A major storm system has left towns across eastern parts of the state battling floods and triggered "mini tornadoes" that hit hundreds of homes across Sydney and the Illawarra region overnight.
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Humid and unstable north-easterly winds will continue through the week in Sydney with more thunderstorms expected on Thursday.
The storms in the Sydney region affected mostly the eastern suburbs, damaging the Malabar RSL club, a primary school and ripping off part of the roof of Fox Studios.
Police have blocked off all roads surrounding the RSL club after winds of more than 100km/h partially ripped off its roof and caused sheets of asbestos to fly on to nearby homes and roads.
Fire and Rescue NSW HAZMAT crews continue to clear asbestos from a number of nearby streets, which are expected to be closed to traffic for as long as another 24 hours.
One resident of Kirribilli on Sydney's lower north shore, described seeing a "funnel cloud" that struck just after midnight, bringing down trees in the Willoughby Street area, damaging cars and ripping off the roof of the Sydney Flying Squadron.
The wind "sounded like a freight train," and the cloud was between 50-100m wide, the resident told Fairfax Media.
The Westpac Bank in Kirribilli was also damaged, with part of its roof wrapped around a power pole.
"At the moment the weather seems to have subsided and it’s the clean-up phase," an SES spokeswoman said.
More rain to come
Flood warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) remain in place for 15 river systems across the state.
The Colo river, north-west of Sydney and a tributary of the Hawkesbury River, was predicted to rise to 10.7 metres today, a "near major flood level", according to the SES and BOM.
Other parts of the NSW north coast, meanwhile, were battling major floods with roads cut and emergency services carrying out several dramatic rescues.
Some regions, such as Yarras, inland from Port Macquarie, received 460mm of rain over three days - 415mm of that falling within the 24 hours to 9am yesterday.
The floods were more widespread than a bigger rain event three weeks ago because "catchments were much drier last time", said Julie Evans, senior meteorologist at the weather bureau.
More rain is expected over northern NSW from tomorrow but "hopefully nothing of the scale of the last few days", Ms Evan said. Localised falls may be as high as 70mm.
Wind gusts reached 135 km/h in Sydney. The strongest wind gust recorded in a NSW thunderstorm is 174km/h, recorded at Richmond on December 3, 1974, the bureau said.
Kempsey, Grafton, Port Macquarie and some surrounding towns were all experiencing significant flooding and 37 communities were isolated, affecting 20,000 residents.
The rising waters claimed two lives over the weekend with 17 year-old Luke O'Neill dying after being sucked into a drainpipe on Friday night as he was collecting golf balls in waist-deep water in the town of Kew.
Early yesterday afternoon the body of a man was found in his submerged car on a flooded road at Mylneford, about 20 kilometres north-west of Grafton.
The Pacific Highway was closed in both directions between Grafton and Maclean and between Port Macquarie and Clybucca this morning but it had reopened north of Macksville.
Worst over for Kempsey
A spokeswoman for the SES said the worst had passed at Kempsey this morning and water levels were starting to recede.
The Macleay River peaked at 7.1 metres at 6.30am, inundating parts of the CBD but the damage was not as severe as expected, Becky Gollings said.
"It looks like the water has certainly come through the CBD but it hasn’t inundated the whole town and the river is falling now," she said.
In Port Macquarie, the Hastings River rose to its expected peak of 1.8 metres.
The SES received 40 calls for help from people in Sydney's eastern suburbs of Malabar, Chifley and Randwick, which the spokesman says were the city's worst affected areas in the east.
Narellan in the south and Malabar in the south-east were also hard hit by torrential and winds gusting close to 100km/h, with minor flooding expected in the west today.
The SES took about 85 calls for help from Narellan.
"There was a retirement village out there where a number of the units had some minor roof damage," the SES spokesman said.
"One home at least out there had some very extensive roof damage, with two bedrooms destroyed."
Further south, 80 homes and a fire station were damaged at Kiama on the south coast.
Yesterday afternoon, a Westpac Lifesaver rescue helicopter flew a family of eight, including a newborn baby, to Port Macquarie from a farm cut off by floods about 30 kilometres west of Wauchope.
The chopper was also diverted to rescue a woman trapped in her car by floodwaters.
An SES spokeswoman said seven people were flown today from a campsite on the Clyde River, west of Ulladulla, after being stranded by rising floods.
Meanwhile, a man had to be rescued when his car was washed off a river crossing at Casino on Sunday night, prompting police to beg motorists not to cross flooded rivers.
Two Japanese tourists had to be rescued when they became stranded in a car on a causeway near Lismore and a family of seven had to be winched to safety when they became stranded on the Clyde River in Ulladulla where they were camping.
About 100 train passengers on the Countrylink XPT service from Sydney to Casino were trapped for nearly 17 hours after fallen trees, floodwaters and a landslide stopped the train three times before it reached Coffs Harbour at midday yesterday.
In all the SES says it has received 1200 calls for help, mainly from regions in northern NSW, Sydney and the Illawarra.
By this morning, the SES had completed 59 flood rescues throughout eastern NSW and answered 9271 calls.
Electricity supplier Ausgrid earlier said about 17,000 people were without power throughout the night in Sydney, the central coast and the Hunter regions.
Grafton looks spared
Grafton itself appears to be safe but floodwaters in surrounding areas are still dangerous. The town came within a few centimetres of flooding about three weeks ago when the remnants of ex-tropical cyclone swelled the Clarence River almost to the height of Grafton's main levee.
This time the SES expects the river will peak about 1.5 metres below the danger mark.
"No problems are anticipated," the SES spokesman said.
At Taree the predicted flood level has been downgraded from 3.7 to 3.2 metres, but there will still be "quite extensive isolation downstream", he said.
The Pacific Highway has been cut by flooding between Grafton and Maclean.
The Transport Management Centre is advising vehicles to use Summerland Way and the Bruxner Highway instead.
Residents in Maclean can still travel north to Ballina, and residents from Cowper Brushgrove and Tyndale can still access Grafton, the centre said.
The Pacific Highway also remains closed between Port Macquarie and Clybucca in both directions. There is access for local residents at Hastings River Drive, Port Macquarie, for those travelling north to Kempsey. Northbound traffic is being stopped at Kempsey Bridge.
Other major roads are affected by flooding are:
- Oxley Highway is closed between Walcha and Wauchope
- Waterfall Way is closed between Bellingen and Dorrigo
- Bangalow Road is closed between Lismore and Bexhill
Motorists are advised to avoid these areas and delay their travel, the centre said. The New England Highway can be used as an alternative route.
Meanwhile, drivers are also advised to avoid the Illawarra Highway at Macquarie Pass, where two oversized vehicles have become stuck and are blocking the road in both directions.
The Illawarra Highway remains closed in both directions between the Princes Highway and Tongarra Road in Albion Park Rail due to flooding, the centre said.
Flooding is also affecting the southbound lanes of the Princes Highway at Wandandian.
The Bombo turn-off from the Princes Highway at Kiama has reopened after flooding caused an earlier closure, the centre said.
With Emma Partridge, Peter Hannam, and AAP