Flood evacuation order issued for northern NSW as Tweed River breaches banks

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Residents from Condong, Tumbulgum and surrounding areas have been ordered to leave as authorities fear floodwaters may cut off vital roads

Cars drive through a flooded road at Tumbulgum, NSW
The SES had deemed the northern NSW towns ‘a high danger area’ with around 1,000 properties affected after the Tweed River burst its banks. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP
The SES had deemed the northern NSW towns ‘a high danger area’ with around 1,000 properties affected after the Tweed River burst its banks. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

First published on Mon 14 Dec 2020 22.16 EST

Flood warnings have been issued for towns across northern New South Wales as heavy rains and abnormally high tides continue to batter a 500-kilometre stretch of coast from Taree to the border town of Tweed Heads.

The Bureau of Meteorology on Tuesday afternoon issued a number of minor and moderate flood warnings for rivers stretching from the state’s mid-north to far-north coasts, including at Murwillumbah, where residents were earlier subject to a flood evacuation notice.

Although conditions eased in some areas on Tuesday, the bureau said showers and thunderstorms would persist over the coming days and would “continue to bring the risk of flash flooding”.

The bureau issued a severe thunderstorm warning for towns across the region, saying heavy rainfall that could lead to flash flooding was likely in towns including Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Taree. Towns further inland including Armidale and Tamworth could also be affected.

Moderate flood warnings had been issued for the Wilsons River at Lismore, the Orara River at Glenreagh and the Nambucca River at Bowraville and Macksville.

Rainfall rates could be locally enhanced with thunderstorms, leading to the possibility of very heavy rainfall and dangerous flash flooding. This risk continues along the coastal fringe of the Northern Rivers and Mid North Coast overnight.

The State Emergency Service has ordered anyone from Condong to Tumbulgum and surrounding areas to leave via the Tweed Valley Way, fearing that vital roads may be cut off by floodwater, isolating the towns.

“If you remain in the area after this time, you may become trapped and it may be too dangerous for NSW SES to rescue you,” the SES warned in a statement on Tuesday.

An SES spokesperson said the region has been deemed “a high danger area” with around 1,000 properties now affected. Authorities warned electricity, phones, internet, water and sewerage may be interrupted, and people in those areas needed to closely monitor the weather and road closures.

This comes after the Tweed River burst its banks near Tumbulgum on Tuesday, with minor flooding in the area. Northern NSW and parts of south-east Queensland were battered with heavy rains, flash flooding and wild weather over the weekend.

While run-off entering waterways is still causing significant problems for these towns, conditions more generally in the region have begun to calm according to the Bureau of Metrology.

“The rainfall is starting to ease, particularly for the north. The system that has been producing these conditions is moving south and weakening. So we are still expecting shower activity to continue but broadly that rainfall is really easing,” said Agata Imielska, senior climatologist at the bureau.

“Over the last four days, we’ve seen … about half a metre of rainfall in the space of about four days. So very significant and heavy rainfall that has produced some of that flash flooding and river rises.

“In terms of the damaging surf, coastal inundation and erosion we have also seen this is on an easing trend. Things will still continue being a risk but we are already seeing conditions improving”

But the bureau’s national flood services manager, Justin Robinson, warned people not to become complacent.

“I would like to emphasise that even though the rainfall is starting to ease it doesn’t mean the flood situation is easing,” he said. “We still have that floodwater coming down through those river systems. So I will just remind people there is still an evolving flood situation.”

On the coast, a low-pressure system near south-east Queensland brought massive rainfall and gale-force winds, which combined with king tides to wash away much of Byron Bay’s Main Beach on Monday.

Local business owner Ben Kirkwood said he “dodged a bullet” after his Byron Bay restaurant narrowly avoided being washed into the Pacific Ocean.

Ben Kirkwood at the Beach cafe in Byron bay looking surveys the erosion to the beach in front of his venue.
Ben Kirkwood at the Beach cafe in Byron Bay surveys the erosion to the beach in front of his venue. Photograph: Christine Torndorf/Supplied

His family and the Fink family co-own the Beach Byron Bay restaurant, which came close to going under as a mountainous swell smashed into the dunes under it in the early hours of Monday morning.

Kirkwood says a six-layer wall of sandbags installed in November held out, but the easterly swell direction had also helped spare the building in the northern NSW town.

“The waves were whitecapping across the bay and smashing into Belongil and Main Beach and we had big surf crashing over the sandbags at the foot of our restaurant,” he said.

Kirkwood said the sandbags withstood a full stress test, and without them the waves would have gouged out the sand beneath his restaurant and the caravan park next door and washed them away.

On the Gold Coast the weather system has also caused massive erosion, with the surf club at Currumbin becoming an island.

A team of 300 SES workers from across the state had been sent to support the northern NSW teams, as well as resources from Fire & Rescue, NSW RFS and NSW police to support the operation.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services deputy commissioner Mark Roche said his crews had received about 1,400 requests for help – mainly for leaking roofs and tarping and downed trees.

The wind and heavy rain was expected to ease, but he urged people to remain vigilant, stay out of floodwaters, drive with caution and turn back if they see a road or a bridge that’s flooded.

“As we say, if it’s flooded, forget it,” he told ABC TV.

This wild weather has been a dramatic start to the La Niña forecast for the Australian east coast that is predicted to deliver a wet summer.

Dr Naomi Benger, a climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, said the La Niña would create longer, more humid heatwaves across the coming months.

“We know that we can get heatwaves that might see fewer days of extreme heat, but the heatwaves can be more prolonged and more humid because the extra cloud cover that’s provided by that moisture in the atmosphere, traps that heat closer to us … this kind of heatwave is a little bit more stressful for the human body so it really needs to be taken on with caution,” she said.