6 Mar 2015

Terrified tourists heard 'rumble'

8:39 pm on 6 March 2015

A camper had to be whisked away from rising floodwaters, tourists were trapped by a slip, and houses and businesses inundated by torrential rain lashing the West Coast today.

House flooded in Westport


A civil defence operations centre was activated in Westport, as emergency services responded to flooding and severe weather, but has now been wound down. Flooding also forced the closure of schools.

Buller District Council Mayor Garry Howard said residents still cleaning up after this morning's deluge needed to prepare themselves for more rain.

Mr Howard said the rain was tropical in its intensity.

"There's 17 homes that were affected, with water up to their floorboards or past the floor level. So those ones are now drying out carpets and extracting furniture etc."

He said, while the weather was fine now, there was more rain forecast for between 4am and 7am tomorrow, and people should keep furniture lifted and sandbags at the ready.

Mon Dieu!

The heavy rain caused two slips to close State Highway 6 (Lower Buller Gorge road) between Inangahua and Westport this morning, with one trapping a French couple.

Laetitia Lambert, 28, and Mathieu Bekkai, 29, from Normandy, told The Westport News of their ordeal.

Mr Bekkai said he thought the water on the road was just a puddle, but when they drove through they got stuck on a piece of wood.

When he got out of the van and tried to dislodge the wood he heard rumbling as the slip cascaded off the mountainside.

"I said to Letitia 'go out, go out now'," but she was too scared to move.

"I was afraid… [There was] wood, rocks, everything, water," she told The Westport News.

The slip was between five and 10 metres wide, and the water came up to the tops of his legs, Mr Bekkai said. He managed to warn off other traffic and help arrived soon after.

They were rescued by police and are planning to spend the night at a Westport backpackers, Mr Bekkai told Checkpoint.

He said the campervan was a write-off.

Westport - 6 March 2015

A car approaches a closed area of road in Westport. Photo: SUPPLIED

Two trucks were also trapped between slips in the area but have now been freed.

New Zealand Transport Agency's regional performance manager Pete Connors said contractors worked hard to get the trapped vehicles out early this afternoon.

Mr Connors said contractors were working at both ends of the gorge to clear the slips, but water running off the hillside was causing some problems.

He said the slip at Summit Creek brought about 2000 cubic metres of material onto the highway.

A real water bed

The owner of Westport's Bazil's Hostel, Stephen Lee, said he had never seen such severe flooding in the area.

He said the water was knee-deep outside and flooded the lower floor of his hostel on Russell Street.

Mr Lee said although heavy rain was forecast, he had never seen rain like this - and was not shocked the drains could not handle the large volumes of water.

"It's just the stormwater system. The pipe's totally inadequate. It's just old, I think. It's a common issue, you know. Whenever we get heavy rain, the drains don't work. They just sit stagnant for too long. It's not a massive issue unless we get abnormal volumes in a short period like this."

Mr Lee woke up at 4am, and when he heard how heavy the rain was, made his way downstairs to start sandbagging the hostel's entrances.

"All the rooms were full, we've had a full hostel.

"One young lady in a tent, she was on an air mattress in a tent, and she slept through the whole thing because I think the air mattress must have floated.

"At the end of the day, there's no lives lost, and we will just have to re-carpet some rooms, I'd say."

Mr Lee said his business had now earned the name Bazil's Swimming Pool.

What a mess

For the third time in 10 years, a social services agency in Westport has flooded, and today there was too much water for the fire service to pump out.

Homebuilders Westport chief executive Lorraine Scanlon said she now felt apprehensive when the West Coast received a heavy downpour.

She said any infrastructure system would have struggled to cope with the deluge that hit Westport overnight and this morning.

Ms Scanlon said from the front door of Homebuilders Westport Trust, a charity that supports children and their parents, the flooding did not look too bad.

But when she opened the door, the ankle-deep floodwater spilled out.

Ms Scanlon said there had been many tears today as she and others from the agency come to terms with what has been lost.

Bradley's Furniture lost about $80,000 worth of stock when 150mm of water poured through its storage shed in Lyttelton Street, The Westport News reported.

Owner Pat Bradley said the surface flooding was probably the worst he had seen in the town.

"I don't know how we are going to salvage 40 metre rolls of carpet… I don't know what we will ever do with them." The stock was insured, he said.

Further south, a camper lost his tent to rising floodwaters of the Taramakau River, near Greymouth, before being rescued by the Coast Guard.

The severe weather also closed Atawhai Drive at Founders Heritage Park, near Nelson. The police closed the road as a precaution as the windmill presents a hazard in the strong winds.

Due to the bad weather and approaching high tide, Rocks Road was closed to light traffic because of storm surges.

Rain in Christchurch hasn't dampened enthusiasm at Te Matatini national kapa haka festival. Spectators are wearing wet weather gear handed out by Ngai Tahu.

Rain in Christchurch hasn't dampened enthusiasm at Te Matatini national kapa haka festival. Spectators are wearing wet weather gear handed out by Ngai Tahu. Photo: RNZ / Colin Pearce

Chelsea Gateway Motor Lodge owner Lynne Elvins said despite her business not being flooded, many people were cancelling their plans because of road closures and poor weather.

She said some guests cancelled because a high school debate was moved to Nelson, while others did so because they were uncertain about the road conditions.

"It's frustrating because it was going to be a very good weekend for us and we need it, you know. We need the people coming to Westport, so it's very frustrating for things to be cancelled for a weather event."

More severe weather forecast

MetService was predicting heavy rain and severe gales for parts of the country over the next day.

It said an active front preceded by a strong moist northerly flow would move east over the South Island this morning, then the North Island this afternoon and early evening.

A period of heavy rain was expected, especially about Nelson, Buller, Westland and the Southern Alps, where hourly rainfalls could reach 30 to 50mm/h. Thunderstorms were also likely.

MetService warned it was a significant amount of rain over a short period of time and streams and rivers could rise very rapidly, with surface flooding and hazardous driving conditions.

Elsewhere, the front was also expected to bring gale to severe gale northerlies in Wellington, Nelson, the Canterbury High Country, Banks Peninsula, Buller and Marlborough.