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Australian Officials: Flood Waters Will Take Weeks to Recede

An arrow painted at the Capricorn Highway is seen under floodwaters 6km south of Rockhampton Jan 3, 2011

Australian authorities are stepping up efforts to help flood victims in the state of Queensland and say water levels may not recede for weeks.

Weather officials issued new storm warnings early Tuesday, with heavy rains and new flash floods forecast.

Military aircraft ferried relief supplies to residents of Rockhampton, a town about 75,000 people that was cut off from the rest of the state by flood waters.

Flood waters have inundated more than 20 towns, forced some 200,000 people out of their homes, closed coal mines and devastated crop fields. At least three people have died in the floods so far.

Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told reporters that even if the rains ease, the flood waters will take weeks to recede.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed condolences for the loss of life and damage in Queensland in the name of U.S. President Barack Obama and people of the United States.

In a statement issued Monday, Clinton said the U.S. embassy is monitoring the situation and that the United States stands ready to provide assistance.

Days of heavy rains have sparked floods that have affected an area of northeastern Australia the size of Germany and France combined.

Queensland's official in charge of community safety told VOA the damage is estimated in the billions of dollars, including hundreds of millions in lost production at coal mines in the state. The official said it will take "a couple of years" for conditions to return to normal in some areas.

Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coking coal used in steel-making.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced more financial aid for people affected by the floods Monday, including low-interest loans for farmers whose crops have been destroyed. She described the floods as a "major natural disaster" and said recovery will take "a significant amount of time."

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, Bloomberg and Reuters.