By Jane Wardell
A cyclonic storm lashing Australia’s east coast for a third day was declared a catastrophe on Wednesday after destroying homes, cutting power to more than 200,000 homes and causing millions of dollars of damage in Sydney and other cities.
New South Police said an 86-year old woman was killed in the Central Hunter region of the state after her car was swept into floodwaters, bringing the confirmed death toll from the storm to four.
Witnesses said two cars had been swept away. Police said divers had found both vehicles and had no evidence of further victims.
The Bureau of Meteorology warned that a second storm cell was gathering at sea north of Sydney, with gale force winds of up to 100 km per hour (62 miles per hour) and heavy winds hitting the coast.
Several international flights to and from Sydney Airport were diverted, while the port of Newcastle, the world’s biggest coal export port, was closed.
“We still have some difficult hours ahead of us as this weather pattern continues to move through,” New South Wales state premier Mike Baird told reporters.
“It’s still very dangerous. We’re seeing a continuation of the wind, rain, flash flooding.”
Three people, two men and a woman, were found dead earlier on Wednesday in the town of Dungog, about 200 km (125 miles) north of Sydney. Media reports described them as elderly and said they were trapped in their homes as floodwaters rose.
The State Emergency Services said three people were missing near the town of Maitland, around 165 km (100 miles) north of Sydney, after their cars were washed away.
Amateur video showed a house in Dungog floating away as floodwaters swept through the town.
The Insurance Council of Australia declared the storms a catastrophe on Wednesday as thousands of claims worth hundreds of millions of dollars rolled in.
“There’s no doubt there will be a natural disaster declaration … and obviously we want to get on with the job of recovery as quickly as we possibly can,” Baird said.
Cyclone-strength winds of up to 135 kph (85 mph) and heavy rain across the state have uprooted trees, some crushing cars, and snapped power poles. Transport networks have been hit, with train stations and roads flooded and traffic lights knocked out.
Three hospitals were without power and had to rely on generators and hundreds of schools were closed.
A spokeswoman said there was no timeframe for reopening the port of Newcastle, which last year sent out 159 million tonnes of thermal and steel-making coal. Prices for coal cargoes delivered next month from Newcastle have soared 10 percent since the beginning of the week to $68 a tonne as traders expected export delays due to the storm.