26 Mar 2019

As it happened: West Coast bridge washed away as rivers reach record levels

8:21 pm on 26 March 2019

A state of emergency has been declared in Westland as torrential rain brings flooding to the region, with the Waiho Bridge, south of Franz Josef Glacier, totally washed away.

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the raging floodwaters.

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the raging floodwaters. Photo: Civil Defence West Coast

The Westland District Council declared the emergency earlier this evening, as there is a "raised risk to life and injury for local residents and further risk to property".

Watch raw video of the bridge collapse:

The heavy rain raised rivers to record levels, closed roads and prompted evacuation warnings in the area. Some parts of Westland face up to 800 millimetres of rain during the downpour.

The town of Haast is experiencing a one-in-100-year flood, and five people were evacuated as a precaution. The main road from just south of the town all the way north to Hokitika is closed.

There has been minor breaches from the Haast River into some properties, and a Welfare Centre has been opened in the Haast Hall.

There is also localised flooding at Palmers Creek, on the south side of the Arahura River.

The Blue Spur Road is currently impassable in places.

The carpark at the Hokitika Gorge has been temporarily closed.

Ritchies Bus Services has suspended all bus services tomorrow for the whole of the West Coast.

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the weather hitting Westland.

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the weather hitting Westland. Photo: Civil Defence West Coast

Westland District Council activated its Emergency Operations Centre earlier today, as river levels approached those last seen during the devastating 2016 floods.

The Council advised people living south of the Arawhata Bridge to evacuate.

The South Turnbull Road at Okuru is also flooding. A council spokesperson said many rivers had reached alarm levels and staff were continuing to monitor them, to ensure preparations for emergency actions.

The Transport Agency has extended the closure of the South Westland highway.

Check the latest road closures at NZTA.

State Highway 6 between Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers has been closed since this morning after two slips covered the road.

Agency network manager Colin Hey said the closure now ran from Makarora on the Otago side of the Haast Pass to south of Hokitika. Motorists will be stopped at those two points. Mr Hey said it would remain closed overnight.

MetService has upgraded watches in many areas to full warnings in place now in place for Buller, northern Westland and headwaters of north Canterbury.

Civil Defence issued a strong wind warning for Wellington and Wairarapa from 1pm today through to tomorrow afternoon.

Severe northwest gales gusting up to 120km/h an hour in exposed places could be expected - especially tomorrow morning.

MetService said residents of north-west Nelson, the Richmond and Tararua Ranges and around Mount Taranaki should watch for heavy rain.

Fox River Bridge taken from the south side earlier today.

Fox River Bridge taken from the south side on Tuesday morning. Photo: Supplied / Transport Agency

Northwesterly winds could approach severe gale strength in Fiordland, Southland, Otago, parts of Canterbury and Marlborough, and MetService urged residents to keep up to date with the latest forecasts.

Heavy rain has been falling in southern Westland, Fiordland and the headwaters of south Canterbury and Otago lakes.

Westland District Council mayor Bruce Smith said an "incredible" amount of rain had been forecast, with predictions of between 600mm and 800mm to fall.

Rivers in the region were getting close to the heights of the April 2016 floods which caused $30 million worth of damage.

State Highway 94, Te Anau to Milford Sound, is subject to a heavy rain warning.

The road to the Hokitika Gorge and Beach Road are closed. South Westland Area School and the freedom camping site at Kakapotahi are both closed.

A Franz Josef restaurant manager said people could be trapped in the town if river levels continued to rise.

Alma Pangan of Blue Ice Restaurant said she may not be able to go home if the bridge was damaged.

Ms Pangan said she was forced to cross the State Highway 6 bridge into Franz Josef so she could get to work.

She said the restaurant was preparing for a busy night, especially if people were unable to get back home.

See how the events have unfolded today with RNZ's blog here: