SYDNEY — Gianni Vitellone watched as climate disasters struck Australia repeatedly in recent years — first wildfires, then floods. But he never thought he’d be beset by the country’s increasingly volatile weather in his own neighborhood, just seven miles from Melbourne’s city center.
That night, he donned a pair of waders and forced the door open on the home he shares with his wife, three children and mother-in-law to find almost all of what they owned had been lost.
“I don’t know how anyone can say that it’s not climate change,” he said as he contemplated his debris-strewn yard on Tuesday. Ruined furniture and household items lined the street, waiting for garbage collectors.
Thousands of people have been displaced by floodwaters in recent days across Australia’s east, where most of its 25.5 million residents live. As many as 34,000 homes could be inundated or isolated by the floodwaters in southern Victoria state alone, according to official projections. Authorities warned residents in some areas it was “too late to leave” as floodwaters approached 40 feet.
The unseasonal deluge was highly unusual. October — the start of wildfire season Down Under — is typically accompanied by hot and dry conditions. But Australia is experiencing an exceptionally rare third straight year of La Niña — an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that typically brings above-average rainfall to the country’s east. A periodic cooling of the western Indian Ocean, connected to La Niña, is also contributing to the higher rainfall.
Sydney broke rainfall records dating back more than a century this month, with three months of the year to go. Parts of New South Wales state, of which Sydney is the capital, have flooded several times over the past couple of years. At least 20 people died, and thousands were forced to evacuate when devastating floods inundated parts of New South Wales and Queensland in late February and early March. Two people have been killed in the latest floods.
The country is prone to big swings in weather, but scientists say the latest rain is unusual because it has fallen across almost the entire continent — which is slightly smaller than the contiguous United States — in the past two weeks. Many dams and rivers are at full capacity.
“Our rain events are usually regional — not national,” said Margaret Cook, a flood historian at the University of the Sunshine Coast. “Dense cloud bands have crossed the desert, carrying moisture evaporating from seas off northwest Australia.”
Researchers say climate change is worsening the situation. Australia has warmed by around 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 Celsius) since 1910. A warming atmosphere holds more moisture and can increase the intensity of extreme rainfall events.
The recent floods followed a period of extreme drought, which, coupled with intensifying heat waves, helped fuel catastrophic wildfires in 2019 and early 2020. The increasingly volatile climate is making it hard for residents in some disaster zones to rebuild: About 1 in 25 Australian homes are at high risk of becoming uninsurable by 2030, according to the Climate Council, an independent advocacy group.
“If the current situation in the eastern states isn’t a sure sign we need to reconsider where and how our houses are built, then there’s a long and volatile road ahead,” said Trivess Moore, a sustainable housing expert at RMIT University in Melbourne. “The majority of existing and new housing in Australia is not suitable for performing in our current climate.”
Paul Williamson, 63, who lives across the road from Vitellone, the travel agent, in the inner Melbourne neighborhood of Maribyrnong, said he had opted out of buying flood insurance two weeks ago because of the almost $10,000 yearly price tag.
The musician lost his piano, which could not be moved out of the floodwaters’ path, as well as sentimental items and scripts belonging to his partner, an actress. “But it’s been a good chance to get rid of a lot of crap,” he quipped.
Policymakers say more needs to be done to avoid development in disaster-prone areas, with Australia’s new center-left government indicating that planning and development regulations could be ripe for reform. A hot housing market has spurred many new real estate developments in recent years, including on flood plains. Some have been paused while governments revise their flood strategies.
Officials warned it could be weeks before floodwaters recede in some areas, as they work their way through the country’s expansive river network. Another storm system is forecast to develop over central Australia, potentially bringing more severe thunderstorms, heavy rain and flooding to already saturated areas this week.
“We’re living in very dangerous times in the days and weeks ahead,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters during a Monday visit to a flooded town in western New South Wales.
Vinall reported from Melbourne, Australia. Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.