Floods in Sydney: The climate crisis is becoming the new normal for New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state

But for the fourth time in 18 months, cafe owner Darren Osmotherly is rushing to move his equipment to higher ground as flood waters in Greater Sydney surge after days of heavy rain.

“Every six to eight hours (we) try to take a hot shower and change clothes again and try to have a coffee break room or a nap in between,” said Osmotherly, who says he has hardly slept in three days.

When Osmotherly opened the café 15 years ago to provide disabled people on houseboats with an easy place to moor lunch for lunch, the Lower Portland property had not been flooded in 30 years. But this is the fourth flood since last February and the youngest since March.

“We built everything flood proof to handle a flood every once in a while, but to have four floods…” he said.

Flooding in Australia’s most populous state has become the new normal as residents of the greater Sydney area grapple with increasingly erratic seasonal fluctuations.

The area, which is home to 8.12 million people, or about a third of the country’s total population, has always experienced some level of flooding in the early summer months.

But what used to be a once-in-a-generation event has become commonplace, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of flood-prone communities.

More than half a meter of rain (1.6 feet) has soaked parts of eastern New South Wales over the past 48 hours, with flooding from numerous levees prompting flood warnings across the region.

In western Sydney, the Warragamba Dam – Australia’s largest urban reservoir – began to overflow at 2am on Sunday, and at its peak 515 gigalitres overflowed its walls – the same amount of water stored in Sydney Harbour.

People view the flooded Windsor Bridge along the Hawkesbury River in Sydney, July 4, 2022.

A spokesman for the state water agency said the dam had no flood control component, so no water was released before 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 certainly flows into a specific river system, but there are entire huge areas of Sydney that are flooded that are not downstream from Warragamba,” the spokesman said.

It’s a startling turnaround from just 15 years ago, when the state decided to build a desalination plant to secure Sydney’s water supply after years of drought.

But this year, La Nina’s weather system produced more precipitation, and the Bureau of Meteorology says there’s a 50/50 chance of it forming later in 2022 — twice the normal chance. The climate crisis is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of both La Nina and El Nino, which cause drought — meaning if La Nina forms again this year, there could be even more rain.

Homes and streets are flooded by the swollen Hawkesbury River in Windsor, northwest of Sydney, July 4, 2022.

Thousands ordered to evacuate

Flooding has become a recurring nightmare for residents of Greater Sydney.

Many are still recovering from the last flood in March, when water inundated many of the same areas, forcing businesses to close and rescuers wading through putrid mud to help trapped residents.

The event caused $4.8 billion in damage, making it the country’s third costliest disaster, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.

Hundreds of millimeters of rain fell over the weekend and more is to come, New South Wales State Emergency Services (SES) commissioner Carlene York warned on Monday.

“We are not yet out of danger in this significant weather event,” York said. “I want to remind people, please make sensible decisions that will protect you and your family.”

More than 70 evacuation orders were issued across the Sydney area on Monday, covering more than 30,000 people, and just days after the start of the school holidays, when many families would travel, millions others were advised to stay home.

“Please avoid essential travel. If you must travel, please expect delays as many roads are closed… and there are many detours,” York said.

Street signs are seen submerged under flood water along the Hawkesbury River in the suburb of Windsor on July 4, 2022.

Jane Golding of the Bureau of Meteorology said some areas in the greater Sydney area had received more rain than all of July.

“The numbers are comparable to (the rains in) March. What’s different about this event is that the rain has been stacked over several days and that increases the risk of how rivers respond,” she said.

Along with heavy rain, wind speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour have been recorded on land, and there are storm warnings offshore, where there are waves of up to five metres.

The dangerous conditions forced authorities to halt efforts to rescue 21 crew members trapped on a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, the Portland Bay, that was stranded without power off the coast of New South Wales. Instead, State Police said a tugboat had been dispatched to tow the ship further out to sea, where the Australian Maritime Safety Authority would attempt to restore its power supply.

A cargo ship with 21 crew members on board remains stranded off the east coast of Australia on July 4, 2022.

Australia’s climate crisis

With the election of the Labor federal government in May, Australia is trying to chart a new course in response to the climate crisis. And in his recent trips abroad to meet world leaders, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has taken pains to stress that the country is now taking climate change seriously.

“Every leader I’ve met in recent days has shown that they welcome Australia’s changed position,” Albanese told reporters on Friday after meeting OECD leaders in Paris.

Australia has now officially committed to reducing emissions by 43% by 2030 from 2005 levels, but after decades of inaction by previous governments there is still work to be done.

Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW and chair of the group Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), warned last month that with saturated catchments and overburdened dams, more needs to be done to prepare for floods.

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In a six-point plan submitted to the government, the group said it was “short-sighted and unsustainable” for Australia to spend more money on disaster relief and recovery than on risk-reduction measures.

Federal budget spending on environment and climate programs fell by almost a third under the previous coalition government, according to analysis released by the Australian Conservation Foundation ahead of the election.

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie says Australia is “underprepared” for climate disasters and needs to spend more money building resilience in the most vulnerable regions.

“Only a very small portion of disaster spending goes to preparedness and resilience-building. We would expect a big shift in that ratio to see a much greater focus on preparedness in the face of escalating risk of climate-related disasters,” she said.

New South Wales has its own climate protection fund, which spent more than A$224 million (US$153 million) in 2020-21 on programs to help communities become more resilient – including the 140,000 people living in Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley is the state’s most prone place to flooding.

Darren Osmotherly's Paradise Cafe in Lower Portland, NSW, has been flooded four times in 18 months.

That includes cafe owner Osmotherly, who says authorities could do more to mitigate the risk of flooding by better managing levees to keep them from overflowing and directing more water to areas that are already flooded. He plans to bring together a local group to better understand how the dam works.

But right now there are more pressing issues.

Osmotherly says around 100 people are trapped in their homes on a six-mile stretch of road near the cafe – including an 80-year-old man who has packed his bags and is waiting in his trailer for help to get out.

So far, Osmotherly said he couldn’t see any local emergency services in the area and he plans to bring the elderly man home to sleep at his home.

“There is no road access here at the moment,” he said. “I have a lifeboat that we can use to get people in and out. But there’s pretty much no way.”

CNN’s Sandi Sidhu and Akanksha Sharma contributed to this report.