Australia Is Experiencing Some of the Worst Flooding in Its History

The freak weather event, which has claimed at least 20 lives so far, has been called “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.”
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
Australia historic flooding
An aerial view of flooded buildings in the northern New South Wales city of Lismore on Feb. 28. Photo: Bradley RICHARDSON / Australian Defence Force / AFP

At least 20 people have died, 20,000 homes flooded and more than 60,000 people placed under evacuation warnings as Australia continues to be swamped by some of the worst floods in the country’s history.

A record-breaking “rain bomb” has devastated communities down Australia’s east coast over the past fortnight, as torrential downpours sweep south from Queensland down through New South Wales, triggering flash floods that have submerged houses, destroyed businesses and left throngs of people homeless. 

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On Tuesday, two bodies, believed to be that of a 67-year-old woman and her adult son, were discovered in a storm water drain in flood-ravaged western Sydney, taking the official death toll to 20. At least five people have died in NSW’s Northern Rivers region, while across the border in Queensland at least 13 people have lost their lives. 

Flood waters in Lismore, a city in NSW about 45 kilometres inland from Byron Bay, rose to more than 14 metres last week, turning the streets into canals and forcing residents onto their rooftops to await rescue by boat. 

Emergency services expect that number to rise as rescue crews carry out recovery efforts and swaths of the country continue to be battered by what Stephanie Cooke, the NSW minister for emergency services, has described as “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.”

The disaster engulfed the suburbs around Sydney’s northern beaches on Tuesday, prompting an evacuation order for 2,000 people as Manly Dam reached capacity and spilled its banks. Footage of flooded arterial roads and semi-submerged cars spread across social media as the Northern Beaches region was all but cut off from the rest of the city by an insurmountable moat. 

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In the 24 hours from Monday night to Tuesday night, the NSW State Emergency Service received 3,000 calls for help and performed 150 flood rescues.

Residents of flood-affected areas have condemned state and federal governments for what they perceive as a lack of support, claiming most of the rescue and recovery efforts—including delivering food, water and medical supplies, as well as saving vulnerable people from rising floodwaters—have fallen on them. Many have criticised Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel deployed to the disaster zones for not doing enough, saying soldiers are capitalising on the chaos for photo opportunities.

In one video widely shared on social media, 10 ADF officers can be seen filming themselves unloading a trailer before dumping its contents out of shot by the side of the road.

In the wake of this criticism, the number of troops on the ground is expected to grow to 5,000 by the end of the week. Those troops ​​will spend the next few days helping clear roads and fixing telecommunication networks, and will use helicopters to drop critical supplies to cut-off communities, according to the Australian Associated Press.

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Others have derided Australian government officials for describing the event as “one-in-1,000-year floods”—especially in light of an apocalyptically dire report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) late last month. 

That report, which forecasted an increased likelihood of extreme weather events, said that what is currently considered a “one-in-100-year flood event” could begin to happen “several times a year.” The findings were described by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres as an “atlas of human suffering” and “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

“This abdication of leadership is criminal,” Guterres said. “The world's biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.”

Australia has the highest emissions per capita and per unit of GDP among developed nations. Its government is also infamous for dragging its heels on climate policy, displaying a lack of environmental leadership and in many cases remaining silent about addressing climate change—even as the nation has been wracked by historic droughts, fires and floods in recent years.

“Australia is consistently ranked dead last based on our weak climate performance,” Will Steffen, a climate scientist at the Climate Council, told the ABC last week. “This government's failings on this critical issue will go down as the defining policy and leadership failure of the past decade.”

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