A boat navigates the swollen Hawkesbury River during a flood event northwest of Sydney, Australia. Reuters
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 northwest of Sydney, into two, emergency services said.
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.
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“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.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Parliament that 35 communities in northern New South Wales had been isolated and emergency services had conducted more than 700 flood rescues.
A man swept away by floodwaters in the city's northwest was rescued by emergency crews, media reported, while television footage showed vehicles struggling to cross waterlogged streets, fallen power lines and trees, and debris floating in rivers.
At least nine people have died and more than a thousand people have been rescued. Authorities have warned that more fatalities are likely. The latest victim was a woman in her 80s, whose body was found by police inside a home in the country town of Lismore.
Several towns across northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland were still battling to clear tonnes of debris after devastating floods earlier in March killed at least 21 people and swept away hundreds of farms, houses and livestock.
The governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaya, published a picture of the green liquid that spread through the water near the arched Rialto Bridge, through his account on Twitter, explaining that residents reported the presence of this strange liquid, expressing their fears.
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