* Ex-Cyclone Debbie storm causes massive flooding
* Towns underwater, residents cling to rooftops
* One dead, 20,000 people told to evacuate
(Adds detail and quotes)
By Tom Westbrook and Colin Packham
SYDNEY, March 31 Flooding rivers swamped towns
along Australia's east coast on Friday forcing tens of thousands
of people to be evacuated as fast-flowing waters cut roads and
destroyed bridges after the remnants of a powerful cyclone swept
through the region.
The disaster zone from ex-Cyclone Debbie stretched 1,000 kms
(612 miles) from Queensland state's tropical resort islands and
Gold Coast tourist strip to the farmlands of New South Wales
state, with more than 100,00 homes reportedly without power.
Six large rivers had hit major flood levels and were still
rising, said the Bureau of Meteorology.
Flood sirens sounded before dawn at Lismore when the Wilsons
River surged over the town's levee. By daybreak the centre of
the town of 25,000 people in the Northern Rivers region of NSW
was underwater. Throughout the day several towns suffered the
same fate and were submerged under floodwaters.
Stranded residents climbed onto roofs of flooded homes to
await rescuing, but fast-moving water and high winds hindered
emergency crews reaching some people. Farmers moved livestock to
higher ground, while others sandbagged property, desperately
trying to stop floodwaters.
NSW police said they had recovered the body of a woman from
floodwaters on Friday, the first reported death since Cyclone
Debbie hit on Tuesday. Authorities had feared that people may
have died overnight as floodwaters rose swiftly in the dark.
"We've seen a lot of flood rescues here this morning,"
Lismore State Emergency Service Deputy Controller Amanda Vidler
said while floodwaters lapped her feet in the hard-hit town. She
told Reuters of one rescue where she plucked a man from rushing
water on the town's main street.
"We put him in an inflatable and we got him out of
there...yeah, we all got wet," she said.
Cyclone Debbie, a category four storm, one short of the most
powerful level five, pounded Queensland state on Tuesday,
smashing tourist resorts, bringing down power lines and shutting
down coal mines, has become a huge rain depression.
Debbie will hit Australia's A$1.7 trillion ($1.3 trillion)
economy, with economists estimating it will slow growth to under
2 percent in the first quarter.
In the Bowen Basin, the world's single largest source of
coal used to make steel, Glencore said its mines were
not damaged by the storm but restarting production depended on
Rail operator Aurizon reopened one of its four
railway lines and three were still closed. BHP,
was still assessing the extent of any disruption to shipments.
Queensland's top insurers, Suncorp Group Ltd and
RACQ, said it was too early to put a dollar figure on the
Lismore mayor Isaac Smith said it was the worst flood in at
least three decades.
"When I was a young fellow I have seen a couple of these but
I don't quite remember them like this," he said.
Since Wednesday night, the NSW State Emergency Service has
fielded 1,400 calls, made 300 flood rescues and given more than
20,000 people immediate evacuation orders.
"There's not a lot we can do about it, you can't change
mother nature's mind, you just do your thing, wait till it goes
down and clean it up," said Lennon Bartlett as he paddled his
dad's rowboat down a street in Lismore.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Colin Packham; Editing by
Sandra Maler and Michael Perry)