Australia: Death toll reaches 20 as flood disaster hits Sydney

Australia’s fortnight-long flood crisis continues as heavy rainfall and damaging winds batter the east coast. Parts of Sydney, the country’s largest city, have already been submerged, and thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

The worst affected areas are predominantly working-class suburbs in the city’s southwest, where 11 evacuation orders were issued yesterday afternoon and overnight, impacting more than 60,000 people. Evacuation centres have been set up in Canley Vale and Menai.

There are currently warnings of minor to major flooding throughout eastern New South Wales (NSW), from Queensland to the Victorian border.

In the 24 hours to 9 a.m., Sydney, the Hunter and the South Coast received a massive 50–150 millimetres of rain, and similar rainfall is expected for Sydney and the South Coast today.

In the 24 hours to 6:30 a.m. today, the State Emergency Service (SES) had performed 100 flood rescues and responded to 2,400 calls for help.

Statewide, up to 80,000 people are subject to evacuation orders or “high alert” warnings. As has been the case throughout the crisis, many of these orders have been issued very late, often after heavy rainfall has already made evacuation routes dangerous or impassable.

There is major flooding in parts of the Georges, Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers, with the latter two already exceeding heights reached in the March 2021 floods.

Already, parts of Camden, on the southwest outskirts of Sydney, are completely inundated. Flood warnings are in place for all roads in the Sydney metropolitan area.

Multiple landslides have occurred in Emu Heights, in Western Sydney and in the Blue Mountains.

The bodies of a man and a woman were found late this morning in Western Sydney. Emergency crews had been searching the area for a 67-year-old woman and her 34-year-old son after her car was found in a stormwater canal at 4:30 p.m. yesterday.

Across NSW, at least seven people have died in the floods, while 13 are confirmed dead in Queensland.

More than a week after the northern NSW city of Lismore was devastated, thousands in the region remain without power, running water, phone and internet service. Many roads are still impassable, limiting access to food, fuel and medical care.

The lack of internet and mobile phone service has also taken out online banking and payment systems, forcing whole regions to function on a cash-only basis.

Two Byron Bay chefs spontaneously built a volunteer effort which has prepared and delivered 60,000 meals for flood victims, some of whom had gone without food for four days. They told the Guardian they were concerned that, while emergency services were slowly beginning to arrive in the region, there was still no sign of food relief.

Pip Sumbak said: “We’ve had no one tell us they’re taking care of this, food wise. There’s no official government service being offered.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet this morning acknowledged that people trapped in the floods felt “isolated and abandoned,” and noted, “had neighbours not got in boats then I believe the death toll would have been much higher.”

While Perrottet issued some vague promises to “look at better planning and more flood mitigation,” he continued to characterise the floods as an “unpredicted, freak catastrophe.” All of this is aimed at covering up government culpability and creating conditions for nothing to be done to improve mitigations and preparation for future disasters.

Around 800 people are in emergency accommodation in the Lismore region and 56,000 homes damaged in the flood still need to be assessed for safety. Of around 5,600 buildings already checked by SES crews, some 2,500 were found to be uninhabitable.

In Queensland, where more than 15,000 homes were flooded in Brisbane alone, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state Labor Premier Anna Palaszczuk jointly announced a $558.5 million financial support package on Saturday, targeted at farmers, small businesses, sporting clubs and local councils.

No further government assistance for individuals has been announced, beyond the woefully inadequate $1,000 per adult and $400 per child one-off payment announced by Morrison last week.

As the clean-up finally gets underway in the city, after being delayed due to continued heavy rains, more details have emerged about the failure of state and federal governments to prepare for catastrophic floods.

While the federal Liberal-National government established a $4 billion Emergency Relief Fund in 2019, most funding applications for flood mitigation projects by states and territories have been declined. The fund was structured, with the backing of Labor, to allocate just $50 million each year to these types of projects.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7.30” program, Queensland, the most disaster-affected state in the country, labelled its 2020 application for a $14 million upgrade to the Flood Warning Infrastructure Network a “priority,” but the project was not funded, while others not considered as urgent were.

The response of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to the crisis in Lismore and surrounding areas has attracted sharp criticism.

Last Monday, as hundreds of residents were left clinging to their rooftops, desperately waiting for help, the ADF declared the weather too dangerous for its aircraft to operate.

As a result, the local population was left almost entirely to its own resources, and the rescue effort was left up to the heroic and self-sacrificing acts of ordinary people.

Major General David Thomae, who coordinated the ADF flood response, was compelled to issue an apology this morning, saying: “I am very sorry for all those people who have felt that they haven’t been supported and I empathise completely with their plight.”

Now, more than a week after the floods hit, the region has been descended upon by some 1,800 troops, who according to some reports, are slowing down the recovery efforts due to their lack of knowledge of the local area.

On Channel 7’s “Sunrise” this morning, federal Defence Minister Peter Dutton refused to apologise for leaving thousands of people waiting for a neighbour to show up in a dinghy in the absence of any official rescue effort. Dutton said this was a great example of the “Australian spirit” and declared he would not “cop criticism of the ADF.”

The fact that the military is now deployed in response to almost every disaster is a result of decades of cuts to civilian emergency services. The ADF, with its ever-growing budget, is now the only force available.

This is also bound up with the campaign to normalise the presence of soldiers in Australia’s cities and towns amid widespread opposition to the entire political establishment. Troops were deployed in the 2019–2020 bushfires as well as in the working-class suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne to purportedly “enforce compliance” to the lockdown measures during COVID-19 outbreaks.

Having left flood victims to fend for themselves for days, thousands of troops are now being sent in as anger mounts over the failure of Australian governments to respond to the flood crisis.

While extreme weather is a natural phenomenon, the flood crisis cannot be explained merely as an unfortunate and unavoidable accident. The multitude of failures on display—from the lack of timely warnings, inadequacy of rescue services, ongoing absence of basic supplies and services, and the pitiful financial assistance on offer—are all products of the subordination of society to the demands of corporate profit.

Even the increasing frequency and severity of “natural disasters” is a result of climate change, itself a product of the destructive practices of the world’s largest corporations, backed by every national capitalist government.

The current flood disaster is just one in a string of catastrophic examples of the existential crisis confronting the global population. The urgent task of the working class, in Australia and around the world, is to take up a political fight to establish workers’ governments and socialist policies.