'Rain bomb' and floods leave Australia pondering future climate shocks

Sydney has had a record 872 millimetres of rain since the start of the year, amounting to almost a year's worth of rain. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SYDNEY - On Australia's east coast, record-setting downpours and floods have left a devastating toll that has prompted a national reckoning about how to prepare for further natural disasters that now seem inevitable.

The recent flooding in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland has killed at least 20 people, damaged and destroyed thousands of homes, caused mass evacuations, and led to damage worth at least A$5 billion (S$4.9 billion).

In Sydney this week, evacuation orders were issued for suburbs covering at least 40,000 people as thousands of properties experienced power blackouts. The city has had a record 872 millimetres of rain since the start of the year, amounting to almost a year's worth of rain.

In Brisbane, where about 20,000 homes were damaged, navy ships were deployed this week to assist with the recovery and repairs.

Ms Chrissy Lim, 48, who moved from Singapore to Brisbane two years ago to be with her Australian partner, said she lives near the Brisbane River which "came right up the street".

Ms Lim, who works in marketing, said her apartment was on the sixth floor and was not affected, but other homes and shops were damaged and the neighbourhood lost electricity for a week.

"Not having power for a week was challenging, especially as I run a business," she said. "Once the floodwaters subsided, everyone pitched in and helped out."

She added: "These kinds of floods do not happen in Singapore."

One of the worst-affected areas was around Lismore, a town with about 44,000 residents in northern NSW. It sits on a river and has had 29 serious floods since 1870. But none was as devastating as the disaster in recent weeks in which flood waters peaked at 14.4m, smashing the record of 12.3m in 1954.

Mr Patrick Tatem, who lives on a bushland property north of Lismore, described watching a nearby field go from half-flooded to fully submerged within just an hour as the floodwaters caused "surf waves".

"The water across the paddock was like a storm-tossed ocean," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "There was a huge tree trunk that had been dragged all the way across the paddock, and huge rocks that had rolled across it."

Across northern NSW, homes and businesses have been ruined, bridges have been washed away, and roads and water pipes destroyed, leaving authorities facing a massive and costly rebuild.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the area this week, and on Wednesday announced a national emergency. He also committed extra food relief and aid, including additional cash payments of A$2,000 for adults and A$800 for children.

"No amount of support is going to measure up to what people need in a desperate situation like this," he said.

But Mr Morrison, who faces an election due to be held by May, is under pressure over whether he could have acted more quickly and more generously. During his visit, a protester who had lost her home held up a sign saying "SloMo", taking a dig at Mr Morrison's nickname "Scomo".

The disaster has prompted debate about whether communities in flood-prone areas should relocate to safer places, especially as climate change exacerbates flooding.

The head of the federal government's disaster recovery agency, Mr Shane Stone, said residents in risky areas must "face realities".

"Their house falls in the river, and they say it's the government's fault," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "Australians need to have an honest conversation about where and how people build homes."

Labor MP Murray Watt called on the federal government to sack Mr Stone, saying that it was unfair to blame flood victims and that authorities should have built better flood-mitigation infrastructure.

But insurance firms, which face massive payouts, backed calls for changes to planning and building laws to ensure homes and communities could cope with further extreme weather events.

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