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‘Torrents of Terror’: the August 1998 Storm and the Magnitude, Frequency and Impact of Major Floods in the Illawarra Region of New South Wales

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The Illawarra Region some 80 kilometres south of Sydney is characterised by a prominent coastal escarpment that rises to 700 m within 12 km of the coast and forms a locus for frequent, high intensity rainfall events. One of the most recent recorded events occurred on 17 August 1998 with rainfall intensities at several pluviometers exceeding 120 mm hr-1 over a duration of one hour, with up to 249 mm falling in 3.5 hours during the main storm burst. Detailed pluviometer data indicate that the storm was non-stationary and moved down catchment producing a widespread zone of 120 mm hr-1 intensity rainfall over a 30 minute duration across mid-lower catchment areas after similar intensity but longer duration rainfall in catchment headwaters. Slope-area reconstructions of peak discharge indicate that small catchments on the escarpment within the zone of maximum intensity experienced close to 100% rainfall-runoff relationships, with peak discharges correlated to short duration (<1 hr) peak rainfall intensities. Widespread erosion occurred particularly where urban development had encroached on natural water courses. Debris/hyperconcentrated flows originating from both anthropogenic and natural sediment sources caused damage to urban areas. This paper provides an overview of the spatial and temporal characteristics of the 17 August 1998 storm, the hydrologic and geomorphic response of the streams, and the nature of damage to urban areas. It reassesses the frequency of recent high-magnitude rainfall/flood events in the region, discussing the relationships between rainfall intensities, estimates of flood magnitudes and stormwater channel capacities.
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Keywords: culvert blockage; debris flow; flood frequency; flood hazard; geomorphology; hydroclimatic behaviour; hydrology; hyperconcentrated flow; rainfall intensity

Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Publication date: 2001-11-01

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