Tensions simmer over Westport flood scheme

8:04 pm on 23 May 2024
Westport residents at council flood protection mtg

Residents await the start of the meeting. Photo: LDR / Brendon McMahon

Nearly three years after a devastating flood displaced hundreds of residents in Westport, they have been told a solution is near.

But at the Westport Rating District Joint Committee annual meeting, held in public for the first time on Wednesday, residents called for more transparency and raised fears the town remains as vulnerable to the next big flood.

The committee is charged with making recommendations to the West Coast Regional Council on the build and future maintenance of the ring bank flood protection scheme for the West Coast town.

Former Buller District councillor Phil Rutherford said greater clarity was also needed in the map of the proposed scheme for residents needing to know "who is in and who is out", he said.

Later in the meeting the chief engineer for the scheme, Peter Blackwood, said mitigation options for two areas currently excluded under the scheme - Snodgrass Road and Carters Beach - have yet to come.

Ruth Vaega outside her Snodgrass Road home in June 2022. The house was raised onto higher foundations following Cyclone Fehi in February 2018 but now may be abandoned -- its owners are no clearer two years on from the July 2021 flood.

The future of some areas has yet to be settled. That's small comfort for people like Ruth Vaega, pictured, whose Snodgrass Rd home has already been raised following coastal inundation from Cyclone Fehi in 2018 but will not be protected under the new scheme. Photo: Greymouth Star / BRENDON McMAHON

Lifelong Westport resident Kevin Smith recalled the 1970 Westport flood, but "the talk" of the last 54 years had not translated to action by the authorities until the July 2021 event.

And the 2021 and 2022 floods "were no bigger" than previous 'record' floods, stretching back more than 70 years, Smith said.

"What was different was the amount of damage," he said.

Westport's inland flood defences on the Buller and Orowaiti rivers at Organs Island had served their purpose in 1950.

But since then, Westport had expanded in a way which had enabled heightened risk to people, he said.

"The 1950 flood, everything worked very well. It was a bigger flood than what we have just endured. Why aren't we learning?

"I think we should have a report on what caused the damage. The damage was man-made. What we have done is built in silly places."

The flooded southeastern approach to Westport under flood in July 2021, with the Buller River in the background.

The southern side of Westport looking inland along the Buller River, in the aftermath of the July 2021 flood. Photo: NZ Defence Force

Smith said the community needed to work through the flooding damage and the causes.

For now, Westport remained as vulnerable as it was in the July 2021 floods, he said.

"There is a flood coming: will we get the walls built in time? That's up to you people."

Cr Brett Cummings said repair work had already been done on the historic flood defences, just east of Westport, to help with the next flood.

And Cr Frank Dooley defended council's expert approach to solve the problem, which it was required to do by statute, "not based on community opinion but on expert opinion".

Snodgrass Road resident Paul Reynold, a trenchant critic of the way Westport's inland flood defences and the Orowaiti overflow had been left to deteriorate, suggested both councils' approach was "anything but expert".

The regional and the Buller District councils "had a hand in causing the flood".

"We've had three years of charade around avoiding the cause," Reynolds said.

"There has been no effort to define the cause of the 2021 flood - no problem can be solved without first identifying what caused the problem."

Reynolds said the underlying issues were identified and presented to both councils in 2015.

"Council already had a document by 2021 warning of the risk.

"It was ignored for six years … in the filing drawer of council."

He suggested the current scheme, including flood defence walls, was not the best option.

"The walls will eventually burst in the event of a major flood - with the loss of life."

Regional council chief executive Darryl Lew said the government's $22.9m contribution, announced a year ago, had now come through after a technical review found its scheme "was sound".

The money - in reality $15.6 million for physical flood protection works - was now being drawn down and should be built by 2027.

He said the benefit classes for properties falling within the scheme will soon be be formally identified as the design was finalised.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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