Heavy rain, flash flooding in Australia’s east coast force mass evacuations

State Emergency Service vehicles approach flooded residential areas in western Sydney, on March 20, 2021.
State Emergency Service vehicles approach flooded residential areas in western Sydney, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: AFP
Road closures are seen at Yarramundi Lane in Richmond, Australia, on March 20, 2021.
Road closures are seen at Yarramundi Lane in Richmond, Australia, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Farmers on Grange Road in Schofield tend to the stock due to heavy rain in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.
Farmers on Grange Road in Schofield tend to the stock due to heavy rain in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Flooding is seen on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.
Flooding is seen on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Flooding follows heavy rainfall in Tinonee, New South Wales, on March 20, 2021.
Flooding follows heavy rainfall in Tinonee, New South Wales, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS
Residents watch the overflowing Parramatta river during heavy rain in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.
Residents watch the overflowing Parramatta river during heavy rain in Sydney, on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia’s east coast was smashed by heavy rains on Saturday (March 20), sparking dangerous flash flooding that forced the evacuation of multiple regions as the fast moving waters unmoored houses, engulfed roads, stranded towns and cut power lines.

In Sydney, the country’s biggest city, authorities pleaded for people to stay at home as a major dam overflowed and a mini-tornado tore through a western suburb.

Most of the coast of New South Wales (NSW) state, which is home to about a third of Australia’s 25 million people, has already seen March rainfall records broken and authorities warned the downpour was likely to continue for several days.

“I hate to say this again to all our citizens of the state, but it’s not going to be an easy week for us,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told a televised briefing. “The rain may not stop till Thursday or Friday.”

Officials had issued nine evacuation orders for about 15 areas by Saturday afternoon.

Television footage showed increasing damage across the state, with water engulfing houses up to the windows, people kayaking through the streets, and damaged roads. One video showed an entire house being swept away. Local media reported that the house owners had managed to evacuate.

Warragamba Dam, a major water supply for Sydney, began overflowing on Saturday afternoon. Officials warned that the overflow would quickly add to swollen rivers, leading to flash flooding.

A mini-tornado ripped through a suburb in the west of the city, causing damage to more than 30 homes, knocking down trees and cutting power, emergency services said.

People were urged to stay at home and avoid any non-essential trips, with officials lambasting those who had needed help after venturing out into the stormy weather.

Emergency crews responded to about 4,000 calls for help over the past two days, including 500 direct flood rescues, a level NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said was “just completely unacceptable”.

“The message is clear: do not walk through or drive through floodwaters, do not drive over water that is covering a road,” Mr Elliott said.

Social and sporting events were called off across the state, including football games and one of Australian turf’s marquee horse races, the A$3.5 million (S$3.6 million) Golden Slipper.

Almost 30 children in the rural town of Kendall spent Friday night in their primary school library together with more than a dozen of staff after flooding trapped them inside and prevented parents from collecting them.

“Lots of hungry little bellies this morning as everyone woke up after a settled quiet night,” a note on the school’s Facebook page said. “All safe and sound here at school.”

The federal government said the extreme weather was affecting its Covid-19 vaccine delivery in Sydney and throughout state, but said delays should last only a few days. 

Australia plans to deliver the first vaccine doses to almost six million people over the next few weeks.