Sydney is flooded, again, as climate crisis becomes new normal for Australia's most populous state
(CNN) -- On a fine day, locals arrive on boats that motor up the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales to dine on the back deck of the Paradise Café.
But for the fourth time in 18 months, café owner Darren Osmotherly is rushing to move his equipment to higher ground as floodwater rises across Greater Sydney after days of heavy rain.
"Every six hours to eight hours (we're) trying to have a hot shower and get changed again and try to have a coffee break room or a short sleep in between," said Osmotherly, who says he's barely slept for three days.
When Osmotherly opened the café 15 years ago to give disabled people on houseboats an easy place to moor for lunch, the property in Lower Portland hadn't flooded in 30 years. But this is the fourth flood since last February, and the most recent since March.
"We built it all floodproof to cop a flood every now and then, but to have four floods..." he said.
Flooding in Australia's most populous state has become the new normal, as residents in the Greater Sydney area contend with increasingly erratic seasonal swings.
The area, which is home to 8.12 million people, or around a third of the country's total population, has always experienced some degree of flooding during the early summer months.
But what was previously a once-in-a-generation event has become commonplace, raising questions as to the long term sustainability of flood-prone communities.
More than half a meter of rain (1.6 feet) has drenched parts of eastern New South Wales during the last 48 hours, with spills from numerous dams causing flood warnings across the region.
In western Sydney, the Warragamba Dam -- Australia's largest urban reservoir -- started overflowing at 2 a.m. Sunday, and at its peak 515 gigalitres was flooding over its walls -- the same amount of water held in Sydney Harbour.
A spokesman for the state's water authority says the dam doesn't have a flood mitigation component, so no water was released ahead of the downpour, which came when the state's dam network was already 97% full. He said the dam wasn't to blame for the flooding.
"It's quite an extraordinary weather event. Warragamba does spill into a particular river system for sure, but there are a whole vast areas of Sydney that are flooded that aren't downstream of Warragamba," the spokesman said.
It's a startling turnaround from just 15 years ago when the state decided to build a desalination plant to safeguard Sydney's water supply after years of drought.
But this year the La Nina weather system generated more rainfall, and the Bureau of Meteorology says there's a 50-50 chance of it forming later in 2022 -- twice the normal likelihood. The climate crisis is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of both La Nina and El Nino, which causes drought -- that means, if La Nina does form again this year, there could be yet more rain.
Thousands urged to evacuate
For locals of Greater Sydney, flooding has become a recurring nightmare.
Many are still recovering from the last flood in March, when water swamped many of the same areas, forcing businesses to shutter and rescuers to wade through putrid mud to help trapped residents.
The event caused $4.8 billion in damage, making it the country's third most expensive disaster ever, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.
Hundreds of millimeters of rain fell over the weekend, and there was still more to come, Carlene York, the New South Wales State Emergency Services (SES) Commissioner, warned Monday.
"We're not out of the danger yet in this significant weather event," York said. "I'd remind people please make sensible decisions that keep you and your family safe."
More than 70 evacuation orders were issued for the wider Sydney region Monday, covering more than 30,000 people, and just days into the school holidays when many families would be traveling, millions of others were advised to stay home.
"Please avoid any essential travel. If you do have to travel please expect that you will have delays there's a lot of roads cut... and there's a lot of detours in place," York said.
Jane Golding, from the Bureau of Meteorology, said some areas of Greater Sydney had received more rain than they would for the entire month of July.
"The numbers are comparable to (the rainfall in) March. What is different in this event is that the rain was stacked up over several days, and that increases risk of how rivers respond," she said.
Along with heavy rain, winds of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) an hour have been recorded on land, and gale force warnings are in place off the coast, where there are waves of up to five meters (16 feet).
The dangerous conditions forced authorities to abandon efforts to rescue 21 crew members trapped on a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, the Portland Bay, which was stranded without power off the New South Wales coast. Instead state police said a tug boat was dispatched to tow the ship further out to sea, where the Australian Maritime Safety Authority would attempt to restore its power.
Australia's climate crisis
With the election of the federal Labor government in May, Australia is attempting to chart a new course in response to the climate crisis. And on recent trips abroad to meet world leaders, Primer Minister Anthony Albanese has been at pains to stress the country now takes climate change seriously.
"Every leader who I've met over recent days has indicated a welcoming of Australia's changed position," Albanese told reporters on Friday after meeting OECD leaders in Paris.
Australia has now officially signed up to reduce emissions by 43% on 2005 levels by 2030, but after decades of inaction by previous governments, there's a lot more work to be done.
Greg Mullins, a former Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW and the leader of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group, warned last month that, with catchments saturated and dams at capacity, more needed to be done to prepare for floods.
In a six-point plan presented to the government, the group said it was "short-sighted and unsustainable" for Australia be spending more money on disaster response and recovery than measures to reduce the risk.
According to analysis released by the Australian Conservation Foundation before the election, federal budget spending on environment and climate programs fell by nearly a third under the previous Coalition government.
Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie says Australia is "under-prepared" for climate disasters, and needs to spent more money on building resilience in the most vulnerable regions.
"Only a very small fraction of disaster spending is committed to preparedness and resilience building. We would expect to see a big shift in this ratio to see a much bigger focus on preparedness given the escalating risk of climate-fuelled disasters," she said.
New South Wales has its own climate change fund that spent more than 224 million Australian dollars ($153 million) in 2020-21 on programs to helping communities to become more resilient -- including the 140,000 people who live in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, the state's most vulnerable location for flooding.
That includes cafe owner Osmotherly, who says authorities could do more to ease the flooding risk by better managing dams so that they don't overflow and send more water into already flooded areas. He plans to get a local group together to better understand how the dam operates.
But right now, there are more pressing issues.
Osmotherly says around 100 people are trapped in their homes along a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) stretch of road near the cafe -- including an 80-year-old man, who has packed up his belongings and is waiting in his caravan for help to get out.
So far Osmotherly said he can't see any local rescue services in the area, and he plans to bring the elderly man home to sleep at his house.
"At the moment, there's no road access into here," he said. "I've got a rescue boat that we can get people in and out. But pretty much there's nowhere to go."
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