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Last Updated: Monday, 11 June 2007, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Australia storm victims go home
Flooded streets of Newcastle. Photo: Paul Everett
Floods have completely cut off some areas
Thousands of people got the all clear to return home after being evacuated because of heavy storms in eastern Australia that have killed nine people.

Some 5,000 residents of Maitland in the wine-making Hunter Valley fled rising floodwaters, although the town's levees managed to hold and prevent disaster.

Communities further downstream have now been put on flood alert.

Prime Minister John Howard said the strong rain and winds of recent days had made the area "unrecognisable".

"It is an illustration to me... just how savage the storms have been and the tragedy, of course, is that there has been a loss of life," he said during a visit to the area.

I went to the main street... and it was like a screen from a zombie movie
Nick, Newcastle, NSW

Some 50,000 homes remained without power and electricity on Monday, with officials warning that it could take days for some services to be restored. Roads and railway lines have also been damaged.

Off the coast, rescue teams were working to salvage the 40,000-tonne coal freighter Pasha Bulker that ran aground in rough conditions on Friday off the coast of Newcastle.

They had found a hole in the hull but there was no sign of any oil spill, which environmentalists had feared could happen, leading to a maritime disaster.

Calmer forecast

The Hunter Valley and central coastal regions of New South Wales have seen some of the wildest weather in 30 years, the BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney says.

The Pasha Bulker sits aground on Nobby's Beach in Newcastle

Residents of Maitland were evacuated on Sunday amid fears the town's levees would not be able to hold back the floodwaters.

Although they were able to return home on Monday, some surrounding farms remained completely cut off by floodwaters.

"Things were literally flying past the house," Nick from Newcastle told the BBC News website.

"I went to the main street at about 0400 and it was like a screen from a zombie movie: cars were in the middle of the street, buildings had caved in and there was no light and no-one else around," he said.

Among the dead were five members of the same family, including three children. Their car was swept away after part of the Old Pacific Highway collapsed on Friday - when the storms began.

The bodies of a couple in their 50s were found after their car was washed off a bridge in the Hunter Valley, police said.

Newcastle, Australia

A 29-year-old man was killed when a tree fell on to his vehicle, and the body of a man was found in a storm water drain near Newcastle.

As the floodwaters moved downstream, communities along the Hunter River, including parts of Newcastle city, were facing possible evacuation.

However, meteorologists said the weather was expected to remain relatively calm over the coming days, allowing the massive clean-up operation to get under way.

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