A civil defence emergency has been declared on the West Coast and Westport is bracing for what could be its third flood in 18 months.
The MetService upgraded its weather warning for the area this afternoon from orange to red, with up to 550mm of rain predicted for the period from this morning until 5pm on Thursday.
West Coast Emergency Management made the coast-wide declaration soon after, staffer Kim Hibbs says.
“We’re going early to be pro-active – we don’t know exactly how this will play out until we get more precise modelling tomorrow morning, but this will give us more time to evacuate people if we have to.”
Westport was inundated in July last year and again in February when swollen rivers burst their banks after an unheralded rainstorm, damaging roads and leaving large tracts of farmland under water throughout Buller and Inangahua.
Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine says the heavy rain forecast looks similar to February’s event.
“We’ve at least had plenty of warning this time – we’ve got extra fire crews and St John staff and the Army on standby in Greymouth. We’ve hired more big pumps and flood-protection infrastructure from Canterbury.”
The inflatable flood protectors will be used around Westport’s hospital, the airport fuel depot and the O’Conor Home for the elderly, which was evacuated in last year’s flood, the mayor says.
Buller, Tasman and Westland are all included in the red MetService warning and gale-force winds are also forecast for the top of the southwest of the South Island.
Rain has been falling steadily since last night across the coast, but it’s forecast to intensify tomorrow and on Thursday with falls of up to to 20mm an hour from Buller to Westland.
In Westport, council contractors have been on the job since Sunday, clearing drains and culverts, topping up earth bunds built in haste before the last floods and building new ones to protect homes in low-lying parts of town, including Snodgrass Rd.
Diggers have been piling armour rock against vulnerable river banks damaged in the last flood and still awaiting more permanent repair.
And once again councils, businesses and homeowners have been breaking out the sandbags.
Volunteers have been filling bags for the past two days to help vulnerable residents protect their properties and Landsar co-ordinators this afternoon called for more helpers.
Buller District Council information manager Chrissie Trigg says 500 sandbags have been sent to Reefton in case the Inangahua River bursts its banks.
Social support is also available for flood-stressed locals, she says.
“We are seeing a lot of anxiety in Westport at the moment and anyone who needs it can find company and support at the Community Hub in Palmerston St or they can phone 0800 768348.”
MetService upgraded its weather alert to red this afternoon at 2.30, warning that the coming rain is expected to cause dangerous river conditions and significant flooding that will disrupt travel, making some roads impassable and possibly isolating some West Coast communities.
As prepared as possible
Cleine says it’s hard to predict which parts of the coast and Tasman will be worst hit by the deluge over the coming days.
“There are factors like snow melt that could make things worse – this is quite a warm event. And we might get a bit of a break on Friday, but the weekend is looking wet again and the effects on the rivers is cumulative.
“But at least we know that Westport will be as well-prepared as it can be in the circumstances.”
More effective flood defences for Westport are in the pipeline, but still some time away.
The Buller District and West Coast Regional councils have asked the government to fund $45 million of a $56 million flood-protection project, with flood walls and other measures to reduce risk from climate change and sea-level rise.
The plan would ring-fence most of Westport with stopbanks but would leave out some low-lying parts including Snodgrass Rd after modelling showed that protecting the area would worsen flooding upstream and require very large flood barriers.
The proposal is regarded as a test case for government subsidies for flood protection in other regions and Cabinet is expected to make a decision on the funding in late September.
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund