Australian MPs weep for disaster victims
Australian lawmakers wept Tuesday as they paid tribute to the tens of thousands of citizens whose lives have been rocked by floods, fires and cyclones, as authorities reined in a major blaze which gutted 68 homes.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard choked back tears as she recounted the nation's horror summer, marked by huge floods that killed 35 people in Queensland state, top-strength Cyclone Yasi and wildfires still raging on the west coast.
Fire crews on Tuesday managed to contain the inferno, which destroyed at least 68 homes and damaged 32 more as it tore through heavily-wooded areas on the southern outskirts of Perth, Australia's fourth-largest city.
"Firefighters are working to strengthen containment lines and mopping up in some sections," emergency officials said of the blaze at Roleystone, which was so fierce it caused a bridge to collapse.
The wildfires came just days after Cyclone Yasi ripped into Australia's northeast coast, wiping out sugar and banana crops and devastating hundreds of homes in Queensland state, which is still reeling from record floods.
Gillard's voice trembled as she recounted the difficulties Australia faced during the summer, a time she said would "always be remembered for the force and scale of the natural disasters the nation has endured."
"This summer will always be remembered for the many times we turned to each other and said 'it's bad, but the worst is behind us now' only to find that there was a new horror ahead," the prime minister said, opening the first session of parliament for 2011.
"Australia has watched in horror as day after day a new chapter in natural disaster history has been written."
Gillard wept as she presented a flag to the parliament given to her by army rescue workers who found it at Murphy's Creek, epicentre of an "inland tsunami so powerful it swept away lives and shattered communities".
"It spoke to them of courage; the courage it takes to keep filling sandbags even when your back is breaking, the courage it takes to hold your nerve in the dark as a cyclone races around you," she said.
Many MPs wiped away tears as she recalled the story of Jordan Rice, 13, who urged rescuers to save his younger brother first as he was swept to his death, and a pregnant woman whose baby was wrenched from her arms just seconds before help arrived.
She also thanked the volunteer army of thousands who turned out to help strangers clean out their homes and the more than Ausê200 million raised through public donations.
"We will always remember the days of despair and the days of courage we've lived through together this summer," she said.
Wildfires that left hundreds of people homeless were still burning on the west coast and Gillard said flooding continued to menace Victoria and New South Wales, while nine people remained missing in the Queensland floods.
Canberra faces a clean-up bill of Ausê5.6 billion from the floods alone, which it intends to meet through spending cuts and a one-off levy on higher income earners.
Brisbane, brought to a standstill by floods that swamped tens of thousands of homes, on Tuesday put the cost of recovery at ê440 million, with roads, marinas and other infrastructure washed away.
Treasurer Wayne Swan has put the hit to coal exports at ê5 billion and says agricultural production could lose ê2 billion, warning that the disasters could force the economy to contract for the first time since the global downturn.
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