Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate their homes by Tuesday and hundreds of thousands more were told to prepare to flee as parts of Australia’s south-east coast were inundated by the worst flooding in more than a decade.
The death toll rose to 10 after a woman in her 80s was found dead inside a flooded property, police said.
Military helicopters flew stranded people from the rooftops of flooded neighbourhoods in eastern Australia to safety as the wild weather moved slowly south towards Sydney.
“This rather significant weather system … we will see it come into the central coast of Sydney and we are already experiencing elements of that right now,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a media briefing.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said 1,000 rescues had been carried out in the state by Tuesday in response to the more than 6,000 calls for authorities to help.
Scores of residents, some with pets, spent hours trapped on their roofs by a fast-rising river in the town of Lismore in the state’s north.
The body of a woman in her 80s was found by a neighbour in her Lismore home on Tuesday, police said.
Dozens of cars were trapped on a bridge in the nearby town of Woodburn overnight on Monday, with both the bridge’s approaches submerged. Up to 50 people were rescued from the bridge early on Tuesday, officials said.
“We had no capabilities to get them off in the dark so we just had to make sure that they bunkered down and we went in this morning and got them all out,” Woodburn State Emergency Services Commander Ashley Slapp said.
The floodwaters were moving south into New South Wales from Queensland in the worst disaster in the region since what was described as a once-in-a-century event in 2011.
Mr Perrottet said 40,000 people had been ordered to leave, while 300,000 others had been placed under evacuation warnings.
Government meteorologist Jonathan Howe described the recent rainfall in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland as “astronomical.”
Nine of the 10 deaths reported were in Queensland. A 76-year-old man who disappeared with his vehicle in floodwater north-west of Brisbane on Sunday has since been confirmed dead.
Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll said another man in his 70s remained missing after falling from his moored yacht in the state capital of Brisbane into a swollen river.
The clean-up was under way in Brisbane, Australia’s third most populous city, despite more storms forecast for later in the week. Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner urged people to register for the “Mud Army”, as the thousands of volunteers who mobilised to help out after the 2011 floods were nicknamed.
Thousands of homes in Brisbane have been inundated, many by swollen creeks in suburbs such as Ashgrove, from where Kelvin Barfoot had to flee with members of his family, including his 99-year-old mother-in-law, Mina Baker, in a rescue boat.
The family moved back into the top floor of their two-storey home and started removing damaged furniture and electrical appliances that had been submerged by almost 1.5 metres of water.
“We thought we were pretty well prepared for it,” said Mr Barfoot, who leads a volunteer bush care group which has tallied more than 4,000 hours of planting and weeding along Enoggera Creek over the past six years. “Just unbelievable. When it did start coming in, it went up very quick.”
He said his daughter and her husband swam to the house to help with the rescue after notifying emergency services that her grandmother — who moved to Australia from Christchurch, New Zealand, after earthquakes in 2011 killed 185 people — needed to get out.
“We were pretty much stuck upstairs at that point,” Mr Barfoot said. “That was quite traumatic for my mother-in-law — we got her out [of New Zealand] after the earthquakes, so it was all a bit reminiscent of that for her.
“Now she’s back home. She wanted to come home. She was a bit traumatised, but she’s tough. She came down and asked me if there was anything to do to help!”
Mr Schrinner said the six-day rainfall in central Brisbane — 792.8 millimetres by Monday morning — was significantly higher than the previous record of 655.8mm set when flooding devastated the city in 1974.
Rick Threlfall and Steve Hadley, meteorologists who moved from England to Australia and have been living in Newmarket, Brisbane, for almost a decade, were in the process of sandbagging the ground floor of their home but could not finish in time to beat the rapidly rising flood.
“Back in the UK, we do weather warnings for 20mm of rain,” Mr Threlfall said. “My weather gauge here has recorded 950mm in three days. Brisbane’s average is about 1,200mm for the year, so we’ve pretty much had 80 per cent of annual rainfall in three days.
“No real escaping the water, I guess.”
The extraordinary rainfall comes as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this week that vast swathes of Australia have already lost 20 per cent of annual rainfall and the country’s fire risk has gone beyond worst-case scenarios developed only a few years ago.
Australia’s hottest and driest year on record was 2019, which ended with devastating wildfires across its south-east. The fires directly killed 33 people and another 400 people were killed by the smoke.
More than 3,000 homes were destroyed and 19 million hectares of farmland and forest razed.
But two La Nina weather patterns have since brought above-average rainfall to the same regions.
Lesley Hughes, an Australian academic and lead author of the UN IPCC assessment reports in 2007 and 2015, said climate change was expected to overwhelm government systems such as flood responses.
“We can see that our emergency services are struggling already to cope with the floods in northern New South Wales with people stranded on roofs without food for more than 24 hours,” she said.