9 Dec 2019

Transport Agency hopes to re-open key West Coast road before Christmas

6:44 pm on 9 December 2019

Things may be looking up for Franz Josef with the New Zealand Transport Agency hoping to have the badly damaged road to the north open before Christmas.

Mt Hercules slip

A slip at Mt Hercules, on State Highway 6, north of Franz Josef. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

It was announced today that the road from Franz Josef will re-open tomorrow for a guided convoy from 2pm in the afternoon.

The news will be a welcome relief to tourism businesses in Franz and Fox Glacier with earlier reports suggesting this vital link to the north would be out for a month or more.

Assessments are still being done on the road north of town but at this stage the Transport Agency says an early Christmas present could be on the cards for Franz Joseph tourism businesses.

Logan Skinner runs the Terrace Motel, and said with the peak of the season starting on Boxing day, having the route open before Christmas would make a huge difference.

Logan Skinner.

Logan Skinner. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"Appreciate these are very early days and they [contractors] are doing the very best. We got some really, really great roading crews here on the West Coast, work tirelessly we got some absolute brilliant operators and machinery so very thankful to them," Mr Skinner said.

"But hopefully once they get into it a bit more, there's bit more certainty around the date, people can make their travel plans and firm that up. And we can be open by the 24th of December they'll be absolutely brilliant, it'd be marvellous."

While the road to the south could re-open as soon as Friday or even Thursday, Mr Skinner said having it open in both directions was crucial.

"We are in the loop ... most tourists come through Arthur's Pass and leave through Haast, or come through further north and then they leave through Haast or vice versa. Not too many tourists want to drive to a dead end road as further up the top of the coast kind of finds.

"So, you know for us it's very important they can come in and go out the other way."

Mr Skinner said after three weeks of being cut off in March when the Waiho River took out the main bridge into town, it was important businesses had a good summer this year.

West Coast Regional Council chief executive Mike Meehan, who was helping with the civil defence response, said financial assistance for businesses may be available through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Mike Meehan

West Coast Regional Council chief executive Mike Meehan. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"They will be talking to people about how they can potentially help and they will work out the criteria for that," Mr Meehan said.

"So businesses will just have to kind of work through that process with them. But yeah, I mean, hopefully there's kind of innovative ways to attract people back here during the the downtime. And I'm sure there's some amazing people down here that'll make that work."

Meanwhile, the wait continues for the roughly one thousand tourists trapped in Franz Josef.

Earlier today, civil defence minister Peeni Henare said if enough people registered as needing to be flown out before Friday due to a lack of travel insurance, having young children or with medical needs, he may call in airforce helicopters to do the job.

And later in the afternoon, the government confirmed initial financial support of $100,000 for communities hit by the severe weather at the weekend.

The money will go into mayoral relief funds around the country to help with response and recovery efforts.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the disruption, especially for those in hardest hit South Canterbury and the West Coast, had been substantial.

She said further government support may be needed once a full assessment of the damage had been done.

A defence force P3 Orion is carrying out an aerial survey of the damage and the defence force is also on stand-by to provide travel support if no commercial options are available.


Chaitany. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Mr Henare's consideration of using the airforce to fly people out of the Franz Josef was welcome news to Chaitany, who was here from San Diego with his wife and two young children.

"Costs for the helicopters are crazy and I don't think I have travel insurance because my card removed the insurance from September 22. They had it and then they removed that part of it. So I'm stuck right now," he said.

For Chloe Luther and her partner who are hitchhiking around the country, paying hundreds or possibly thousands for a helicopter out of town is not an option either.

Chloe Luther and her partner.

Chloe Luther. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"We have a plane in 10 days so we would like to discover more of New Zealand and it's so beautiful here, so we really want to leave because we want to see more so we don't know. It depends on the price because we are backpackers," she said.

The other town cut off that isn't getting as much attention at the moment is Fox Glacier.

Four hundred tourists were led out of there yesterday in a guided convoy.

Things are improving a little bit for the locals as well with a generator restoring power there yesterday after two days without lights or hot water.

Vicky Pengelly.

Vicky Pengelly. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Fox resident Vicky Pengelly flies in to Franz Josef each day for work and was glad to be able to have a hot shower for the first time this morning.

"You know a lot of people are prepared and had their own generators and stuff like that but you know the local shops have assisted everyone like putting things on account and in the garages have been really good in regards to making sure people still have fuel," she said.

"So no EFTPOS and we don't have an ATM even if we did have the power on, so yeah, it's a bit of a cash society over there."

Ms Pengelly said after a power outage in March that lasted four days, it was time something was done to make Fox self sufficient for power in the same way Franz Josef is, and where the lights have stayed on the whole time.

Marae offers shelter

A West Coast marae has opened its doors to a whānau of 15 stranded near Franz Josef following flood damage.

The whānau were holding a hui at Hunts Beach, near Bruce Bay about one hours drive from Franz Josef, but have been unable to leave because the roads to and from Franz Josef have been washed out.

Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio representative Rachel Forsyth said they were using the marae facilities, as they waited to find out when the road will open.

"They've been going down there to use the cooking facilities, and the showers and of course, the laundry."

Ms Forsyth said another two whānau from the hapū were stuck in Franz Josef for the forseeable future, and she said both parties could be stuck in Haast for days, if not another couple of weeks.

A school group from Hokitika who were staying at the marae for two nights end of last week, but were lucky to make it out in time.

"They actually went down to Haast, got stuck for about an hour because there was a bit of a slip there ... so they shot back to the marae, stayed the night, and then shot home the day of the next storm, so ka pai - they got home all safe and sound."

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