About 500,000 people in NSW are subject to evacuation orders or warnings as the epicentre of the flood crisis moves south with Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast to be battered with intense rain.
Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke said greater Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast all faced “treacherous weather conditions”, with the next 24 hours critical.
The Bureau of Meteorology said rainfall levels could hit a peak of 250 millimetres on Thursday, as it warned of life-threatening flash flooding and damaging winds with peak gusts in excess of 90km/h.
The South Coast is also subject to a minor flood warning for the Shoalhaven and Sussex Inlet.
Major flooding is expected along the Hawkesbury and Nepean and Georges rivers, at Menangle, North Richmond, Penrith and Windsor on Thursday.
Premier Dominic Perrottet said 500,000 people across NSW were subject to evacuation orders or warnings. A combined 94 orders and warnings were issued overnight.
The State Emergency Service has issued 76 evacuation orders affecting 200,000 people and 18 evacuation warnings have been sent to nearly 300,000 people.
“If you are subject to one of those evacuation warnings, please get ready … If you are subject to one of those evacuation orders, please get out,” Mr Perrottet said on Thursday.
“Those instructions are not there for the sake of it, they are there to keep you and your family safe.
“We do believe that things will get worse before they get better here in our state,” he said.
“But my message to you is that we will get through this.”
Tens of thousands of people living in Sydney’s west, north-west and south-western suburbs – including Windsor, North Richmond, Camden and Milperra – have been ordered to flee to safety. Evacuation centres have been set up in suburbs such as Canley Vale and Blacktown.
SES assistant Commissioner Sean Keans said a looming east coast low off Newcastle would bring heavy rain to the Hunter, the Central Coast and Sydney, the Illawarra and the South Coast from Thursday morning.
River levels are rising extremely fast due to the sheer volume of rain, with flood levels along the Hawkesbury-Nepean set to be worse than those that hit the area in March 2021, Mr Keans said.
The Nepean River at Penrith will reach nine metres, bringing moderate flooding, the Hawkesbury River at North Richmond will reach 15 metres, bringing major flooding.
At Windsor, the Hawkesbury River will reach 14 metres by Thursday night — two metres above its major flood level.
Residents in western Sydney who endured floods in the Hawkesbury-Nepean region in March last year were told to leave on Wednesday night after about 600 gigalitres of water flowed over the Warragamba Dam wall.
Ms Cooke said that would have a significant impact downstream with about 130,000 homes in the path of the overflowing dam.
The SES has also put out a blanket road weather alert for all Sydney suburbs.
NSW Health said people isolating due to COVID-19 who needed to evacuate their homes must also leave. It advised COVID-positive people at flood evacuation centres to notify staff, wear a mask and physically distance from others.
In Lismore, on the NSW north coast, the clean-up continues as the death toll rises, with four fatalities confirmed in the region’s flood event so far.
The devastated town also faces food shortages, with supermarket shelves empty and petrol shortages. Residents are reporting ATMs have run out of cash.
Mr Perrottet noted that Australian Defence Forces helicopters have been dropping critical food supplies to evacuation centres.
“We’ve got a battle on two fronts. We’re dealing with the immediate response of keeping people safe … through the operation centre and there is a substantial focus on recovery,” he said.
Two women in their 80s and a man in his 70s were found dead in their flooded homes this week, while another man’s body was found floating down a Lismore street.
A fifth man died on the central coast last Friday morning after his car was swept away in floodwaters.