Rescue from raging waters

Last updated 15:18 18/04/2014

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A woman has been plucked to safety after an hour and a half trapped on the roof of her submerged car, after gale force winds and torrential rain lashed parts of the country. 

It has been a torrid 24 hours, with the remnants of Cyclone Ita cutting a swath across the country. Heavy rain and "hurricane"-like winds have caused widespread damage, with the West Coast worst affected.

The middle-aged woman was driving to Oamaru when raging Kakanui River floodwaters swept her vehicle off Fuchsia Creek Rd about midday today.

It sparked a dramatic rescue involving firemen, police, a jet boat driver, a rescue helicopter and a local farmer.

When rescuers got to the scene, the water had risen above the windscreen of the car. Only a thin wire boundary fence prevented the vehicle, and the woman, being swept downstream. 

Local farmer Robert Borst was on his motorbike out moving cows when he saw fire engines go past.

"I saw a car was in trouble and someone was sitting on the roof," he said. "The fence was really the only thing holding the car from going downstream."

Police, fire fighters and passers-by were already gathered at the scene. Borst returned to his farm to collect his 14-tonne digger, and Sergeant Peter Muldrew was harnessed up and climbed into the digger's bucket.

Weston Volunteer Fire Brigade chief fire officer Bevan Koppert said a jet boat was on stand-by at the river, while a rescue helicopter from Dunedin turned out as back-up. 

Said Borst, "I kind of crept out. I couldn't see where the road was. I got as far as I could, reached it right out, probably within a metre of the car.

"The water was in the digger as well where I was sitting. It was fairly deep and hairy in there. The adrenalin was certainly pumping."

The police officer reached out his hand and managed to get the woman into the digger bucket shortly before 1.30pm.

"It was a good outcome. I think she was suffering from a bit of hypothermia and shock," Borst said.

Koppert said the woman's car had drifted at least four metres off the road.

He did not know whether the woman had phoned for help, or if passers-by discovered her predicament and raised the alarm.

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"She was very lucky. It could have gone very, very wrong," he said.

"It's nice when it turns to success," Koppert said. 


Meanwhile, the devastating storm which struck the West Coast will take days to clean up after, says Buller District mayor Garry Howard.

The region is reeling today after gale force winds and torrential rain destroyed buildings, downed trees and flooded streets.

''I've lived in Westport all my life and this is the strongest wind I've ever seen," he said.

''It was horrific, it was scary and ... it was ridiculous. Thankfully we haven't got anyone seriously hurt.''

Hundreds of residents rallied yesterday to help those worst affected, Howard said. He was unable to estimate the cost of the damage.

''It's certainly going to add up to be quite a lot."

The destruction was likened to a hurricane in Greymouth.

Strong winds ripped off roofs to about 60 homes in the Grey District, destroyed Blaketown Hall and aircraft hangars at Greymouth airport, and tossed shipping containers at the port onto fishing boats, mayor Tony Kokshoorn said.

The historic Runanga Miners Hall had also lost its roof.

Twenty-seven residents spent last night in welfare centres.

Kokshoorn emerged from a meeting where it was decided not to declare a state of emergency, as there was no threat to life.

Forecast rain had arrived and emergency services and volunteers were racing to patch up the damaged homes.

"We've got a huge amount of damage to get on top of. Coasters are resilient but it's something we didn't need," he said.


Eight intensive care unit (ICU) patients and staff had to be evacuated to the recovery ward of Nelson Hospital as a massive 12 x 6m section of the roof hung precariously over the department.

All affected buildings have been evacuated and a security cordon has been set up on Waimea Rd between Franklyn and Motueka sts.

Fire station officer Craig Davies, who was overseeing the site, said the biggest threat was if the piece of roof flew off like a sail as they could not predict where it would land.

He had two trucks and eight staff on the scene overseeing the removal of the roof.

A crane has been brought in.

Davies said it was important to take the roofing off as soon and as safely as possible as it was hanging "off not much" and the ICU unit had expensive equipment they did not want to see damaged.

Acting chief executive at the hospital Eric Sinclair said the roof came off the George Manson building sometime in the night due to high winds.


Buller Electricity chief executive Erik Westergaard said the company's entire network, which serviced 4500 customers from Punakaiki to Karamea, was without power this morning.

Fallen trees had caused ''significant damage'' to power lines, he said. ''I've never seen this sort of damage to a network. The only thing that could compare to it would be a cyclone or a hurricane.

''I don't think many people outside of the region realise how much damage is over here.''

Westergaard said power would be restored to the network in chunks from early this afternoon. It was hoped many homes in the area would have power again before it got dark this evening.

It would take two to three days to complete temporary repairs and up to six months to permanently fix damage to the network, Westergaard said.

Despite being Good Friday, in Westport this morning the Mitre 10 fired up a generator and was open so people who need to do urgent repairs can gather supplies.

The store's assistant manager Troy Scanlon said strong winds cut power to the area and it was not known when it would be back up. 

"It's pretty bad. A lot of people have lost roofs.

"When the gusts hit you struggled to stand up.

"People have lived their whole lives here and never seen anything like it."

MetService said Westport was battered with the country's strongest winds, with 130kmh recorded at 3pm yesterday.

Westport Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Alan Kennedy said heavy rain was compounding damage caused to buildings in the town by the winds yesterday.

Firefighters were busy this morning helping residents patch up their damaged homes. Two houses had completely lost their roofs while many others suffered partial damage, Kennedy said.

Firefighters could not respond to some jobs yesterday because it was too dangerous.


Evacuated residents of Christchurch's Flockton Basin have returned to their homes to once again try and fight the floods.

Although the damage is not as bad as last month, properties in the area are yet again submerged in knee-high water.

Alison Naylor moved out of her Francis Ave house after it was inundated with water in March.

Last night, she drove past her empty home to assess the situation.

''I didn't have gumboots big enough to even get up to the house,'' she said.

''This proves to me and a whole lot of other people that this is not a one in 100 year flood - this is a one in a month and a half flood now.''

Rose and Stephen Lennon also returned to their Carrick St home last night to sandbag their garage and try to protect the belongings they have stored inside.

When their 4WD pulled into the driveway about 8.30pm, the water was already up to the car doors, Rose Lennon said.

This morning, the water had seeped into the garage and was once again rising up to the floorboards beneath their house, she said.

The couple are currently living in a short-term rental while their home is, ironically, flood-repaired.

Jo Byrne, of Carrick St, also returned in the rain last night to help sandbag her neighbour's houses.

''It's not nearly as bad as last time, I haven't heard that anyone has been actually flooded out this time, but everyone is just sitting tight and hoping the rain will stop,'' she said.


On top of the outages in Buller, power was cut to tens of thousands of homes around the country yesterday as strong winds and stray branches caused power lines to come down.

In the capital, 700 homes lost power yesterday but all except a handful had seen their electricity restored.

Across Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Wanganui and Manawatu, 25,000 customers lost power in the storm, supplier Powerco said.

As of this morning, 17,000 homes had seen their electricity return while another 8000 remain without power. Crews would be working through Good Friday to fix faults and downed lines.

About 1500 homes in Rotorua remained without power this morning, a Unison spokesperson said. The company hoped to restore supply to 1000 customers today.

About 370 northern Auckland properties are still without power, down from about 22,000 Vector customers at the height of the storm. 
It was unclear how long it would take to restore power, a Veector spokeswoman said. 

The weather has also affected flights at Christchurch Airport this morning.

Spokeswoman Yvonne Densem said the airport was open and operating, but regional services were affected.

In the capital, ferry services across Cook Strait were cancelled or delayed. The wild winds also forced one Jetstar flight bound for Wellington to return back to Auckland last night. 

Three Air New Zealand flights in and out of the capital were also cancelled, as were a number of Link regional flights countrywide.

Fifty vehicles, including campervans and trucks, spent the night stranded at Springs Junction after State Highway 7 - Lewis Pass - to Greymouth closed. The road had now re-opened.

A Coastal Pacific train from Picton to Christchurch was stopped by landslips and flooding further up the line at Kaikoura station and passengers given accommodation there for the night.

State Highway One between Kaikoura and Piction had 24 slips and partial road blockages last night, prompting police to advise motorists to stay away from the area, especially as heavy rain had been forecast.

- with Blair Ensor, Kate Davidson, Shabnam Dastgheib, Katie Kenny and Olivia Wannan 

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