A state of emergency has been declared in the Westland District after severe flooding caused a bridge to be washed away on Tuesday.
The torrential rainfall caused major flooding from Hokitika South to Haast, resulting in the collapse of the Waiho Bridge, as well as the death of a woman just north of Hokitika. Seven people have been evacuated from their Waiatoto homes due to the rising river levels, with rainfall reaching up to 800mm in some areas.
Sixty-six year old Gloria Reardon-Hirst, a resident of Arahura Valley, was killed after being swept away by the floodwaters when attempting to cross Arahura Valley Road on foot. Her body was found on Wednesday morning by the police. Additionally, a man living near Hokitika broke his leg and had to be rescued by emergency services by boat after it was deemed too dangerous to use a helicopter.
Bruce Smith, mayor of the Westland District, says the state of emergency is due to a “raised risk of life and injury for local residents and further risk to property”. Smith also says the residents are the main focus for the council, with a welfare centre being opened in the Haast Hall for displaced locals. Although the rain is expected to ease, Civil Defence is continuing to monitor river levels in the area.
According to National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Weather (NIWA) meteorologist Ben Noll this torrential rain can be traced back to the marine heatwave in the Tasman Sea (which has raised the temperature of the ocean by several degrees), as well as the moisture from tropical cyclone Veronica in Australia.
Tourism in the area is expected to be affected for the next few weeks, with South Highway 16 remaining closed to repair the bridge, stopping traffic flow from the north. Furthermore, multiple tourists have been left stranded in Franz Josef. Glacier Country Tourism chairman Ashley Cassin says the weather has caused “pretty significant disruptions” for tourists, as well as businesses in the area. Cassin says all scenic flights and helicopter flights were grounded until the weather had cleared, which has had significant effects on the daily net profits in a region dependent on tourism.
The weather is now clearing in the West Coast and the front is expected to move up the country to the lower North Island.