7 Dec 2019

SI downpours: West Coast highway closed, flood fears in Canterbury

9:58 pm on 7 December 2019

More heavy rain is forecast for south Westland tonight with significant slips between Franz Josef and Fox Glacier on the South Island's West Coast after heavy rain today.

Power lines down on State Highway 6 at Mt Hercules.

Power lines down on State Highway 6 at Mt Hercules. Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

A 200 metre long slip and a bridge washout just south of Hari Hari has already severed the region, cutting off Whataroa, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier from the rest of the West Coast.

All the settlements on State Highway 6, between Hokitika and Makarora, are cut off from each other because of the damage.

Pete Connors from the Transport Agency said a huge length of the state highway - more than 350 kilometres - is shut because of numerous slips and a bridge washout.

"The real problem we've got is between Fox Glacier and Franz Josef - on what we call the Fox Hills ... there's been some pretty substantial slips."

He said it's too early to say how long it will take to repair the roads.

Road damage to State Highway 6

Damage to State Highway 6 Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

Westland District Mayor Bruce Smith said there has been considerable damage and Coasters are completely on their own until the weather improves.

Mr Smith said numerous slips and a bridge washout have cut off every major settlement along the West Coast's SH6 from Hokitika down to Haast.

Power is out from Fox Glacier to Paringa, and likely to remain so for a couple of days.

The lines company, Westpower, said it is working with Civil Defence and roading authorities to find out when they can get in to replace downed power poles.

No caption

Road damage on the West Coast Photo: Facebook / Coasters Club

In the meantime people should treat all power lines as live.

Mr Smith said 400mm of rain has fallen in the past few days accompanied by powerful winds.

"There's a real message here at the moment, Coasters, all of your individual towns are isolated and so you're on your own.

"You need to be talking to your neighbours. Make sure that you don't to anything silly because this weather will pass over and then we'll get into the recovery mode."

Residents in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier on town supply are advised to conserve water.

Mr Smith said once the weather calms down, helicopters will go up to assess the damage.

People should monitor West Coast Civil Defence social media pages for up-to-date information.

MetService is expecting up to 100mm of rain to fall in the ranges of Westland and up to 70mm near the coast up until 4pm on Sunday.

Heavy rain may cause streams and rivers to rise rapidly. Surface flooding and slips are also possible and driving conditions may be hazardous, MetService said.

Rangitata River peaks

The Timaru District remains in a state of emergency and the only two bridges north to Christchurch remain closed.

Timaru Emergency Operations Centre spokesperson Philip Howe said the bridges will be inspected again at first light tomorrow and any decision on reopening them will follow that.

He said the predicted peak of the Rangitata River at State Highway 1 at 7pm appears to have been correct with the water level now beginning to recede.

No caption

An aerial shot of flooding on the Rangitata River. Photo: Facebook / Timaru District Council

But the state of emergency will remain in place until the bridges are reopened.

"The Rangitata area is still at risk because of extensive flooding around the river with increased river levels, the projected peak appears to have begun dropping, however we are aware that further rainfall through the course of today in the high country area will send another increased level of water down the river, so we are obviously still monitoring that."

Mr Howe said those residents in the flood-hit areas south of the river should stay put and contact emergency services if they need help evacuating.

Rangitata Island Road resident Alana Cronin told RNZ she received this afternoon's evacuation order too late and her property was already surrounded by water.

She said they attempted to leave but do not have a four-wheel vehicle, and she's doubtful they would have made it out even if they did. Ms Cronin said it's nerve-wracking being trapped by the floodwaters with her children.

Earlier today there was an evacuation order and at that time Timaru Emergency Operations Centre spokesperson Stephen Doran said they were working with Fire and Emergency to get people out.

"FENZ [Fire and Emergency New Zealand] at the moment is going down there with a four wheel drive fire appliance, and they're going to be testing which roads are still passable, there's a few cross streets that people can go down but it's just picking the right one. And if not they will go in and get people out if need be."

Rangitata Motor Camp caretaker, Glen Shaw, said those evacuated are watching the weather as the river continues to rise.

"The river is high, but we're quite lucky cause the mouth's very wide, so it is pumping out, but they're just keeping on levels because of water going down the south branch as well where it's breached further up the main highway."

Mr Shaw said several roads closer to the highway have been flooded.

Earlier, Mr Doran said despite the bridges being closed, there were reports of people still walking across the Arundel bridge.

"It's a really dynamic river. Levels can rise very, very quickly so we'd say stay very well clear of it," Mr Doran said.

"It's people walking past cordons and ignoring signs, moving cones to the side. We do take our closures very seriously and we don't close things unless it's absolutely necessary so don't cross the cordons please."

It was unclear how many people had been left stranded by the bridge closures.

"Lots of people will just have postponed their trip which is what we've been advising people to do for most of the day," Mr Doran said.

"Whether they are going up to Christchurch from Dunedin or to Dunedin from Christchurch, most of the people who have come up to the bridge have just turned back.

"For everyone else, we are just saying stay at home, the bridges are unlikely to open until tomorrow morning at the very, very earliest so they aren't going to get anywhere tonight."

Mr Doran earlier said it was a serious situation and people needed to make sure they were safe.