Thousands of Australians Evacuated; 9 Dead in Storms

June 11, 2007

Officials urged thousands of Australians to flee their homes as rising floodwaters from three days of wild weather threatened to wash away their homes.

Nine people have been killed since the storms began Friday near the port city of Newcastle, around 140 kilometers (90 miles) north of Sydney.

The unusually strong winds and sea swell were also blamed for pushing a massive coal freighter onto a nearby sand bank, prompting fears of a major oil and fuel spill.

New South Wales State police on Sunday recovered the body of a 45-year-old man who was swept into a storm water drain after getting out of his flooded car on Friday night.
At the peak of Friday’s wild weather, five members of the same family were swept to their deaths when a section of highway collapsed under their car, plunging them into a swollen creek.

Around 5,000 people in the towns of Maitland and Singleton were ordered to leave their homes late Sunday, as the state’s emergency coordinator warned the nearby Hunter River could rise more than 11 meters (36.09 feet) above its normal height, breaching levees and flooding neighborhoods.

Emergency shelters run by charity groups began filling up late Sunday, as an 8:00 p.m. (1000GMT) evacuation deadline came and went. Hundreds of residents, including many elderly people, waited in the evacuation centers, wrapped in blankets and watching television. Others were lying on mattresses on the floor.

Earlier, Prime Minister John Howard offered financial support to the storm-battered region, and expressed his sympathies to those affected by the storms. “I know I speak for every Australian in saying that the country is thinking of you and we’re heart broken by the loss of lives,” he said. “It is an immense disaster.”

The storms have also created havoc for utilities. More than 100,000 homes from northern Sydney to the Hunter Valley, near Newcastle, were without power Sunday.

Officials warned it could be days before the electricity is restored. “Never before has our electricity network sustained such severe damage across such a widespread area,” said Geoff Lilliss, an executive with power supplier, Energy Australia. “The extreme weather over the last few days has taken a heavy toll.”

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