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Flood, Evacuate, Rinse, Repeat: A Relentless Pattern Batters Australia

WINDSOR, Australia — Emma Winley pointed to the markings on the outside of her house, recording the levels of the three floods that have hit in the past 16 months.

In March of last year, the water came up to her knees. In March of this year, it nearly reached her shoulders. Still rebuilding after that flood, she and her husband hadn’t even moved back in when another one hit earlier this month, submerging half the house and going up to her neck — denoted by the film of sludge still smeared on the wall.

“They each go up a bit higher,” she said, her voice threatening to break.

In the first five days of this month, a storm system deposited 8.7 inches of rain on Sydney, double the month’s average rainfall and leading to the wettest July on record. Some surrounding areas received over 30 inches. In what has now become a familiar routine, tens of thousands of people living along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, west of the city, evacuated. For some towns, it was their third severe flood in the past 16 months. For others, their fourth.

Australia’s leaders have been quick to praise the “resilience” and community spirit of local residents. But as the cleanup begins again, that resilience is starting to falter. With climate change intensifying extreme weather events, residents must confront the prospect that a constant and exhausting cycle of evacuation, return and months of cleanup will become the new normal.

“It feels like you’re living on a knife’s edge all the time now,” said Linda Gregoriou, another Windsor resident.

Windsor, a town of 1,900 an hour northwest of Sydney, sits on a floodplain. Ms. Winley, 54, and her husband, Andy Ryland, 63, knew the risks when they bought their house nearly 15 years ago. They thought they were prepared.

The first flood in March 2021 wasn’t too bad, Ms. Winley said. She looked for silver linings. It was about time to replace the kitchen anyway, she thought. They refitted the house and replaced the furniture, using up their savings.

The second flood, the next year, caught them off guard, and they lost it all again. Now, the third time around, she said, “at least we haven’t lost as much — because we’d already lost it all beforehand.”

Australia is a continent of extremes. It has always gone through periods of drought followed by severe flooding. Most residents living on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplains can recite by heart the levels of the worst floods to hit the area and compare them with new deluges — the ones last year and this year have fallen well short. It is both a warning and an assurance: This will always happen, and it could always be worse.

But climate change now adds a complicating factor, with scientists noting that Australia, like many countries, is seeing an intensification of extreme weather. While it’s impossible to say how much climate change is responsible for the recent floods, said Jamie Pittock, an environment and society professor at the Australian National University, “all the science points to climate change making this kind of flooding more frequent and worse.”

Even for residents who have grown up on floodplains, the latest deluges are something of an anomaly.

Camden, about an hour south of Windsor, has flooded four times this year — twice in March, once in April and again this month. The local lawn bowling club has gone underwater every time. Dennis Crouch, 71, the club’s vice president, grew up in the town and said he has never seen it hit by so much flooding, so close together.

“I couldn’t blame climate change, I don’t know enough about it,” he said. But in his mind, something has certainly changed.

“It’s pretty freakish,” he said.

He doesn’t linger on it. “It’s gut-wrenching,” he said, “but in three weeks we’ll be sitting in the clubhouse, drinking beer and forgotten all about it.”

But for others, the prospect of another flood looms large. Scientists said there is a 50 percent chance that the La Niña weather pattern that caused the torrential rain earlier this month will return before the end of the year.

With every flood, residents are getting better at recovering. This time, as the river rose and she and her husband evacuated, Ms. Winley was already making a list of what needed to be done upon return. A few days after the water had receded, the cleanup operation was in full swing, and she was making plans to further flood-proof the house.

But the mental toll is showing. Mr. Ryland now gets “twitchy and anxious” in rainstorms, Ms. Winley said. While she once thought that they would grow old together in their house, now she’s not so sure.

“I thought this was a home we could be carried out of,” she said. “But now I worry that as we get older, we just won’t have what it takes to keep rebuilding every time. That’s a fear that I haven’t addressed yet. That I don’t think too hard about.”

They’re not the only ones questioning their future, and the future of the area.

On the other side of Windsor, Ms. Gregoriou, 57, walked down her street, still cluttered with sodden furniture and debris, pointing out the houses for sale.

“This one’s on the market,” she said of the house near the end of the street. Then, the next two houses next to it: “This one’s for sale. And this one’s on the market.”

They had all been put up for sale after the March flood, she said. She expected more to follow.

Ms. Gregoriou’s house had been inundated too, although not as severely — her street lies on a steep angle. Selling was not on her mind. But she worried about the area’s long-term future.

“I love this area, but it’s not sustainable,” she said. “It’s almost like you can’t live a proper life.”

Like many in the area, she is frustrated by what she sees as inaction or poor decisions by local governments, including allowing further development in the floodplains.

On the edge of rapidly expanding Sydney, the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain is prime location for new growth. In 2017, a government report projected that its population of 134,000 was expected to double in the next 30 years. Earlier this year, the state government cited the need for affordable housing when it scrapped a requirement for developers to consider the risk of fire and flood.

But building cheaply on floodplains is “a recipe for trapping people in poverty,” said Prof. Pittock. Residents “can’t insure a house on the floodplains. Their house gets destroyed and they can’t sell their house or land so they’re forced to rebuild without insurance in the same place.”

In Camden, Jim and Vicki McGregor were cleaning up after the latest extreme weather submerged their garage and foundation. Their elevated home, however, escaped the flooding.

The couple was mentally drained from successive floods in March, April and July, Ms. McGregor admitted, and worried about future disasters. But they had no plans to move.

“This is our home, first and foremost,” Ms. McGregor, 61, said. “But a flood-affected home doesn’t have a lot of value, as well.”

The floodplain is part of what’s made Camden beautiful, she added, creating the area’s lush open spaces.

“There’s always two sides to it,” she said. “You just have to look at it differently. We’ll get there. Next week will be different.”

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