The Queensland coastal city of Townsville is in emergency shutdown after storms and a monsoon trough dumped extraordinary amounts of rain in the region, causing major rivers to reach peak flood levels.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk gave police evacuation powers and declared the area a disaster zone, announcing the closure of all schools and child care centres on Friday.
A risky plan to save the city includes releasing water from Townsville’s bulging Ross River Dam. But the move could flood more than 100 homes which are downstream from the dam with no guarantees the plan will work.
Soldiers have been mobilised to sand-bag vulnerable homes and hundreds of people have been evacuated.
The dam is currently at 180 per cent of capacity — its highest level since it was built 48 years ago.
All three dam gates are open and spilling and the Ross River is dumping a record amount of water into the sea.
Townsville enduring highest floods in 20 years. Bureau advises rain could last until the end of next week. Local councils and emergency services on scene and well prepared. Listen to local warnings. pic.twitter.com/mJDNQEqxYO
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) January 30, 2019
“We’ve had cyclones, bushfires, and now these one-in-100-year extreme flood events,’’ a government spokesman said.
“It went from a normal north Queensland wet season into something extraordinary.”
Record rainfall in recent days is set to continue as police warn isolated areas around Townsville “could get falls of up to 400 millimetres a day”.
By midday on Friday, an emergency flood alert message was sent to residents in Cluden, Rosslea, Hermit Park, Oonoonba, Idalia and Railway Estate as Townsville City Council announced it would release water from the Ross River dam.
Ms Palaszczuk took to Twitter to support the council’s decision.
“We endorse the Townsville Council’s decision to release water from Ross River Dam and notify affected residents. The bureau describes this rainfall as exceptional.
“Please listen and watch for warnings and alerts, take the advice of authorities and if it’s flooded, forget it.”
Local residents shared video of the river bubbling up onto nearby streets.
— shari tagliabue (@sharitags) February 1, 2019
The Bruce Highway remains cut south of Townsville and there are major disruptions to the city’s transport services, with most urban and school bus services affected.
The city’s legal precinct also had Friday off, with Townsville’s courts closed for the day.
A 32-year-old man, who was feared missing in floodwaters overnight, was found safe and well on Friday morning. He had apparently decided to stay with a friend.
Townsville mayor Jenny Hill said the decision to release water from the city’s dam was not taken lightly.
“We’re looking into what could happen over the next two to three days,” she said. “We know that we’re seeing really a record event, we know that the Ross River has hit a new milestone in terms of outflows out into the ocean with a one-in-a-100-year event.”
Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services has already rescued 50 people, while another 90 have been evacuated. At least 50 homes have been inundated with rising floodwaters.
Severe weather warnings remain in place for parts of the state’s north, north-west, peninsula and gulf country over the weekend.
Ms Palaszczuk ordered schools and childcare centres in the flood zone to remain closed on Friday.
“We need to ensure everyone’s safety,” she said.
“The bureau’s advice is, if this monsoonal weather continues, the next few days could see more heavy rainfall.
“It is safer if families are not trying to get to and from school.”.
Queensland police warned road users early on Friday that traffic lights were out across Townsville.
All Townsville district schools and childcare centres will be closed tomorrow.
The Bureau warns if monsoon trough continues we face a continuing weather event. Take care of neighbours, stay tuned to local warnings and remember if it’s flooded forget it. pic.twitter.com/jCO244t6dT
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) January 31, 2019
Monsoonal winds and abnormally high tides are also expected along Cape York Peninsula’s western coast, extending as far north as the Torres Strait.
Many Queensland rivers have reached major and moderate flood levels and with days of heavy rain ahead the state’s flood disaster is far from over.
— Mel Coutts 🦋 (@melanie_coutts) January 31, 2019
At 6am, the Bureau of Meteorology said the heaviest falls were over Townsville, with up to another 200 millimetres in six hours possible on Friday.
“The monsoon trough is expected to remain active into next week, with further heavy rainfall expected for already saturated catchments between about Cairns and Bowen,” the bureau said.
“The potential for significant and dangerous flash flooding will likely continue into next week.”
Local shops sold out of umbrellas and ponchos as residents scrambled to stay dry.
— Tahlia Sarv (@tahliasarv) February 1, 2019
The bureau has also warned of potential flash flooding in parts of northwestern Queensland on Friday and Saturday.
Communities near the Northern Territory border, including Mount Isa, Cloncurry and Julia Creek are at risk.
Residents along Cape York Peninsula’s western coastline and in the Torres Strait have also been warned to expect abnormally high tides into the weekend.
A strong to gale-force monsoonal wind flow is expected, amid warnings of very high tides, possibly affecting Weipa, all of the Torres Strait islands, Aurukun, Old Mapoon and Napranum.
The premier will convene a meeting of the State Disaster Management Committee in Brisbane on Friday.