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Jen Hyland trudged along Quay Street, picking her way through a jigsaw puzzle of broken things, shin-deep mud sucking at her feet.

The 32-year-old mother of two stopped in front of the mudflat that had been her front yard and, for the first time since rising floodwaters forced her family to flee, looked at what was left of her home yesterday.

"Oh my God," she said.

The dirty waterline stained on the front of the battered weatherboard was well above her head, closer to the roof than the stinking muck and sediment the retreating river had left behind at ground level.

Two doors down, a wrecked fishing trawler lies on its side, beached high and dry in the middle of the road.

A small lumberyard's worth of broken branches and trees lie heaped against Mrs Hyland's front steps.

"We didn't have a tree in our front yard before, now we've got 150," she joked.

"It's either laugh or cry."

She cried anyway, burying her face in a friend's shoulder, when she saw her husband Peter Hyland clamber after her father Robert Andrews into the remains of their home.

When the river came knocking on Sunday, Mr Hyland grabbed his family and took them to safety. The head of the local volunteer fire brigade, instead of returning to save their possessions, he spent three days straight rescuing people in flood-stricken northern Bundaberg.

The worry Mrs Hyland felt for her husband, whose 30th birthday came and went while he was battling the river, came rushing out as she watched him pick over their home.

"He was out plucking people off roofs," she said. "He was gone for days."

Then Mr Andrews stuck his head out the front window.

"The wedding album survived," he said.

Mrs Hyland wiped away her tears.

In the drowned central Queensland city of Bundaberg yesterday, where a wasteland of broken homes and businesses began to rise from the receding floodwaters, locals like Mrs Hyland still found reasons to smile.

In north Bundaberg, where the flood hit hardest and an exclusion zone has been set up, soldiers began going house to house in an attempt to make the ravaged suburbs safe.

But on the other side of the river, an army of a different kind took to streets clogged with rubbish and muck.

Friends and family pitched in to clean up damaged homes. Mop and bucket brigades of elderly women introduced themselves politely to total strangers and went to work.

Their uniform was dirt, sweat and a friendly smile.

They are Bundaberg's mud army.

Armed with a broom, a pair of gumboots and an Akubra, Timothy Leif, 10, attacked the muck in a family friend's seafood factory.

"I'm getting all the mud out the door," he said. "And I found a baby turtle in the driveway."

Young Mr Leif said he and his parents - who have no idea about the fate of their farm on the other side of the river - had been helping out since the flood hit.

Near the centre of town, Karen Venus stood in the detritus of her sewing shop and pointed to where the waterline ran like an old scar just below the roof.

When the flood came, she chose to save her customers' wedding dresses and suits, consigning her sewing machines to a watery fate.

Michelle Donley, 58, had water lapping near the roof of her home on Kennedy Street.

"I got out on Sunday when the water was at the back door. I came back and my house was in a lake," she said. "I lost everything."

On the kerb outside her house sat a cairn of ruined furniture while a swarm of people scrubbed and mopped inside.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Bundaberg, Burnett Heads and Bargara yesterday.

She said she'd been overwhelmed by the community spirit in Bundaberg. "It's a great tribute to the local people," Ms Gillard said.

She said payments of $1000 had been made available to give immediate relief to people affected by the disaster and the Federal Government had donated $1 million to the Queens- land Flood Appeal.

Thousands of people, mainly from north Bundaberg, remained in makeshift shelters or bunked down with friends and family yesterday.

Looters prowled the streets. The mud and wreckage would not be fixed overnight.

"There's people worse off than us," Mr Hyland said.

In the town where everyone thinks they are the lucky ones, the devastating water has been replaced by a flood of kindness.