The major employer in devastated Wairoa sees its plant saved from flooding and with the town cut off by road, short of fuel and running low on water, it’s working with the district council and army to help prop up essential services.

Affco chief executive Nigel Stevens flew by chopper into Wairoa on Wednesday and Friday.

He told Newsroom late on Friday the flood waters had stopped 100 metres short of the company’s large meat plant, located on the north side of the Wairoa River. The plant, which employs 300 to 500 workers depending on the season, is intact but not operating. Although power was lost, it came back on quickly enough to preserve thousands of tonnes of processed meat held in the plant’s chillers.

Forty lamb carcasses that were immediately available were distributed to the community.

Stevens said the army was choppering food, water and essentials into the town through the day yesterday. “We are putting that into our dry stores and our chillers, and acting as a distribution point for the army and the council.”

Water is a major issue, with the town’s treatment plant flooded and filled with silt. Pumps have been used to clear it but Stevens says he understands the silt has formed a hard pack at the bottom, and yesterday army personnel were shovelling it out.

He said an unused bore on the Affco site would be tapped for an interim water supply, with that water to be put through a mobile treatment plant that has been brought in by the army.

Affco will also pipe from the bore to its meat plant, which needs water to keep its refrigeration running.

Although the plant has come through the cyclone undamaged, significant challenges lie ahead, not least because State Highway 2 leading to the farms of southern Hawke’s Bay is severely damaged and likely to be out of action for months. Stevens couldn’t say what proportion of stock is procured from the south. Livestock is also sourced from the farming valleys in and around Wairoa, as well as to the north around Gisborne.

Asked whether procurement challenges raised any possibility of closure of the plant, which has a history of bitter industrial conflict as well as the death of a worker three years ago, Stevens said: “I can say that won’t happen. I can say that’s the furthest thing from our mind.” The company was “very committed to the area and to the township”.

Significant investment had gone in to the plant recently, including new blast freezing facilities, automated and robotic sorting, palletising technology and a new engine room.

However, whenever the plant does get running again, Stevens said it’s likely to operate at lower capacity and throughput than was the case prior to the flood, when around 500 workers were employed.

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