Heavy rains in Australia’s east bring worst floods in 50 years

Flooding risk and evacuation warnings were in place for about 12 areas in New South Wales.
Flooding risk and evacuation warnings were in place for about 12 areas in New South Wales.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Heavy rains along Australia’s east coast over the weekend have brought the worst flooding in half a century in some areas, authorities said on Sunday (March 21), forcing thousands to evacuate and damaging hundreds of houses.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the downpour across the state, Australia’s most populous with 8 million people, was worse than initially expected, especially for low-lying areas in Sydney’s northwest.

“Yesterday, we were hoping it will only be a one-in-20-year event, now it looks like a one-in-50-year event,” Ms Berejiklian said at a televised briefing.

People in parts of Sydney’s northwest were ordered to flee their houses in the middle of the night as fast-moving waters caused widespread destruction. About another 1,000 people were asked to evacuate, after Ms Berejiklian said that some 4,000 people may be asked to leave their houses.

Television and social media footage showed fast-moving water unmooring houses, engulfing roads, breaking trees and damaging road infrastructure. Emergency services estimate the total number of damaged houses to be “in the hundreds”.

Several major roads were closed across the state while many schools called off classes for Monday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a Facebook post announced federal financial assistance for those affected.

The flooding comes in stark contrast with the devastating bushfires that struck Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, when nearly 7 per cent of New South Wales' land was scorched.

Flooding risk and evacuation warnings were in place for about 13 areas in the state, including the Hunter, one of Australia’s major wine regions.

Several dams, including Warragamba, Sydney’s main water supply, spilled over causing river levels to surge.

Meteorologists said the downpour is set to continue for several days. Emergency crews have responded to about 6,000 calls for help since the start of the rains on Thursday, including nearly 700 direct pleas for rescue from floods.

People had already begun flocking to evacuation centres in towns north of Sydney on Saturday as torrential rains pummelled a vast coastal region already soaked by an unusually wet summer.

In the town of Taree, located in Mid-North coast, television images showed one house floating down a bloated river, and about 150 people slept in a local auditorium overnight that has previously been used as a refuge for people fleeing bushfires.

Club Taree chief executive Paul Allen described the floods as a catastrophe, telling public broadcaster ABC that some locals had “lost everything”.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the wild weather was forecast to re-intensify north of Sydney on Monday before easing later in the week. Conditions were “going to be treacherous yet again”, senior climatologist Agata Imielska said.

Rainfall records were forecast to continue tumbling in the coming days, she added.

"It's not just the rain which is causing the devastation," Mr Jonathan How, senior meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, told the ABC News state broadcaster. "It's strong winds as well."

The extreme weather has also affected Australia’s Covid-19 vaccine delivery across New South Wales, disrupting the country’s plans to deliver the first doses to almost 6 million people over the next few weeks.

The downpour is expected to cause disruptions to freight and logistic services across the state, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said on Sky News’ Sunday Agenda show. The government is working with freight and distribution companies in charge of the deliveries to gauge how they will be affected, he said.

On Sunday, Australia’s medicines regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, granted approval for locally produced AstraZeneca vaccines. The Australian government has purchased 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be manufactured locally.