Hundreds of thousands more people in New South Wales have been forced to flee their homes as intense rain brings fresh flooding threats – and a warning the worst is yet to come.
Residents in western Sydney who endured floods in the Hawkesbury-Nepean region in March last year were told to leave on Wednesday night after around 600 gigalitres of water flowed over the Warragamba Dam wall.
Further north, southeast Queenslanders are bracing for possible thunderstorms with the potential for giant hail and intense rain.
A trough is predicted to move across the southeast on Thursday and into Friday, and brings with it the potential for flash flooding and renewed river rises.
The Bureau of Meteorology warned that heavy to intense falls, large to giant hail and damaging to destructive winds are possible, with rain developing from Wednesday night.
NSW faces ‘worst fears’
More than 100mm of rain fell in multiple areas near the dam between 9am and 6pm on Wednesday.
“This is our worst fears,” New South Wales Deputy Premier Paul Toole said on Wednesday night.
“It will get worse before it gets better.”
The Redbank dam is likely to fail, flooding homes near North Richmond, while rivers continue to rise.
The SES has about 31 evacuation orders and warnings in place, including the entire footprint of the Hawkesbury-Nepean flood of last year.
“Get out now…We do not want to see those situations where people are on the roofs of their houses waiting to be rescued,” Mr Toole said.
About 130,000 homes are in the path of the overflowing dam, and Mr Toole wanted them to be empty before floodwaters hit.
That was the case in Lismore on the Mid North Coast of NSW, after devastating floods hit there earlier this week.
As the clean-up continues the death toll rises, with four deaths confirmed in the Lismore flood event so far.
Two women in their 80s and a man in his 70s were found dead in their flooded homes, 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.
SES Commissioner Carlene York said residents needed to start preparing to evacuate, with further evacuation orders likely to be issued on Thursday.
“This a very serious situation and the rain has been a lot heavier than we had anticipated … we have seen record levels that we haven’t seen in recorded history,” Ms York said.
High traffic on the SES website has people struggling to access information but Ms York said warnings would continue to be posted on social media and by other emergency services.
Boaters urged to stay off dangerous waterways
Boaters are being urged to stay off waterways until dangerous conditions and extreme weather subside, following heavy rain over Sydney and hazardous surf warnings along almost the entire coast of NSW.
NSW Maritime executive director Mark Hutchings said worsening conditions are expected around the Central Coast, Gosford, Greater Sydney and Wollongong into Thursday, with up to 150mm of rain expected.
Intense rain has already resulted in Warragamba Dam spilling over earlier on Wednesday and continued heavy weather could result in the dam overflowing for the next fortnight.
“Boaters need to be aware being on waterways in severe weather will place yourself, your passengers and anyone who attempts to rescue you in extreme danger,” Mr Hutchings said.
“Submerged debris, strong currents, wild weather, strong winds and big seas are causing treacherous conditions along the coast.
“Flooding is also expected across the Nepean, Hawkesbury, Georges and Colo rivers, which could result in a significant amount of debris floating downstream.
“Heavy rain is expected to continue and waterways are saturated, with the risk of life-threatening flooding and hazardous submerged debris making boating very unsafe.”
Division over dam wall disaster defence
The Warragamba dam began overflowing at 3am on Wednesday.
Deputy Premier Paul Toole said there had been water released from the dam over past days to reduce the amount of water being held.
But with further heavy rainfall there is a “real likely risk of flooding”.
Mr Toole said the floods were “an important message for those who want to stand in the way of building dams and raising dam walls”.
“Stop coming up with excuses and not allowing these dams to be built or raised where they need to be.
“Protecting property and protecting lives should be the number one priority,” the deputy premier said.
Warragamba has been subject to much debate over the past decade about the proposed raising of its dam wall, including concerns that doing so will threaten native wildlife and flood Aboriginal cultural heritage sites and world heritage areas in the Blue Mountains.
Battle not over in Queensland
Very dangerous thunderstorms and destructive winds are a “low probability, high impact scenario,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Wednesday.
“There is some concern about these very dangerous thunderstorms so we are not over this yet, we’re not out of the woods,” she said.
“There’s still some concern out there and if you could just please make sure that you are listening (to warnings).”
Nine people have already died and thousands of homes and businesses have been ruined after a massive trough that dropped more than a metre of rain on many parts of the state’s southeast over three days.
Police are still searching for an elderly man who fell from a boat into the swollen Brisbane River near Breakfast Creek on Saturday afternoon.
In Brisbane, the river has dropped to minor-to-moderate flood levels as 8000 people sign up to the ‘mud army’ to help with the clean-up.
More than 17,500 homes and businesses in Brisbane, Gympie, Ipswich and Logan are believed to have been damaged by the widespread flooding, along with roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Five charged with looting
Also in Queensland, flood-ravaged residents have been dealt another savage blow as thieves strike before many can return to their homes.
Looters have been reported in boats and canoes. Some have even come prepared with trailers to pick through the ruins of people’s lives.
Five people have now been charged as police step up patrols to deter thieves.
Reports of looting have infuriated a community reeling from devastating floods that have so far claimed nine lives and left a trail of devastation expected to cost billions of dollars.
Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll confirmed reports of looting at Bundamba, Goodna and Blackstone, west of Brisbane.
“I cannot overstate how disappointed and disgusted I am that this has occurred in areas where people have had to leave their houses,” Ms Carroll said.
“Through this operation, we will ensure there is a strong police presence in flood-affected areas to protect our community against heartless thieves.
“Our message to anyone thinking about stealing from homes or businesses is that you can expect police to track you down and ensure you are held responsible for your actions.”
Police have launched Operation Uniform Nash in a bid to stop looters.
Around the clock patrols are underway in flood zone areas using water police and aircraft.
Four people were charged overnight including a Rocklea man caught with dozens of wheels and tyres, allegedly taken from outside a business impacted by flooding.
Another three people – two men and a woman – were charged after being nabbed at Woolloongabba.
The trio was caught with camping gear and copper wire allegedly stolen from nearby properties.
Earlier, a 21-year-old man was arrested and charged with burglary while detectives investigate at least two other matters.
Police allege he used a canoe to navigate through floodwater before breaking into the freezer of a Brisbane Road convenience store and stealing several items.
A flooded charity store on Coal Street in Bundamba was also targeted on Monday night, with jewellery and cash stolen.
In Blackstone, one evacuated resident returned to find their property had been broken into, with a door damaged and several items of value stolen.