New severe weather warnings have been issued to residents in northern Queensland as torrential monsoon rain moves southward, adding to floodwaters, while gale-force winds up to 125km/h and tornadoes are forecast to hit the Cape York Peninsula later today.
Authorities are now saying 20,000 homes in Townsville could be inundated as floodwaters continue to rise in the Ross river.
“A deepening tropical low lies on the monsoon trough over north-west Queensland, with increasing monsoonal flow across northern Queensland,” the Bureau of Meteorology warned.
“This will lead to strong to gale-force winds through the Gulf of Carpentaria with a risk of damaging winds developing across Cape York Peninsula over the weekend,” the bureau said.
“Abnormally high tides are also likely to develop about the eastern Gulf of Carpentaria coast and through Torres Strait from today,” it said.
Emergency warnings were issued for residents in Charters Towers to the south-west of Townsville and to residents of Nome, Julago and Alligator Creek to the south-east. People were advised to move to higher ground or evacuate.
Further west, Flinders council advised the Flinders river in Hughenden was expected to flood the Ernest Henry bridge and close it. The Bruce highway was also closed.
The Ross river and the Upper Burdekin river were also of great concern as torrential rain continued to fall.
But a new threat was coming from the gale force winds and possible tornadoes, combined with unusually high tides.
Authorities said they had already used the cyclone sirens during the floods, and that residents should listen out for more warnings.
“We’ve used the cyclone siren a few times in this event. We have applied that in short bursts when there are events of heavy rain and also that’s been associated with usually emergency alert messages from state and local government, a bureau spokesman, Bruce Gunn, said.
“The possibility of wind gusts also exists with the onshore flow. There is some chance of tornados forming in that onshore flow. So, we are putting out a heads-up, I guess, for the possibility of those destructive winds associated with storms of that size – of that type,” he said.
In Townsville, the State Emergency Service is warning that 20,000 houses could be inundated, and that it could take three to four days for floodwaters to recede. Over 9,000 homes were without power. They were asking people who have been evacuated not to return to their homes yet.
Police and army personnel were patrolling areas that have been evacuated to keep property safe, the police said.
More than the annual rainfall has fallen on parts of north Queensland in the past week, creating a disaster area stretching 700km along the coast from Cairns to Mackay.
“The current rainfall totals for the last seven days at Townsville Airport are an all-time record. We’ve had seven-day rainfall totals of 1,012mm to 9am this morning, smashing the previous seven-day record of 886mm in 1998,” Gunn said.
The severe weather has now extended further south to Mackay, leading to further school closures.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said because of the severity of this extreme weather event, the schools that were closed on Friday in Townsville would remain closed on Monday and the government would be examining whether to close other schools in the area from Bowen to Proserpine – as this weather event continues to move further south, we will be examining whether or not these schools need to be closed Monday.
The SES said it had responded to over 570 calls for help, including 35 swift water rescues.
The monsoonal deluge has been declared a catastrophe by the Insurance Council of Australia, with losses estimated at $16.7m and the worst yet to come.
Disaster assistance had been extended for communities in Townsville, Charters Towers, Palm Island, Richmond and Burdekin, the Queensland government announced on Saturday night.
It will be delivered through the jointly funded Commonwealth-Queensland Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.