MELBOURNE – Heavy rains along Australia’s east coast over the weekend caused the worst flooding in some areas in half a century, authorities said on Sunday, forcing thousands to evacuate and damage hundreds of homes.
New South Wales Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said the downpour was worse than originally expected across Australia’s 8 million state, particularly in lower-lying areas of northwest Sydney.
“Yesterday we were hoping it would only be a one in 20 year event, now it looks like a one in 50 year event,” said Berejiklian at a television briefing.
People in parts of northwest Sydney were ordered to flee their homes in the middle of the night as fast moving waters caused widespread destruction. Berejiklian said another 4,000 people could still be called to evacuate.
Television and social media footage showed rapidly flowing water pinning houses, engulfing streets, breaking trees and damaging road infrastructure. Emergency services estimate the total number of damaged houses to be “hundreds”.
Several major roads across the state have been closed while many schools suspended classes for Monday.
The floods are in stark contrast to the devastating bush fires that struck Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, when nearly 7 percent of NSW land was scorched.
Flood risk and evacuation warnings were in place for approximately 13 areas in NSW, including the Hunter, one of Australia’s major wine regions.
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Several dams, including Warragamba, Sydney’s main water supply, were flooded, causing the river level to rise.
Weather forecasters said the downpour will continue for the remainder of Sunday, with some areas expected to receive up to 8 inches of rain.
The emergency services have responded to around 6,000 calls for help since the rain began on Thursday, including almost 700 direct requests for rescue from floods.
The extreme weather has also impacted delivery of Covid-19 vaccines across NSW, Australia, disrupting the country’s plans to deliver the first doses to nearly 6 million people in the next few weeks.
“We have to wait and see what happens to the weather in the coming days,” said Australian Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd at a television briefing.