Australia’s east coast braces for more flooding, lasting problem feared

Australia's east coast braces for more flooding, lasting problem feared

Volunteers remove mud in front of a flooded house in Murwillumba, Australia.Image Dan Peled / Getty Images

The heaviest rain fell last weekend. In Brisbane, for example, it fell 739 mm between Thursday and Sunday, nearly three-quarters of the annual average. Sydney, further south, hasn’t had a day without rain in nearly two weeks. At least 17 people were killed in the floods.

Although the worst of the rains seem to be over, the floods are not over yet. And new storms returned, Sunday, over the region, with tens of millimeters of rain again. In Brisbane, the Mud Army, a group of volunteers who cleared the streets after floods, are being sent home for the time being.

The devastation was greatest in the area around Lismore, 200 kilometers south of Brisbane. The villages have no electricity, internet or telephone and have little food, clean water or medical aid.

Lismore has been flooded 29 times since 1870, the worst in 1974. But this year the river was more than two meters above its level that year. It sparks debates about whether the village of about 30,000 is still habitable.


It wasn’t a major flood, it was devastation,” Mayor Steve Craig said. Thousands of residents were displaced, and the entire city center on the Wilson River was severely damaged. Buildings that should have been safe from flooding due to their elevated position, such as the shopping center and cathedral, were also inundated.

Australia’s east coast experiences exceptionally rainy summers, mainly due to the La Niña weather system, which has been active for the second year in a row. Last year, this already resulted in rain that could happen “once in a hundred years”, and this year Prime Minister Dominic Beirut stated that his state of New South Wales was struggling with weather conditions “once in a thousand years”.

But scholars question the usefulness of such statements. The fact that such severe floods occur twice in a row already indicates that “once every hundred years” should be taken with a grain of salt.

Moreover, not only does La Niña increase, but climate change is also increasing flood risks. With each degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold about 7 percent more moisture.

The taxpayer pays

Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted that climate change will lead to more emergencies, “that’s what meteorologists are telling us.” Shane Stone, head of the National Disaster Recovery Agency, said Australians should “have an honest conversation about where and how people build homes. The taxpayer cannot always continue to foot the bill for these massive catastrophic events.”

But Lismore Mayor Craig remains a hawk. He wants regional and national government support to rebuild the city and raise levees along the river. “It doesn’t make sense to take back the city if we don’t take steps to limit the consequences of these floods,” Craig said. ‘If we don’t, the city will die. Quite simply.’

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