Sydney flooding: communities evacuated and residents rescued as torrential rain batters region

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Thousands of people in low-lying areas around Sydney are being asked to evacuate as residents and holiday-makers face “dangers on multiple fronts” in the region’s third major flooding event since March.

Emergency services minister Steph Cooke warned affected communities between Newcastle and Batemans Bay needed to be prepared to evacuate “at short notice” and should reconsider travel plans as an east coast low set in.

“For Sydney, the Central Coast … the South Coast and and the Illawarra, we are now facing dangers on multiple fronts - flash flooding, riverine flooding and coastal erosion,” Cooke told reporters in Sydney on Sunday morning.

“Please don’t be caught unaware … this is a life-threatening emergency situation.”

“If you know your local community is prone to flooding then please be prepared to evacuate and at short notice … stay home if you can.”

In the past 24 hours, the NSW State Emergency Service has responded to more than 1,400 requests for assistance and conducted 29 flood rescues as torrential rain continues to lash large parts of the state.

The Hawkesbury-Nepean river reached major flood levels earlier than expected at 10.15 Saturday evening, while the Warragamba Dam spilled “well ahead” of predictions at 2am Sunday.

It may reach 12.2 metres on Monday, with major flooding similar to March 2022 levels expected at Windsor and North Richmond.

Warragamba is currently releasing water at the rate of more than 400 gigalitres a day, and rising. That’s about the peak rate during the March 2022 floods, and not far shy of the maximum rate during the March 2021 floods.

Major flooding is continuing at the Nepean and Upper Nepean River at Menangle, where river levels have exceeded the March 2022 height, peaking at 16.61 metres on Sunday morning.

The SES overnight issued emergency alert text messages to communities along Hawkesbury-Nepean catchments in preparation for potential evacuations overnight and over the coming days.

The prospect of rain easing in coming days had also been dashed by the forming of an east coast low, which is expected to linger until Tuesday bringing “even more torrential rain, strong, damaging winds and coastal erosion”.

The low is directing humid air and heavy rain across the state’s central east, likely to persist through Monday as it approaches the coast bringing possible flash flooding in parts of Sydney, the Illawarra, the Blue Mountains and Hunter region.

Six hourly rainfalls of up to 120mm are possible into Sunday afternoon and evening, while damaging winds with peak guests in excess of 90 km/hr are likely along the coastal fringe of the state.

With the heavy rainfall comes increased likelihood of landslides and toppling trees.

Cooke said the Bureau was continuing to update and issue evacuation orders but residents shouldn’t “necessarily wait” for an order to be issued before leaving early.

“If you are feeling uncomfortable or unsure about your circumstances… take the opportunity, if you can, to leave,” she said.

“We are expecting the worst of this weather system to hit over the next 24 hours … while I absolutely accept that it couldn’t come at a worse time for a lot of people and a lot of families, at the end of the day we want everyone to be safe.”

Related: Australia news live: thousands urged to evacuate in Sydney amid deluge, Victorian Labor MP dies

The areas receiving alerts overnight were: Menangle, Liverpool, Milperra, Camden, North Richmond, Wallacia, Penrith, Sackville, Upper Colo and Windsor. Parts of Camden and Wallacia received evacuation orders on Sunday morning, with more expected.

Large parts of the coast recorded 24 hour rainfall in excess of 200mm, with parts of the Illawarra experiencing close to 350mm of rain.

Rain totals in the 24 hours to 9am Sunday AEST reached 93mm for Sydney’s Observatory Hill, while Camden in the city’s south-west reached 156mm.

Brogers Creek recorded 368mm of rainfall and a building at Corrimal sustained roof damage and partially collapsed on Saturday night.

Warragamba Dam, the city’s main reservoir, started spilling at about 2am Sunday, local time, when it exceeded full capacity earlier than expected. Two days ago it was already about 97% full and did not need much inflow to spill into the Hawkesbury-Nepean River.

Jane Golding from the Bureau of Meteorology said the coastal trough that had been lingering since Friday had deepened, producing “extraordinary rainfall” that would lead to likely flash flooding, high winds, damaging surf and possible coastal erosion.

Wave heights greater than five metres were possible with a gale wind warning in place for Sydney coast, the Hunter coast and Illawarra coast.

“The east coast low is … forecast to continue to develop and track slowly southwards and closer to the Hunter coast and to the Sydney coast over the next 24 hours,” Golding said.

“What that means is widespread rainfall continuing.”

Authorities were witnessing outflows from Warragamba at the rate of more than 240 gigalitres a day early on Sunday, and warned they may approach the 400 GL/day rate reached during the peak of the March 2021 spill. In March 2020, they peaked above 500GL/day.

“Inflow to the dam [is] occurring at a rate of 380 GL/day,” WaterNSW said in a statement. “These figures will continue to rise.”

“Access to the dam precinct is closed due to the risk associated with flood operations,” it said.

Riverine flooding continues between Newcastle and Batemans Bay.

Carlene York from NSW SES said the Australian Defence Force would be called on to assist with sandbagging and urged the community to be “really aware” of the risks leaving the home in rainfall after more than two dozen flood rescues in 24 hours.

“We had one example where a person was walking through floodwaters and got swept away and … and were unable to be rescued for an hour and hanging onto a pole,” she said.

“It is extremely dangerous out there … we will always try and do evacuation warnings before evacuation orders, but we have seen overnight, where the rivers rise … that we have to go straight to an evacuation order.”

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