
"You were powerless to do a thing," said Ramia, 63, a lifelong resident of Toowoomba. "While we can rebuild, you can't replace people. ... I've never seen anything like this."
In Brisbane, 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Toowoomba, people fled the central business district and left suburbs for higher ground as the Brisbane River was forecast to inundate low-lying neighborhoods on Wednesday and Thursday.
Officials warned people in the city of 2 million not to drive, conserve drinking water and prepare for power cuts to large areas of Brisbane and the smaller nearby city of Ipswich as floodwaters rose.
Rivers are expected to crest Thursday near the levels of a devastating 1974 flood.
"This is a truly dire set of circumstances," Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.
Residents stood in line for up to four hours outside emergency services depots Tuesday to get sandbags, and shoppers jammed markets to stock up on bottled water, milk and fuel. Residents in evacuated suburbs were asked to prepare their homes for high water, then stay with friends or family on higher ground.
About 9,000 homes in Brisbane could be badly affected and tens of thousands more could have flooded yards, Bligh said.
"There will be considerable impact on large number of homes and businesses, and we need people to be taking action now to respond to that situation," said Neil Roberts, emergency services minister for the state.
Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman said authorities were preparing for flooding affecting about 15,000 people.The city is protected by a large dam built after the 1974 floods. But the reservoir was full, and a water release that would cause low-level flooding was inevitable, Newman said.
Steph Stewardson, a graphic designer, said there was an exodus from a downtown area around lunchtime Tuesday when the river broke its banks. Stewardson, 40, hopped in her car and crossed the swollen river to collect her dog Boo from daycare while waters started covering the boardwalk stretching along its banks.
Stewardson took shelter in her house, and plans to stay there - for now.
"I'm about 800 meters (half a mile) from the river on a hill, so I think it's going to be OK," she told the AP.
Search and rescue efforts stricken areas were hampered by more driving rain, though the bad weather was easing and Bligh said the search would get easier Wednesday.
In the small community of Forest Hill, the entire population of about 300 was being airlifted to safety in military helicopters, Bligh said.
Flash floods were possible through the week, and officials said rescue efforts were concentrating in towns between Brisbane and Toowoomba, some isolated by floodwaters.
Queensland has been swamped by floods for weeks that covered land the size of France and Germany combined. Entire towns have been swamped, more than 200,000 people affected, and the vital coal industry, ranching and farming have virtually shut down.
"The power of nature can still be a truly frightening power and we've seen that on display in this country," Gillard said.
Bligh said last week the cost of the floods could be as high as $5 billion, the latest figure available.
The floods have also reached the bordering state of New South Wales, with about 4,500 people stranded, though the situation was not yet as dire as in Queensland. New South Wales is Australia's most populated state and contains its biggest city, Sydney.