Australia’s prime minister has said he will declare a national emergency following floods across large swathes of the east coast that have claimed 22 lives.
Scott Morrison made the announcement during a visit to flood-devastated Lismore in northern New South Wales state, where four people died last week.
He said the national emergency declaration will “ensure all our emergency powers are available and that we cut through any red tape we might face in delivering services and support on the ground”.
It is the first such declaration since a law was passed in December 2020 in response to catastrophic wildfires during the previous Southern Hemisphere summer.
Extraordinarily heavy rains have created the current emergency in New South Wales and Queensland states, where some of the flooded communities were battling fires two years ago.
The declaration means flood victims will not have to provide identification documents to receive support payments and in some circumstances the federal government can act independently in areas where the state governments have not requested help.
Floodwaters peaked in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland and Australia's third-most populous city, on February 28th after it was inundated by 80 per cent of its usual annual rainfall in three days.
More than 20,000 homes and businesses were flooded in south-east Queensland and 13 people died.
Sydney, the capital of New South Wales and Australia's biggest city with a population of five million, has endured the wettest start to a year ever recorded.
Parts of the city 730km south of Brisbane were flooded after receiving almost 75 per cent of its average annual rainfall since January 1st.
The worst-hit communities were in the Lismore, Clarence Valley and Richmond Valley local government areas of northern New South Wales. Some communities endured the highest floods ever recorded in their locations.
“This is a major catastrophe... of national proportions,” Mr Morrison said in Lismore.
The number of military personnel helping in the flood recovery in northern New South Wales was to increase by 700 to 2,500 on Wednesday.
Many victims are angry that authorities did not come to their rescue earlier. Many people were rescued from flooded homes by neighbours.
If community members had not stepped up, “we would have been seeing a death toll in the hundreds of people”, opposition emergency management spokesman Murray Watt told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“While people are grateful for the assistance they’ve had from the army, there’s just nowhere near enough of it,” he added.
While rain has eased in recent days, 40,000 people around New South Wales had been ordered to evacuate, including from dozens of Sydney suburbs.
New South Wales’ death toll increased to nine on Wednesday with police announcing that the body of a 50-year-old truck driver had been found in floodwater on the outskirts of Sydney.
Northern Beaches Mayor Michael Regan said that part of Sydney had been hit with sudden flash-flooding and multiple landslips on Tuesday, with debris still blocking many roads on Wednesday.
“Yesterday was bizarre. It was intense. It was biblical,” he told Nine Network television.
Sydney Trains warned of significant disruption and delays and advised commuters to avoid non-essential travel and to work from home if possible. – AP