SYDNEY -- There was good news Tuesday for Wagga Wagga, the city in southeast Australia that had braced for its worst flooding in 159 years.
The swollen Murrumbidgee River peaked below the height of the New South Wales farming town's protective levee.
The 11-meter defenses held steady as the river rose to 10.56 meters, below the record set in 1853 and below the level in 1974 when the last big flood hit town.
But the 9,000 people ordered out of their homes after a week of record-breaking rain will not be allowed back until officials give the all-clear.
"It's a matter of safety at the moment," State Emergency Services spokesman Rolf Poole told Australia's AAP news agency. "We're not going to allow people back into Wagga Wagga at this stage.
Emergency Services chief for the Murrumbidgee region James McTavish said more than 1,000 houses had suffered flood damage.
New South Wales state premier Barry O'Farrell declared a state of emergency in the city of 58,000 people 300 miles west of Sydney. The declaration gives extra power to the authorities, including the police and the army.
There have been dozens of rescues, with people who defied the evacuation order being plucked off cars and rooftops.
The Murrumbidgee, which is not fast-flowing because the floodplain it passes through is so flat, has already begun to fall.
With sunny skies for the past two days, the emergency in Wagga Wagga is probably over. The crisis now passes downstream to other towns.
The river height is measured from the level at which the water effectively ceases to flow when the river is almost completely dry.
"Further flooding in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria is expected to persist well into March as floodwaters progress through affected rivers, with major centres such as Forbes, Hay and Condobolin likely to be affected before floodwaters enter the Murray River," the Bureau of Meteorology said.
It reported that total rainfall in the Murrumbidgee catchment last week -- 8 inches -- was nearly double the previous highest on record.
"In this context, the event is one of the most extreme multi-day rainfall events in south-east Australia's history," the bureau said.
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