By ROHAN SULLIVAN
MELBOURNE, Australia — Townspeople huddled behind sandbag walls Monday as the inland sea swamping southeastern Australian snaked toward them down a tangle of swollen rivers, and the prime minister urged big business to help pay for a disaster big enough to threaten economic growth.
Emergency services were focusing their efforts on Swan Hill, a town 210 miles (340 kilometers) northwest of the Victorian state capital of Melbourne, where the Lodden and Murray rivers meet. Floodwaters are expected to peak there midweek when the sea arrives, the State Emergency Service said.
Volunteers have spent the past week piling tens of thousands of sandbags around the community, a town of 10,000 people, Mayor Greg Cruickshank said Monday.
“We’re nearly to the point to where we are as prepared as we can be,” he said. “If there happens to be inundation, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.”
Australia’s flood crisis began with record rains in November that left huge parts of the northeast state of Queensland under water, killing 30 people, damaging or destroying 30,000 homes and businesses and causing at least $3 billion in damage to crops and lost coal exports. The state capital and the country’s third-largest city, Brisbane, was swamped for days.
The flood disaster is now moving across southeast Victoria, where driving rains have forced swollen rivers over their banks.
Ahead of the inland sea, several hundred residents were evacuated Sunday from tiny communities east of Swan Hill, including Pental Island, where about 50 properties were expected to become isolated or inundated. At 55 miles (90 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide, the inland sea is 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) larger than the area Paris covers.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has appointed a task force of some of Australia’s wealthiest corporate leaders to help formulate plans to deal with the crisis, which the government says will be one of the costliest in the country’s history.
Gillard met with the task force in the stricken city of Brisbane on Monday and said afterward she wanted its members to keep pushing for business donations to help recovery efforts.
Some economists have warned the floods could shave almost 1 percent from Australia’s economic growth this year, which is variously forecast at between 3 percent and a little less than 4 percent.
The government has not yet given it’s estimates of the cost of the disaster, but Treasurer Wayne Swan said this week the impact will be felt for years. The government will announce its first cost estimates on Friday.
“We still don’t know what the total damage bill is,” Gillard said. “We’ve got to be very clear here — the federal government is going to step up and do everything we need to do to rebuild Queensland.”
On Monday, some residents of the small community of Murrabit West, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Swan Hill, were urged to evacuate as water from the Murray began spilling over the levees protecting the township. An emergency service spokeswoman said officials did not yet know how many homes were at risk of being flooded.
The State Emergency Service said Monday that 76 towns in Victoria have been affected by flooding, with 1,770 properties suffering some water damage. Another five to 10 towns are still in the floodwaters’ northern path across flat wheat-growing country.