Asia-Pacific

Australia MPs weep for victims of natural disasters

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Media captionAustralian PM Julia Gillard: "What it means to be Australian"

Australia's prime minister and other MPs have wept as they paid tribute to the thousands of people whose lives have been rocked by natural disasters.

Julia Gillard struggled to hold back tears while speaking of the 35 killed in last month's floods in Queensland.

Powerful Cyclone Yasi compounded the misery of Queenslanders, and wildfires are still burning in Western Australia.

She said Australia "watched in horror as day after day a new chapter in natural disaster history was written".

At the first parliament opening for 2011, Ms Gillard said the past few months would be "remembered for the force and scale of the natural disasters the nation has endured".

She wept as she presented a flag to parliament given to her by rescue workers in Queensland, who had found it at the scene of deadly flash floods described as "an inland tsunami".

"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.

As she recounted the story of 13-year-old Jordan Rice, who urged rescuers to save his younger brother first as he was swept to his death, many MPs were reduced to tears.

She also told of a pregnant woman whose child was torn from her arms and drowned, just seconds before help arrived.

"We will always remember the days of despair and the days of courage we've lived through together this summer," she said.

Evacuation centres

Across Queensland, 35 people have been reported dead in flood-related incidents since December. Several people remain missing in the Lockyer Valley.

About 26,000 Brisbane homes have been hit by either major or partial flooding. In nearby Ipswich, 3,000 homes were flooded.

Nearly a week after Cyclone Yasi battered Queensland coastal communities, the army is cutting its way through mountains of debris to reach townships and farms that remain isolated.

In suburbs of Western Australia's state capital, Perth, fierce bushfires which started at the weekend have razed more than 70 properties and damaged dozens more.

The fires are now under control but are continuing to burn in some areas.

Hundreds of residents waiting anxiously in evacuation centres have been told they will be able to return to their homes over the next couple of days.

Fire and Emergency Services Authority spokesman Craig Hynes said some residents would be escorted to their properties to assess the damage.

"We'll do it in the most sensitive way we can, but I think people do want to get access and just see what's happened and get some sort of closure," he said.

Australia is facing a clean-up and reconstruction bill of billions of dollars. The government says it intends to meet the massive costs with spending cuts and a one-off levy on higher income earners.

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