SYDNEY, April 1, 2009 (AFP) - Several towns on Australia's east coast were declared disaster zones Wednesday after flash floods stranded thousands of people and forced hundreds to be evacuated.
More than 2,000 people spent the night house-bound or trapped in schools and restaurants after a sudden deluge hit towns around Coffs Harbour about 570 kilometres (350 miles) north of Sydney Tuesday, officials said.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in Coffs Harbour, where 450 millimetres (18 inches) of rain fell in just 24 hours, said New South Wales state's Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan.
"The State Emergency Service has received more than 760 requests for help from the region and, as always, the volunteers have responded swiftly and professionally to assist the community," Whan said.
He declared the flooded areas disaster zones, clearing the way for the government to provide assistance to victims.
Whan said 100 people needed to be rescued by ambulance crews, including a man trapped on the roof of his car after it was washed from a bridge and a woman who went into labour.
The Nambucca River peaked just shy of a record level set in 1950 while the swollen Bellinger River stranded 1,600 people in Bellingen town and 600 in nearby Darkwood.
More than 2,000 remained isolated late Wednesday, and were likely to be trapped for between two and four days, authorities said.
Flooding hit the area just six weeks ago, but Coffs Harbour Mayor Keith Rhoades said the current emergency appeared far worse.
"What I saw last night was absolutely incredible. (As) a resident of 37 years, I've seen places that have never come (close to) floodwaters but last night, I was looking in houses with two foot of water in them," Rhoades told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"It's just heartbreaking, it really is."
He estimated the cost of repairs in the "tens of millions of dollars", and compared the floods to a similar event in 1996, which caused 140 million dollars in damage and killed one woman.
The wild weather also forced the closure of most beaches in the state, with waves topping three metres in height, the surf lifesaving authority said.
The weather bureau said the worst of the rains had passed, but warned that localised flooding was still a threat.
"It's backed off into a shower situation rather than the constant heavy rain we had yesterday," said forecaster Ewan Mitchell.
"But the severe weather warning continues for a stretch of coast from the Queensland (state) border down to and including Sydney," he told the Australian Associated Press.
Severe weather has ravaged Australia's east coast in recent months, with a series of cyclones unleashing floods in the north.
Tinder-dry conditions in the south prompted savage wildfires in Victoria state last month that claimed 210 lives and razed entire towns.