Australians hit by devastating floodwaters began returning to their homes on Thursday as skies cleared and authorities accelerated clean-up efforts, though fresh evacuation orders were issued in some areas where water levels were still rising.
Relentless rains for five straight days – the worst downpour in more than half a century – burst river banks, inundating homes, roads, bridges and farms and cutting off entire towns in Australia’s east. More than 40,000 people were forced to move to safe zones and two men were killed after their cars became trapped in floodwaters.
Water continued to flow from overloaded dams and rivers on Thursday, particularly in New South Wales state, leading authorities to urge caution.
“Even though the sun is now shining, the danger has not passed,” the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said in a statement.
Rising floodwaters from the Mehi river split Moree, a regional town 650 kilometres (404 miles) northwest of Sydney, into two, emergency services said.
Moree resident Jaimee Maunder said the main road into the town had been cut, and that she had not been able to leave her home since the flooding intensified on Tuesday.
“We got some supplies before the floods hit,” Maunder told Reuters, adding that people in lower-lying areas had been evacuated to emergency facilities in the town. “You can’t drive through it, not when it’s flooding.”
The damage is more limited in the flat agricultural plains around Moree, where the drenching is expected to prime farmland ahead of the planting window next month for wheat, the country’s most important crop.
Major flooding also continues in Sydney’s western suburbs of North Richmond and Windsor, while fresh evacuation orders were issued for some areas in the centre of the state.
Still, there were some signs of relief as rescue teams, including defence force personnel, took advantage of eased conditions in several areas to clear debris and deliver supplies.
“The best advice I’ve received this morning is that most of the river systems we believe have peaked,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said during a televised news briefing.
“And now we are considering … which communities are able to return back in the next few days, and we just ask for everybody’s patience.”
Around 40% of Australia’s population of 25 million was affected by the severe weather system that stretched across an area the size of Alaska in recent days, touching every mainland state or territory but one.
Several evacuation orders have been lifted, but there were still around 20,000 people waiting in rescue centres, Berejiklian said.
Images of the devastation have included rescues of families by boat, stranded cattle and submerged houses.
Fridges, lounges, pillows and even a spa bath washed away in the floods were spotted on the beaches, footage on social media showed, as muddy waters from the Hawkesbury river, a major waterway north of Sydney, reached the Tasman Sea.
The Insurance Council of Australia, the main industry body, said about 17,000 damages claims worth about A$254.2 million ($193.32 million) had been lodged by Wednesday morning.