Authorities expect flood levels in Grafton to reach record heights after the Bureau of Meteorology issued major flood warnings for Clarence Valley.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell says the worst is over for Grafton residents after the Clarence River peaked and started receding.
The river peaked on Tuesday just below the height of the levee wall in a record flood that caused the evacuation of 2100 people.
Flood warning ... sightseers gather at the Prince Street wharf in Grafton where official readings are taken. Photo: Simon Hughes
Mr O'Farrell flew into the northern NSW city to assess the damage caused by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, which has saturated large parts of the state and Queensland in the past few days.
The Premier said that while there was still concern for communities downstream, "it does appear as though the worst of it is over".
The State Emergency Service said at 1pm that many of the levees protecting the city appeared to be holding, but there were reports of some water breaching the barrier near Fry Street in Grafton. The extent of any damage was not known.
More than 2100 residents in Dovedale and North Meadow were ordered to leave their homes at 8.30am on Tuesday ahead of predictions that the Clarence River would hit a record peak of 8.1 metres at Grafton at midday.
About 7000 other residents in North Grafton and South Grafton were warned to prepare to evacuate if conditions worsened. An evacuation centre has been set up at South Grafton High School.
But the river peaked at 8.08 metres, just shy of the expected peak.
The levee banks along the river are inconsistent in height and were bolstered by residents and emergency service workers, who placed sandbags along the top.
At 1pm, SES spokesman Andrew Richards said the river level appeared to he holding steady around the predicted peak, but it was unclear whether the peak had been reached.
Big swell ... Coogee Beach on Tuesday morning. Photo: Peter Rae
However, the damage to properties would not be assessed until the river started to recede in Grafton.
He said water also had been reported behind the levee downstream at Ulmarra and Maclean. The extent of any damage there was not known.
A man takes photographs of the heavy surf at Collaroy Beach in Sydney's northern beaches. Photo: Mick Tsikas
Mr Richards said the Clarence River was not due to peak at Ulmarra until 3pm, and at midnight in Maclean.
On Monday night, about 1500 residents downstream of Grafton - in Ulmarra, Cowper and Brushgrove - were ordered to leave their homes about 7pm.
The Bureau of Meteorology has issued a major flood warning for the Clarence Valley, and a moderate flood warning for the Orara River.
Sydney got lashed with rain overnight. Photo: Mick Tsikas
Before the predicted peak hit, Caroline Ortel, SES regional controller, said Grafton was facing record flood levels.
"What we're dealing with there is a flood of record," she said.
"There has never been a flood of this height in recorded history of Grafton, so for everybody who is trying to work on this and make all of the predictions, there isn't historical data to go on. The river is showing signs of dropping further upstream and that is what we have to work with at the moment."