Flood water in Australia's third-biggest city peaked below feared catastrophic levels on Thursday but Brisbane and other devastated regions faced years of rebuilding and even the threat of fresh floods in the weeks ahead.
The capital of Queensland state resembled a muddy lake, with an entire waterfront cafe among the debris washing down the Brisbane River, a torrent that has flooded 12,000 homes in the city of 2 million and left 118,000 buildings without power.
"All I could see was their rooftops. Underneath every one of those roofs is a family, underneath every single one of those rooftops is a horror story," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters, after surveying the disaster from the air.
"This morning as I look across not only the capital city, but three-quarters of my state, we are facing a reconstruction effort of post-war proportions," Bligh said.
Officials warned of the real risk of further severe flooding in the coming weeks, with the wet season far from over and dams built to protect the city and surrounding regions at bursting point.
Insurers face a huge bill, with some economists expecting $6 billion in damage from the floods that began last month in Queensland, a mining state, crippling the coking coal industry and destroying roads, railways and bridges as they flowed south.
The floods have killed at least 18 people and 78 are missing, according to revised figures. Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley region, west of Brisbane, have been completely devastated, with whole towns unrecognisable.
But the water peaked at almost a metre below the level of deadly 1974 floods in Brisbane, with authorities saying a protective dam built after that tragedy had helped spare the city from the expected worst-case scenario.
Despite that, many of the city's factories and homes had only rooflines visible as residents, many evacuated to safety, woke to bright sunshine. Hundreds of onlookers gathered above the river to see the devastation at first light.
"Things have just been totally flattened, homes knocked completely to the floor. It's total destruction," said Grantham resident Ken Harme, speaking to Fairfax newspapers.
The swollen Brisbane River was choked with debris after bursting its banks and engulfing large districts of the city the previous day. Power has been cut to many areas in and around the city because of worry the waters could cause electrocutions.
Boats and river pontoons torn adrift by the deluge lay piled on river banks as the roiling brown water raced past.
REBUILD COULD TAKES YEARS
South of Brisbane, neighbouring New South Wales state has also been hard hit by flooding, causing widespread evacuations in many small communities, while southeast Victoria state had also been hit by drenching rain, flash flooding and landslides.
One central bank economist has warned the floods could cut the gross domestic product (GDP) measure of national income by as much as 1 percent, a blow that would wipe A$13 billion from the economy and place at risk the government's promise of a return to surplus in 2012-13.
"The complete rebuild is going to take years," said flood-recovery chief Major-General Mick Slater.
At central Suncorp Stadium, home to the city's beloved Broncos football team, children's swimming floats had been placed on the arms of a bronze statue depicting a past playing hero. Green garbage bags floated nearby in murky water.
An emotional Bligh said her state, reliant on farming and mining in rugged outback regions, would recover regardless of the cost and estimates that three quarters -- an area bigger than France and Germany -- was now officially a disaster zone.
Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman said while many areas of the financial district were still inundated, the lower than expected peak would save about 8,000 properties from damage.
"We all now have to rally together to help these people clean up," Newman told Australian television.
FLOODS COULD RETURN
The revised flood figure, he said, indicated that almost 27,000 properties would be fully or partially flooded. These included 2,500 businesses that would be completely inundated.
Newman said the worst might not be over.
"The sky is blue, but the wet season goes until March. If there is more rain in two or three weeks time, I need to sound a cautionary note this morning -- there could be another flood," Newman said.
Power companies said they were planning to bring in large generators to restore power in Brisbane's financial heart as soon as the water cleared over the next few days.
But devastated areas further west, hit by flash flooding on Monday described as an "inland tsunami", could be without power for weeks, power provider Energex said.
A rescue helicopter was due to fly in a 1.5 tonne anchor to secure a ferry that had broken adrift on the Brisbane River, and a tug boat helped secure a huge concrete walkway that had ripped free from the banks of the river.
Further north, in Queensland's coal-mining heartland, one of the nation's biggest export-earning regions showed signs of recovery, with coal-freight operator QR National saying its worst-hit rail network could reopen in a week.
Floods and heavy rains washed away rail lines, flooded some mines and reduced major ports to partial operation before the floodwaters moved south early this week toward Brisbane. The floods could remove around 5 percent of steelmaking coal from world markets, one major bank estimated this week.