Millions of Australians are bracing for another day of wild weather amid fears more people will be found dead after the catastrophic floods in Queensland and northern New South Wales.
Interstate emergency service volunteers are on their way to northern NSW, while Sydney braces for torrential rain that could lead to more inundation.
The surface trough that developed into a low pressure system has already delivered hundreds of millimetres of torrential rain that has flooded southeast Queensland and northern NSW in recent days.
The slow-moving system has arrived in Sydney, where flash flooding and dangerous weather conditions are expected all the way from south of Newcastle in the Hunter to north of Eden on the South Coast, impacting as far inland as Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
Near flood-ravaged Lismore, the Ballina hospital had to be evacuated on Tuesday night while 20,000 homes were without power.
“Damage is widespread with crews seeing many trees over powerlines, poles washed away, and electrical assets completely immersed in water,” Essential Energy said.
The full scale and cost of the destruction of the disaster remains unclear as many areas are still inaccessible, with about 600 roads still cut.
Some 22 members of the Victorian State Emergency Service and 12 South Australian SES members and fire service personnel were headed north to assist on Tuesday.
Victoria SES task force leader Justin Navas says boat crews will be working across Grafton, Lismore and Casino in the Northern Rivers to “help out in any way we can”.
Lismore residents are no stranger to floods but the most recent inundation of the town has been worse than expected.
Some 35,000 people have been told to evacuate and many more warned to prepare to leave. Residents are finding refuge in evacuation centres set up around the Northern Rivers region.
One woman in her 80s has been confirmed dead after her body was found in her flooded Lismore home on Tuesday.
Another man who disappeared in floodwaters on Sunday is yet to be found and many more are missing.
Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke said on Tuesday it would be “unrealistic” not to expect fatalities during a “disaster of this magnitude”.
Seventeen councils in northern NSW have been officially declared disaster zones.
The clean up has begun in Queensland, where Mud Army volunteers are rolling up their sleeves to help.
The Bureau of Meteorology has warned, however, that more “severe weather” is set to return, disrupting the region’s recovery.
“We are looking at a return for showers and storms late Wednesday into Thursday and Friday,” BOM’s Jonathon How said.
“We could see localised heavy falls of 50mm to 100mm each day as well as damaging winds and small to large hail.
“So very much the message to those people in south-east Queensland – the danger isn’t over just yet.”
Billions of damage
The damage bill is estimated to run into billions of dollars, and insurers have already received 31,000 claims across southeast Queensland and northern NSW.
Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner urged people to enlist for the Mud Army 2.0 to help clean up in the state capital, where there is a major flood after 795 millimetres of rain fell in just three days.
With more than 15,000 homes and businesses damaged, many Brisbanites are keen to pitch in again like they did with the first Mud Army after floods 11 years ago.
“I have revived the renowned Mud Army from the 2011 flood so we can co-ordinate the clean-up together and ensure people don’t get left behind,” Cr Schrinner said.
“If you helped out in 2011 or have just heard the stories about the heroic efforts of hundreds of Brisbane locals I am urging everyone willing and able to sign up to get involved.”
The Salvation Army and Foodbank Queensland are also appealing for donations to their flood appeals in support of affected communities on the east coast.
More financial support is on the way with the state government announcing hardship grants on top of the Commonwealth’s relief payment, with $180 per person and up to $900 for a family of five or more on offer for flood-hit residents in Brisbane, Logan and Noosa regions.
RACQ said it was ramping up its response after receiving more than 6000 insurance claims.
Snakes and virus in floodwaters
Public health experts and the state government have warned Queenslanders to stay away from flood waters during the clean-up.
Epidemiologist Hilary Bambrick said everything from infectious diseases to snakes could potentially lurk in flooded areas.
“Flood water is unpredictable and also contaminated,” she told AAP.
“There’s the potential of biochemical contamination, the debris and potentially snakes – people definitely shouldn’t be jumping in the water for a swim.”
Queenslanders have also been urged to take precautions with mosquito-borne illnesses set to thrive in standing water.
The state government said Ross River Virus and malaria could be spread by mosquito bite but warned Japanese encephalitis virus had also been detected recently in the region, which can cause fever, headaches, rashes and convulsions.
“Using insect repellent, wearing loose clothes to cover arms and legs and wearing closed-in shoes can significantly increase protection against mosquito bites,” chief health officer John Gerrard said.
Queensland still at risk – and looters are striking
The Port of Brisbane is still closed but most schools are reopening on Wednesday with about 80 to remain shut, down from 550 the day before.
In Gympie, north of Brisbane, flood water filled the Bank of Queensland branch to the ceiling as the Mary River peaked at 23 metres on Monday.
Neighbouring businesses on the town’s main street also went under with water receding enough on Tuesday for owners and staff to inspect the damage.
“It’s going to be a complete rebuild at this stage,” BOQ manager Jellina White told AAP on Tuesday.
“Even though it’s a bomb site, at least we sort of can get in and feel like we’re actually doing something at the moment.
“We put everything up as high as we can and then for it to go to 23 (metres)… pretty much just everything went underwater.”
On the Fraser Coast, Maryborough is cleaning up after the Mary River peaked at 10.3 metres, one metre below the flood levee, on Monday night.
It was the city’s second major flood in two months, but this time the CBD stayed dry after it was inundated in January when an underground stormwater valve failed, sending water up through drains.
Local MP Bruce Saunders said there was an “eeriness” as residents waited for the river to rise, but volunteers were already out cleaning up during the “resilience phase” on Tuesday.
“The community spirit here, to get the city back up on its feet, is second to none,” Mr Saunders told AAP.
In Ipswich, more than 150 residents remain stranded in low-lying pockets of Goodna as the flood waters slowly recede.
Councillor Paul Tully said some people remain trapped without electricity or food with boats the only way in or out.
He said reports of looting have also infuriated Goodna residents who were forced to evacuate.
“Sadly we have had looters. They’ve broken into cars and people’s homes before people even get a chance to look at the damage,” Cr Tully told AAP.
Kate Smolders, who evacuated her flooding Chelmer home with her two children on Sunday, said the west Brisbane locals were looking after those affected.
“People are checking in on each other, making sure they are safe and out of their homes, they are really rallying around each other,” she told AAP.