19 Jul 2021

Hundreds in flood-hit West Coast spend another night out of their homes

9:44 am on 19 July 2021

Hundreds of people have spent another night out of their homes after the weekend's flooding on the West Coast.

Flood waters cover a section in Westport.

Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

The full extent of the damage in hard-hit Westport is still being assessed.

Local civil defence staff are trying to determine whether flooded homes are habitable after Buller and Orowaiti rivers topped their banks in torrential rain, sending water surging through the town.

Stephen Switalla said he had just 15 minutes to evacuate from his home late on Friday night as the floodwaters closed in.

"We went to bed Friday night about 9pm, only asleep for about two hours and there was a bang bang on the door, 'get out get out'.

"We had 15 minutes to get out. So we just took some clean clothes and took the dog and took our documents, and we had to leave."

He and his wife went to the Salvation Army Centre, and on Sunday back to look at their house.

"It's gone right through the house, under the carpets."

The couple had only recently returned to Westport from Timaru to spend their retirement, and Switalla said they were just starting to get the house together, with the inside painted, and new carpet and vinyl.

"Now we're back to square one again, so it's a bit heartbreaking."

His neighbour, Lorraine Williams, also visited her flood-hit home on Sunday and said it had at least six to eight inches of water inside the house.

"But we're lucky, we're still alive. You can replace the damage but you can't replace your life.

"I think I've shed all my tears.

"I think it's happened to so many people in Westport that we're lucky that we're a small community and that we've stood together and everyone's helped each other."

The army has helped evacuate residents in Buller

The army has helped evacuate residents in Buller. Photo: Defence Force

More than 200 people stayed at the Salvation Army's Westport centre on Saturday night and about 30 people were there again last night.

Howard Murray has been looking after displaced residents at the centre and said he had never seen flooding this bad in the almost 50 years he has lived in Westport.

"When you drive around town and look, streets are still wall to wall water, some houses have still got ankle deep water through them.

"It's just a real shame for the people."

Murray said some people's homes had not long been repaired from flooding a couple of years ago.

Buller mayor Jamie Cleine told First Up the rapid assessments got under way in earnest yesterday.

"They'll be cracking on again from first light this morning and hopefully by later today there'll be able to be people released back to their houses."

He expected a number of houses are likely to be habitable from later today but there were some with significant damage.

"Some of our worst affected parts of town still have water around them and they need to be inspected, so I expect the damage level to increase."

Buller Health medical centre in Westport, which includes a small hospital, is likely to be closed for at least a week.

The West Coast District Health Board says floodwater has damaged its boiler-house, which provides heating and hot water.

A temporary medical ward has been set up at Club Buller, but some patients have been transferred to Greymouth by road or helicopter. The makeshift ward currently has three patients.

Buller farms have lost hundreds of stock, Westport News reported. Agriculture Minister and local MP Damien O'Connor said about 1000 stock might have drowned, including 700 on one farm.

The government announced $300,000 of initial financial assistance for Buller district, $100,000 for Marlborough and $200,000 for flood-affected farmers and growers across both regions.

In Marlborough, 2000 people were forced to leave their homes when the Wairau River breached its banks on Saturday.

Most were told on Sunday they could return, but district mayor John Leggett said a number were still out of their houses.

"There is one small pocket of property owners at Tuamarina who weren't able to return to their home. We've been having the pumps in there to get rid of some of the surface water and hopefully today they'll be able to return."

There was property damage, and water came over stop banks in a couple of places so there damage to fencing and paddocks, but overall the Wairau flood protection network held up "remarkably well", he said.

"There was a huge volume of water coming down that waterway. It's a braided river and it takes a massive capacity, it's a big catchment behind it."

The road was washed out at the top of the Awatere Valley, with a long alternative route in and out of the area, and an abutment to a bridge in the Waihopi Valley was lost.

In the Marlborough Sounds, the roading network took a "massive battering" with slips and some areas were cut off. "Thankfully we've got water taxis available and I understand some of the mussel barges have been calling into bays and checking on people, there is a way out."

"It's been complicated by the Spark network being down for quite some time and also power. But Marlborough Lines are on to that and there's been a massive effort to connect with those communities."

Leggett said the government financial aid will be distributed from a mayoral fund. "The government have made it very clear that once we get a really close and accurate assessment here of the damage they'll re-look at some further assistance."