Less than 18 months after the “Black Summer” bushfire crisis that made global headlines last southern summer, Australia’s east coast is dealing with torrential rain and flooding described as a “once-in-100-year” event — with many of the affected communities the very same ones still recovering from the one-two punch of the fires and the pandemic.
A clashing combination of three separate weather systems brought a downpour to a huge area from March 18 onward, spanning the most populous state of New South Wales, Queensland to its north, Victoria to its south, and the Australian Capital Territory inland to Sydney’s southwest. At certain points the national Bureau of Meteorology had issued official severe weather warnings across an area roughly the size of Alaska, affecting over 10 million people. Sydney’s main water supply, the Warragamba Dam, had its first major overspill in more than 30 years, with 500 gigalitres per day at the spill’s peak — enough to fill Sydney Harbour itself — flowing out over the dam wall and into the city’s bursting rivers.
Several areas in New South Wales that endured severe fires last year, including outer Sydney’s Hawkesbury region, the Southern Highlands south of Sydney, and Port Macquarie on the northern coast, were facing evacuation warnings or orders over the course of the weekend, Monday, and Tuesday.
Even in less severely-affected areas like metropolitan Sydney, local parks and ovals were flooded, with photographers capturing local kids in wetsuits taking to sports fields with their boards.
While there have been no deaths so far — which NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian deemed “a miracle” — the floodwaters have required 18,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, closed schools, forced supermarkets in blocked-off communities to airlift in supplies, and will take days or even weeks to subside so that the damage to property and livestock can be assessed.
Australia has had its wettest summer in nearly half a decade due to the La Niña event, meaning the week’s massive downpour was falling on more saturated ground that can only absorb so much. And while it’s difficult to say decisively that the severity of the current situation is a direct result of a warming climate, scientists say exacerbating factors including warmer air (which can hold more moisture) and an overall increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events are likely to contribute.