Historic floods are sweeping Australia’s eastern state of New South Wales, forcing dams to spill over, rivers to burst their banks and thousands of people to evacuate.
In parts of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury-Nepean River system the flooding has reached levels not seen since 1961, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, and in the time since the heavy downpours began on Saturday some 450 gigalitres of water—almost as much as is contained in Sydney Harbour—has been released from the Warragamba Dam each day.
Houses are threatened by flood waters in Penrith after the Nepean River burst its banks, peaking at 10 meters overnight on March 22, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
Authorities have declared the extreme weather event, which is expected to continue over the coming days, a natural disaster. More than 1,000 people have been rescued and more than 18,000 have been evacuated, according to the ABC—some 15,000 of whom were from the state’s mid-north coast.
Many of those areas currently being inundated by the record-breaking floods were battling some of the most devastating bushfires Australia had ever seen just over a year ago. Swaths of bushland and grazing country that were scorched black by the blazes are now underwater, rendered swampland by the ongoing downpours.
People ride their bicycles through a flooded park on the banks of the Nepean river in Penrith suburb on March 21, 2021, as Sydney braced for its worst flooding in decades after record rainfall caused its largest dam to overflow and as deluges prompted mandatory mass evacuation orders along Australia’s east coast.
“Most of the low-lying areas, we saw water, it was like an inland sea,” Matt Morris, a resident of Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast, told the ABC. “All that area that it came back down through had been hit by the fires at the beginning of the year.”
Some areas around Port Macquarie have seen almost 900 millimeters of rain in the past six days.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian meanwhile described the floods as a “one-in-100-year event”, and noted that the state was experiencing a “deep-seated, extreme weather event”.
Windsor resident Kelly Miller shows concern as flood waters reach her workplace, a 100-year-old property, on March 22, 2021. Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
“Some communities that were battered by the bushfires are now being battered by the floods and deep drought prior to that,” Berejiklian told the media on Monday. “I don’t know any time in our state’s history where we have had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession in the middle of a pandemic.”
Surreal scenes from the frontlines of the disaster zones emerged over the weekend as the floods continued to escalate—including cows washing up in people’s backyards, a family’s house that was overrun by an infestation of spiders and a three-bedroom cottage that was filmed floating downstream, carried away by the torrents.
“It literally floated like a houseboat, the whole house, fully intact,” Peter Bowie, the owner of the property, told the ABC. “It went so fast. It went nearly a kilometer all intact, 100 percent. This house just lifted up and floated down the river.”
The Insurance Council of Australia declared a catastrophe for large parts of NSW on Monday, revealing that it received more than 5,000 damage claims over the past few days as a result of widespread storms and floods. Claims from affected people and businesses will be fast tracked as a result.
Berejiklian announced that she has had conversations with the Prime Minister about getting assistance from the Australian Defense Force for flood clean up across NSW.
“It is an evolving situation, if we need their support we will ask for it,” she said. “My suspicion is we will, given the extent of the recovery.”