MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia’s prime minister declared a national emergency on Wednesday as more than a week of severe rain along the country’s eastern coast has caused some of the worst flooding in Australian history and inundated swaths of two of its largest cities.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said that the declaration would fast-track aid and supplies to the most devastated areas, where the bodies of missing people have been found submerged in floodwaters, and dozens of evacuation orders have forced thousands from their homes.
It was the first time that a national emergency — a legislative power created after the deadly wildfires in early 2020 — had been declared.
“I feel deeply and empathize absolutely with how people feel when they find themselves in this situation,” Mr. Morrison said during a visit to Lismore, a flood-ravaged city in the state of New South Wales, where some people protested what they called government inaction. Mr. Morrison added, “This is a very complex and very challenging environment.”
In addition to the emergency declaration, the prime minister said he had signed off on tens of million of dollars in additional federal support for affected people, including disaster payments of 2,000 Australian dollars, or roughly $1,460, per adult and 800 Australian dollars, or $585, per child.
At least 20 people have died in the flooding, and more than 60,000 people are under evacuation orders, according to the authorities. Hundreds of schools are closed, and people in the Illawarra region, on the coast of New South Wales, and in the Sydney metropolitan area have been asked to refrain from all but emergency travel.
The extreme rain, which has led to the wettest start to any year on record in Sydney and the second wettest in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, was brought on by two intense low-pressure systems in two weeks. Parts of Sydney have had more than 34 inches of rain this year, an amount that the city usually doesn’t reach until August.
In New South Wales, floodwaters are rising rapidly, inundating the suburbs of Sydney as well as rural towns across the state.
In Sydney, the Roseville Bridge, which sits nearly 60 feet above the usual water level and is used by tens of thousands of commuters each day, appeared almost to rise from a lake. Outside flooded homes, residents built piles of waterlogged possessions and ruined furniture. Some paddled through the floods on kayaks or rubber dinghies, while others waded through waters that rose almost to their waist.
As of Wednesday, more than 100,000 people had filed claims related to the floods, according to the Insurance Council of Australia, with the majority in Queensland. The cost of the flooding is expected to exceed 2 billion Australian dollars, or just under $1.5 billion, according to the ratings agency S.&P.
Climate protesters and residents of Lismore turned out at Mr. Morrison’s appearance to decry inaction from the federal government on both the flooding and on climate change more generally. Some carried signs that read “He’s a real nowhere man,” referring to Mr. Morrison, or “This is what climate change looks like.”
As a federal election approaches, Mr. Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party has come under increased scrutiny for what many describe as a long history of minimizing the threat of global warming. Australia was one of the last wealthy countries to set a 2050 target for net-zero emissions, despite being repeatedly battered by extreme weather events, including catastrophic fires, drought and widespread flooding.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr. Morrison acknowledged that a changing climate was a factor in the flooding, a move seen by some as a nod to a frustrated electorate. “We are dealing with a different climate to the one we were dealing with before,” he said, adding: “Australia is getting harder to live in because of these disasters.”
But the complexity of the weather systems involved in extreme rain makes it hard to determine the exact role of climate change in the flooding, even if its effect on Australia more generally is undeniable, said Andrew King, a lecturer in climate science at the University of Melbourne.
“For things like extreme heat events, we’ve got a very clear climate change fingerprint,” he said. “But for these kinds of multiday, extreme rain events that cause flooding, it’s quite hard to tell what the role of climate change is.”