14 Oct 2019

Raetihi fears becoming ghost town after highway slip

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 14 October 2019

Locals in the small North Island town of Raetihi are worried they'll turn into a ghost town if the lifeline State Highway 4 isn't fixed quickly.

The road between Whanganui and the town has been closed for most of the month after a huge slip, with a one-hour diversion in place bringing traffic through twisting bends via Ohakune, bypassing Raetihi altogether.

The detour has resulted in the town's business trade dropping markedly and disruption to the day-to-day life of its residents.

A huge mountain of soil 400m wide broke away from the hillside earlier this month and now sits 200m downhill, burying the road and farmland 50m below.

Not only is the town's financial heart feeling the weight, ordinary people have been struggling to adjust to the blocked road.

The disruption was evident today, with some children back at the local school today having to cross farmland in a four-wheel drive to get lessons, and teachers having to leave early to take the long way around.

Principal Helena Burns said that disturbance of routine was short-time, but significant.

"It's having a huge effect on our local businesses. It's having a huge effort on emergency services. I've had a friend who's had to go down to Whanganui and drove two hours to get the hospital. So when you're thinking about lifelines and things, it's a long way to go."

National Road Carriers has said it will be years, not months to fix the road. But Helena Burns said that timeframe would be unacceptable, given the high social and economic cost it would impose on the community.

"Please fix the road and fast, because it is going to cost our community and we don't want it to turn into a ghost town ... I definitely think there is that threat," she said.

Rebecca and Ben, managers of Raetihi Holiday Park, located of the top of the scenic Parapara Highway, said traffic was slow and business had died off. A tour bus that usually stopped at the park now took a detour.

Rebecca said the company had invested in its canoe business and had added more cabins, expecting further tourism revenue growth, but that the road closure had created uncertainty and a need to reassess.

Ben said they were unsure how quickly things would turn around leading up to the critical summer period.

"It's put a lot of people off even enquiring for it, because it's all over the news that the Raetihi to Whanganui highway is closed ... so people are thinking 'why don't we go with a different company'."

The owner of the Angel Louise Cafe, Lyn, said the school holiday rush didn't happen this time round and that had hurt her business and she too had been told that may take years.

"I'd hope we could trade through. I employ seven people and a lot of people rely on my little business. It's got to be fixed."

At Raetihi's only service station, owner Raymond is gearing up for less traffic for the foreseeable future.

"Our planning at the moment is, we'll just work with the council I guess to see if they can put some better signs up the road that encourage people to take a five minute trip to Raetihi and then go left to Ohakune... We'll also been in contact with Z, who employ the fuel and they're working with us on pricing."

The Transport Agency's Lance Kennedy said slips were common in the area, but this particular one was complex and was still moving.

He is advising locals the top priority is to reinstate the road, but that it won't happen quickly, and they need to get used to making adjustments.

The Transport Agency is meeting affecting residents on Thursday.