SYDNEY (AP) - Thunderstorms were forecast Thursday to soak the already flooded communities in northeastern Australia, where residents in the path of another rising river were frantically filling sandbags for a makeshift levee against a predicted 46-foot (14-meter) peak.
More than 4,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in the flood zone, which encompasses an area larger than France and Germany combined. The United Nations offered its assistance to flood-ravaged communities and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended his condolences to the families affected.
The southern Queensland town of St. George, which was devastated by a flood last March, was bracing for its Balonne River to peak at a record high by Sunday. About 10,000 sandbags had been packed and more were being filled Thursday to protect the homes of the 2,500 residents.
"It's not fair on people's lives to have water tearing through their homes," St. George resident and Nationals party Sen. Barnaby Joyce told Sky News television.
The senator, who was packing sandbags in his hometown, said new dams were needed in the state to prevent future disasters.
"It's not good for our economy to be shut down and lose billions of dollars in production," he said. "In the future I think we need to look at building dams to mitigate the effects of floods."
Balonne regional Mayor Donna Stewart said that if the river peaks at 14 meters, only about 30 homes would be affected.
More than a week of pounding rains that started just before Christmas left much of northeastern Australia under a sea of water that is making its way through river systems toward the ocean.
Around 1,200 homes in Queensland have been inundated, with another 10,700 suffering some damage.
In the state's southwest, the 150 residents of the tiny community of Condamine had hoped to return home Thursday, a week after they were airlifted to safety when the Condamine River reached a record 14.25 meters (46.75 feet) and inundated 42 of the 60 homes.
But a storm that rolled in Wednesday afternoon has shut down highways and the forecast for rain through the weekend could delay their return.
The town has no electricity nor running water, and the schools and churches are also under water.
"The damage is extremely significant, it's as simple as that," Western Downs Regional Mayor Ray Brown said. "On the scale of devastation, on a percentage, it's a massive impact."
He said residents would be taken by bus to survey the damage if the rain let up Thursday.
In other parts of the state, some flooded communities were beginning to dry out and officials were determining when it would be safe to allow residents to return.
One problem: an influx of venomous snakes, flushed from their habitats and searching for dry ground amid the waters. Saltwater crocodiles are another worry for people entering floodwaters.
"There's a lot of snakes - and I mean a lot," Rockhampton resident Shane Muirhead told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "Like, every hundred yards (meters) you will see a snake, and they're just everywhere."
Rockhampton was hit hard by the floods, with about 500 residents evacuated this week as the overflowing Fitzroy River swamped 200 homes and 100 businesses.
Queensland is a center of Australia's coal mining industry and 40 mines have been shut because of the flooding. Some coal companies have begun to downgrade profit projections as a result.
"It's going to take some months for some mines to be back to full operation," Resources Minister Stephen Robertson said Wednesday. "We earn 'round about AU$100 million ($100 million) a day exporting coal to the rest of the world and exports have been significantly restricted by the impact on infrastructure."
Wall Street analysts said the flooding would push coal prices higher, tightening supplies at a time when the global economy is gaining steam.
The deluge has also ruined crops and caused "catastrophic" damage to Queensland's transport systems, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said.