NSW floods: evacuated Sydney residents told to stay away as water recedes and cleanup begins

Evacuation orders remain in place for seven north-west Sydney towns impacted by last week’s flooding as New South Wales’s cleanup effort begins in earnest.

The State Emergency Service said evacuated residents of Pitt Town North, Pitt Town Bottoms, Cornwallis, North Richmond, Agnes Banks, Gronos Point and Freemans Reach should not return until authorities give the all-clear.

“Even as flood waters recede, utilities will continue to be impacted and there will likely be extensive debris including hazardous materials and potentially unsafe roads,” the SES said in a statement on Sunday.

The SES warned flood water can contain sewage, debris and dead animals so locals must avoid entering it, playing in it or driving through it.

Evacuation orders on the NSW mid-north coast and near Moree have now lifted, with eight “all clear” return notices issued as river levels fall.

Rapid damage assessments were taking place through western and north-west Sydney in areas such as Penrith, The Hills and Hawkesbury. Some 3,500 assessments have been carried out to date.

“The teams out in the field are working closely with the community and local services to begin the recovery process,” Allison Flaxman of the SES said.

On Sunday, a major flood warning remained in place for the Barwon River in north-west NSW, as well as moderate flood warnings for the Bogan River in the state’s central west and the Macintyre and Weir Rivers near the Queensland border.

The SES has received more than 23,000 calls for help from the public, and volunteers have attended more than 13,000 jobs since the floods began.

Grants and bank loans will be made available to businesses in flood-affected areas to fund their recovery, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced.

Morrison said on Saturday that a loan scheme would be extended to flood-affected small and medium businesses.

He said the federal government would underwrite 80% of bank loans of up to $5m for small and medium businesses in the flood-affected areas, with repayments to start two years into the loan.

The measure is an extension of a support program available for Covid-affected firms.

“This is about backing the businesses and producers that are backing themselves to get back on their feet,” Morrison said.

The loans are on top of a recovery grants program jointly funded by the federal and NSW governments. Small businesses can get up to $50,000 and primary producers up to $75,000 if they’ve been affected by floods.

As tens of thousands of people across NSW returned to their homes over the weekend, an emergency services taskforce was tackling the cleanup, including Australian defence force personnel, the NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW.

The Australian Red Cross warned of a lack of access to mental health help, and urged people affected by the floods to take steps to protect their psychological wellbeing as well as their physical health.

Meanwhile, the search for an elderly woman continued after police pulled her empty car from the swollen Barrington River on Thursday.

Tourism operators hit by recent heavy rain are hoping the upcoming Easter break gives them a much-needed boost.

At the Discovery Park at Forster on the mid-north coast of NSW, which was inundated by this past week’s “rain bomb”, manager Jane Ticehurst said they are gearing up for the holiday.

Ticehurst said she was expecting a full house for the Easter break, which means accommodating about 1,000 guests.

All of this past week’s guests had to be cancelled and rebooked so staff could concentrate on cleaning up after flooding.

The property sits above the Wallamba River, and while some locals said the waterway was at its highest level in memory, the park’s infrastructure escaped relatively undamaged.

Despite some facilities like the boardwalk going under water, Ticehurst said she was feeling fortunate.

“Our team has been impacted in a whole number of ways, from a housekeeper who has lost everything in her property, to most of the team who were landlocked and couldn’t get to work,” Ticehurst said.

“We did have to cancel Easter for everyone last year because of Covid. We’re certainly hoping not to impact Easter this time round.

“The whole of this area has been impacted heavily in the last 18 months, fires followed by Covid and the flooding.

“I guess we can look forward to getting back up and running.”

The NSW Tourism Industry Council executive manager, Greg Binskin, said while some caravan parks along rivers had been hard hit, most operators were pushing ahead with Easter plans.

“[The floods] have been another setback in what’s been a pretty tough 24 months [but] a lot of them are confident they will get cleaned up and ready to be welcoming visitors again,” he said.

He said while the past two years have been tough for operators, domestic tourism has also prompted an uptake in visitors, with international borders still shut.

Binskin said with the jobkeeper wage subsidy ending, programs like the NSW government’s Dine and Discover hospitality voucher scheme – which gives patrons money towards meals and entertainment – would help businesses get back on their feet.

The tourism boss urged people to continue with their Easter plans.

“It’s always a great extended long weekend. We’d urge people to continue to head into regional areas and support your fellow Aussies,” he said.

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