Australia can’t catch a break. Parts of the country are facing floods this week that officials said are a 1-in-100 year event. They come barely a year after the same areas were gripped by devastating wildfires.
The downpours began on Thursday but intensified on Saturday and Sunday. As a result, more than 18,000 people evacuated their homes over the weekend in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state. The rain has isolated dozens of towns along the east coast, and authorities say up to 54,000 people could be affected as rains continue into the first part of this week. More than 40 flood warnings and 20 evacuation orders have been issued in the state.
Worst Flooding in Decades
The floods began thanks to a convergence of two weather systems from opposite sides of the country. Moisture streams from off the coast of Western Australia and New South Wales have unleashed a torrent of rain that’s been concentrated along the coast and areas immediately inland. Agata Imielska, a senior climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology told Yahoo News Australia that it was a “very significant, record-breaking event.”
Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, said in a press conference Sunday that the mid-north coast of the state was facing a once-in-a-century event and other areas were facing a “one-in-50-year event,” including areas near Sydney, one of the country’s largest cities. For areas that have been hammered, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service tweeted that they “resemble an inland sea.”
Damage in Sydney
The State Emergency Service reported that it had received nearly 7,400 calls for help as of Sunday evening, including 1,940 in the past 24 hours alone. Those calls for help are expected to continue, and rescue operations continued gearing up Monday in Sydney after rain made rivers swell and overflow their banks.
The rainfall has been so heavy that officials said Warragamba Dam, the main source of water for the city, is spilling over for the first time in years. Among the reports of damage from the Sydney suburbs include a young couple who said that their three-bedroom house was swept away by flash floods on Saturday, the day they were supposed to be married.
“I’ve been a flood forecaster with the bureau for 20 years and this is probably the worst flooding that I’ve experienced,” Bureau of Meteorology national flood services manager Justin Robinson told the AP.
It’s Not Over
The setup up steering so much rain into New South Wales is getting a fresh blast of moisture from the north, ensuring heavy rains continue. What’s worse, the area of rainfall is expanding and areas previously spared from the worst of the wild weather will now be in the target. The Bureau of Meteorology is calling for inland locations to receive up to a month of rain over the next 48 hours.
The agency is warning residents living in these inland parts of New South Wales that shifting rainfall patterns could create “life-threatening” conditions. Areas along the border with Queensland to the north will also see up to 7.9 inches (200 millimetres) of rainfall, and the agency has issued rainfall warnings for that state as well as the state of Victoria.
And, because, again, Australia can’t catch a break, there are spiders. The Guardian reported that residents of New South Wales have spotted droves of spiders and other insects fleeing en masse from the rising floodwaters. In some slightly better news than huge swarms of spiders, the rain has also ground coal exports in the region to a halt.
Last Year’s Bushfires and This Year’s Floods
Residents who lived through last year’s bushfires are now being forced to contend with the heavy rain. The extreme weather whiplash is raising the risk of heavy floods and debris flows in burn scars, similar to what we saw in California earlier this year.
In addition, people who fled flames are now fleeing a new menace. In some cases, homes and land that sustained damage from the fires have now been destroyed by the floods.
“We worked our butts off saving the place during the 2019 bushfires and we’ve been through the drought and now this, it’s just a bit of a kick in the guts,” Rob Costigan, a homeowner who saved his house from fire only for the floods to wash it away, told Yahoo News Australia.
Costigan said his father-in-law’s home was swept away in the floodwaters and ended up wrapped around a telephone pole.
Climate Change’s Role
While it may seem confusing that a portion of the world that faced some of its worst wildfires on record last year is now facing a torrent of water, climate change is likely playing a role in both of these back-to-back disasters. An analysis released last year showed how climate change had increased the odds of extreme fire weather that fuelled the bushfires. Though it’s harder to map climate change’s specific influence on individual heavy rain events like this one, experts agree that rainfall events are getting wetter and more frequent as the world warms.