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Heavy rains pummel Australia's east, bringing worst floods in 50 years

"We were hoping it will only be a 1-in-20-year event. Now it looks like a 1-in-50-year event," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Sunday.
Image: Heavy rain, flash flooding batter Australia's east coast
A still image taken from video shows a flooded area following heavy rains in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, on Saturday.Alex McNaught / Reuters

MELBOURNE, Australia — Heavy rain along Australia's east coast over the weekend have brought the worst flooding in half a century in some areas, authorities said Sunday, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and damaging hundreds of homes.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the downpour across the state, Australia's most populous, with 8 million people, was worse than had been expected, especially in low-lying areas in Sydney's northwest.

"Yesterday, we were hoping it will only be a 1-in-20-year event. Now it looks like a 1-in-50-year event," Berejiklian said in a televised briefing.

People in parts of Sydney's northwest were ordered to flee their homes in the middle of the night as fast-moving water caused widespread destruction. Berejiklian said 4,000 more people mightstill be asked to evacuate.

Television and social media video showed fast-moving water unmooring houses, engulfing roads, breaking trees and damaging road infrastructure. Emergency services estimated the number of damaged houses to be "in the hundreds."

Several major roads were closed across the state, and many schools called off classes for Monday.

The flooding comes in stark contrast with the devastating bush fires that struck Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, when nearly 7 percent of NSW land was scorched.

Flooding risk and evacuation warnings were in place for about 13 areas in NSW, including the Hunter, one of Australia's major wine regions.

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Several dams, including Warragamba, Sydney's main water supply, spilled over, causing river levels to surge.

Meteorologists said the downpour was set to continue for the rest of Sunday, with some areas expected to get up to 8 inches of rain.

Emergency crews have responded to about 6,000 calls for help since the start of the rains Thursday, including nearly 700 direct pleas for rescue from floods.

The extreme weather has also affected Australia's Covid-19 vaccine delivery to across NSW, disrupting the country's plans to deliver the first doses to almost 6 million people over the next few weeks.

"We have to wait and see what happens with the weather in the coming days," Australia's acting chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, said in a televised briefing.