Recap: Weather mayhem leaves tourists stranded, major roads closed

2:26 pm on 9 December 2019

The government announced this afternoon it may call in Air Force helicopters to evacuate some of the hundreds of tourists trapped in Franz Josef.

Mt Hercules slip

Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

The highway from Hokitika to Franz Josef has been closed since Saturday after heavy rain over the weekend caused several washouts and slips along State Highway 6, and left hundreds of tourists and locals stranded in the region.

The road to the south of the town may not be open until Friday, and the road north is expected to take at least two weeks to clear.

It was hoped that by the end of today road crews would have a better idea of when the road south could be re-opened.

The township of Fox is also cut off, as are dairy farms in Whataroa, where they'll be having to start dumping milk today because no tankers have been able to get through since Friday.

A generator has helped restored power to Fox Glacier today where power had been out to some parts since Saturday.

About 1000 tourists and locals showed up to a town hall meeting at Franz Josef this morning at which the Civil Defence Minister, Peeni Henare, sought to reassure people.

He told them to register their names with Civil Defence if they did not have travel insurance, or had children or medical needs that meant they'd need help to get out of Franz before Friday.

Helicopter companies were flying people out but at a price ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Mr Henare said a free ride on an Air Force helicopter was something the government was willing to consider.

Bridge washout just after Mt Hercules heading south

Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"Those are some of the support mechanisms that I know that we can put in place, which is why it's important to get a true picture of the need here. We know that insurance will cover for those who have insurance and for those that don't then that's when we really got to kick into gear and make sure we can support them the best way that we can."

Inflite Group, which operates scenic flights and skydive operations, has brought in extra aircraft from around the South Island to manage the demand for air tickets out of Franz Josef.

Spokesperson Dan Burt told RNZ the first people were flown out at 7.30am today, using aircraft relocated from Queenstown, Nelson and Aoraki/Mount Cook.

"We're taking a lot of people through to Mount Cook Village because we've got road transport operations available - we've got vehicles and buses available. Those people are going through to Queenstown while others are heading to Christchurch which has to be by air at this stage."

Mr Burt said passengers were being given a scenic flight as part of their ticket, and the company had offered to manage the return of rental vehicles left behind in Franz Josef.

In the meantime, extra food supplies such as bread, milk, and fresh fruit and veggies were being flown in this afternoon.

One bridge north of Timaru reopens

Timaru District Council this morning advised motorists that Inland Scenic Route 72 would reopen at midday but warned that a backlog of vehicles were expected.

Timaru entered a state of emergency over the weekend, when torrential rain caused the Rangitata River to overflow and cut off access to the region. Subsequently, Rangitata Bridge on SH1 and the bridge at Arundel on SH72 had to be shut.

But the council said the reopened road would still be bumpy with some unsealed sections, and people who could postpone their journey should hold off until the main surge of held-up motorists was through.

Speed restrictions were in force and people were also advised to carry food and water for the trip because of the limited services enroute. Localised detours were also in place from Orari.

Rangitata River remains flood on Sunday 8 December, 2019.

Rangitata River remains flood on Sunday 8 December, 2019. Photo: Facebook / Timaru District Council

On the West Coast, a number of power poles had come down along with the Chorus fibre attached. Once the electricity provider in the area restores its network then Chorus can restore its own network.

Chorus technicians plan to put a temporary fibre cable at Arundel so that broadband and phone services can be restored quicker, but assessment of another damaged fibre at the Rangitata Bridge on SH1 cannot be completed yet because of the flood.

Emergency accommodation for those evacuated is available at the Southern Trust Events Centre, 70 Morgans Road.

What to expect for the weather in coming days

MetService says a settled period of weather should allow the clean-up to get under way.

It said the front that brought the weekend's wild weather was now only having a few lingering effects on the East Cape of the North Island.

Meteorologist Andrew James said there was generally clear conditions ahead with a few showers but nothing like what had been seen in the last few days.

"We've got a good couple of days of weather down there for the clean-up operation."

NIWA meteorologist Chris Brandolino said well over a metre of rain had fallen in the West Coast in the past eight days.

"Even the lower elevations, Milford Sound [there's been] 608mm of rain ... they normally get 700 in the entire month of December. When you're getting 80 or 90 percent of your monthly rainfall in seven or eight days, that causes problems."

While skies are beginning to clear over Timaru today, more active weather and potentially with heavy rain could be expected again towards the end of the week and most likely the weekend.

However, James said the rain expected later this week would be nothing like the deluges that hammered both sides of the island in the last few days.

Here's a recap of RNZ's coverage from across the South Island:

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