SYDNEY - Australia is experiencing once-in-a-century flooding just a year after suffering the largest bushfires on record, prompting concern about the growing threat that the changing climate is posing to the disaster-prone nation.
The authorities warned that heavy winds and rainfall are set to continue across flood-hit regions on Tuesday (March 23), adding to a disaster that has already led to mass evacuations and destroyed homes in the country’s east.
The most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) declared natural disaster zones in 38 areas as the authorities warned thousands of residents to prepare to evacuate due to rising floodwaters.
More than 18,000 people have already been evacuated, including 15,000 in coastal areas north of Sydney and 3,000 in western Sydney.
The downpour has left communities isolated, submerged roads, and forced the closure of more than 150 schools.
The NSW Government has said that Sydney is experiencing once-in-50-year floods and the coast north of Sydney is experiencing once-in-100 year floods.
The Rural Fire Service said that many parts of the state resemble “an inland sea”.
“Once the rain stops & the water begins to reside, there will be a massive combined effort to clean up,” it said in a tweet.
The Bureau of Meteorology warned on Monday that large stretches of the NSW coast face heavy rainfall on Tuesday that could lead to flash flooding.
The flooding comes a little more than a year after a bushfire season that left at least 34 people dead and razed some 18 million ha of land, the largest burnt area on record. The fires, which scientists said were being exacerbated and intensified by climate change, followed a period of severe drought.
Experts have attributed the floods to factors including the La Niña weather pattern and a wetter-than-average summer as well as climate change, which could be causing more extreme rain events.
“There is some evidence that particularly in northern Australia extreme rain events are increasing,” Dr Ailie Gallant from Monash University told news.com.au.
“A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour and scientists calculate that this can increase moisture in the atmosphere by approximately 7 per cent per degree of global warming.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Monday that it was a “miracle” that no lives had been lost, noting that areas hit by devastating bushfires in 2019-2020 were now facing severe flooding.
“Some communities who were battered by the bushfires are now being battered by the floods and deep drought prior to that,” she said. “I don’t know any time in our state’s history when we’ve had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession.”
In the 38 areas labelled disaster zones, residents who have suffered injury or damage will be entitled to relief of A$1,000 for adults and A$400 for children.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, the Singapore Airlines said flights to and from Australia have not been affected by the floods.
Budget carrier Scoot said there were no flights between Singapore and Australia on Monday. Its website says the next flight to Australia is scheduled from Melbourne to Singapore on March 28.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Australian Defence Force will be deployed from Tuesday to assist with support and clean-up operations.
“This is an ongoing situation that is evolving and is extremely dangerous,” he told Parliament.
A police commander, Superintendent Shane Cribb, said the authorities were working 24-hour-a-day shifts.
“I have never seen rainfall like this. I have worked in a number of floods and this is the biggest one I have worked in in my career,” he told ABC TV.