SYDNEY • The Australian authorities have warned that the flooding disaster on the country's east coast is "far from over" as thousands more residents were put on evacuation alert yesterday and volunteers rescued hundreds from rising flood waters.
Torrential rain continued to pummel several parts of the country, sweeping away homes, roads and livestock in the worst downpour in more than half a century.
The authorities have ordered about 22,000 people to be ready to flee their homes, potentially joining around 18,400 people who have already been evacuated.
Thousands of people who live along the Hawkesbury River, a major waterway about 60km north of Sydney, were among those told to be ready to evacuate. Warragamba Dam, Sydney's main water supply, began overflowing last Saturday and was expected to keep doing so for another week.
Eight million residents in Sydney and across the state have been told to work from home if possible and avoid unnecessary travel.
Emergency services have responded to more than 10,000 calls for help during the floods so far and carried out about 850 rescues. No deaths have been reported so far.
Australia's defence force was set to join in the relief effort yesterday, the government announced, with two search-and-rescue helicopters being used to winch out people in remote areas.
New South Wales (NSW) Emergency Service assistant commissioner Nicole Hogan told public broadcaster ABC that another 1,750 volunteers had arrived from other states to support the efforts in what would be a "critical 24 hours". Emergency workers used inflatable rafts and even some surf boats, usually reserved for beach rescues, to reach stranded locals.
The national weather agency posted weather warnings in every mainland state or territory but one, affecting around 10 million people in the country of 25 million across an area the size of Alaska.
"The rain and flood situation does remain dynamic and extremely complex," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters.
The flood and severe weather warnings were extended to areas not previously affected, including the coast south of Sydney and outback areas to the north-west recently crippled by a prolonged drought. Just north of NSW, parts of Queensland state's populated south-east have also been hit by flooding after days of heavy rain.
Images shared on social media showed bridges washed away, stranded animals and submerged homes in NSW. One video showed a container truck ramming into a bridge, causing structural damage, while another showed a car swept off a road by raging flood waters in Queensland.
Other photos captured mass swarms of spiders and snakes as the creatures sought to escape the fast-moving flood waters.
In NSW, a fourth straight day of heavy rain was expected to combine with a coastal trough and increase the deluge overnight yesterday, even as Sydney saw a reprieve by late afternoon.
Just over 12 months ago, the region was parched: suffering prolonged drought, water restrictions and unprecedented bush fires.
Scientists say extreme weather swings represent Australia's new normal, with the country being one of many seeing a pattern of intensification - more extreme hot days and heatwaves, as well as more extreme rainfalls over short periods. The cause is a rise in global temperatures by 1.1 deg C over pre-industrial levels.
This results in landscapes drying out more quickly to produce severe droughts, even as an increase in water vapour in the atmosphere raises the likelihood of extreme downpours.
"There is a very strong link between global warming and that intensification in rainfall," said Professor Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales. "There's good scientific evidence to say extreme rain is becoming more extreme due to global warming."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES