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Brisbane showground becomes refuge from floods

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
  • Hundreds in Brisbane seek shelter at evacuation center at city's showground
  • Local residents offer spare beds to those stranded by the floods
  • Locals also donating clothes, toys and foods to the evacuation center
  • Red Cross spokesman says offers of help have been staggering

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Brisbane, Australia (CNN) -- Kayla Brown held her three-year-old daughter on her hip as she sorted through a pile of donated clothes at Brisbane's main flood evacuation center.

The 22-year-old mother from a small town west of the city become stranded with her sister and two children on Tuesday after the rising water cancelled train services to the flooded city of Ipswich.

"We were only supposed to be going for the day and then go back," Kayla's 21-year-old sister Liza Simpson says. "We've got nan at home, as well" she adds. "She's had 13 strokes, and she's disabled in the hand and she can't talk. She can't wash herself or make herself a cup of tea or a sandwich or anything."

The sisters spent their last $140 on a hotel room, food and nappies for the children on Tuesday but by Wednesday had less than $5 between them. They called their grandmother from the hotel room Tuesday night and found she was safe with neighbors as flood waters rose around their home.

Many people who fled their Brisbane homes as the water rose sought refuge with friends or relatives, but hundreds of others like Kayla and Liza know no one in the city, and had little money and nowhere else to go.

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Mother and daughter Amelia and Lyn Court also found themselves at the evacuation center after being woken at 4 a.m. by police at their hotel on the banks of the Brisbane River. Electricity to the area was being switched off as the water rose and they were advised to leave.

"We don't know Brisbane very well. We don't even know what area to go to where we would be safe, you know. We aren't locals," Lyn said. "They organized for us to come here."

Lyn and her mother arrived in Brisbane from Townsville on Tuesday to visit a sick friend in hospital. They'd tried in vain to book an earlier flight but were resigned to spending a night sharing an inflatable mattress in a carefully chosen corner of the evacuation center.

"This is our RNA Hilton," Lyn joked with a sweep of her hand. Her mother Amelia, in her late 70s, added with a laugh, "this is our first time ever... it's an experience."

"What have we lost?" Lyn asked. "It's a bit of an inconvenience. Some people have lost houses and lives.. we see all those photos on TV and think we're lucky."

The RNA Showgrounds, including the cavernous warehouse now sheltering hundreds of flood victims, is traditionally the site of the annual agricultural exhibition, affectionately known by locals as "The Ekka."

Last year 400,000 people poured through the gates for fairground rides, livestock shows, show bags and traditional wood-chopping events. This is not a site associated with disaster.

Volunteers arrived unannounced throughout the day, many weighed down by bags of donated clothes, toys and foods, determined to help in whatever way they could.

Tamara Richardson, a high school teacher who lives around the corner, spent the day entertaining children in "kiddie corner," itself set up by a volunteer who arrived earlier Wednesday, Angela Faria from the Jubilee Catholic Parish.

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"A lot of coloring-in pencils have been donated, crayons and paper," Tamara tells me before Angela interrupts to introduce a man who has just arrived with the offer of a self-contained flat beneath his home.

James Boyes arrives with the aid of walking stick, his leg heavily strapped, and explains why he and his wife were extending the offer.

"Just seeing on the news, it looks like there's so much demand for these places. Who wants to sleep here for a few days?" he asks. "We've got this whole downstairs of our house. Somebody would probably say 'that's awesome.'"

"It's the Aussie spirit in action of course," Angela explains. "I've placed two today." She had another three offers on her list including James' and another young couple who arrived five minutes later.

"We were watching a report earlier and there was an old lady here sleeping with her head on the table and we thought you can't have that," Myron Lichtnauer said.

He and his wife Lauren were yet to find the woman they saw on TV, but were happy to take anyone who wanted to stay.

"It's only two single beds but if it helps somebody, a single mum with a baby or something, we've got enough room," he said.

Over at the clothing donation table, two young women were emptying large bags of groceries. They were doctors from the local hospital who offered to help with first aid.

When they were told what was really needed were sanitary napkins, they spent $900 of their own money buying everything from nappies to towels, blankets, spoons, underwear, coffee and cereal.

Paul Heidemann from the Red Cross said the offers of help were staggering. He pulled back the doors on a van which was packed to the roof with donated second-hand goods.

Hundreds of people were expected to spend the night at the center on Wednesday in four huge rooms lined with mattresses. For many, it will only the first of a number of nights spent anxiously waiting for news of when they can return to what is left of their homes.

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