Wintry blast brings country to a standstill

Last updated 18:03 25/07/2011

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Power has been restored to most of Christchurch and central Canterbury today.


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Heavy frosts are predicted to affect much of New Zealand after the worst of the weather clears this evening, the MetService said. As a result a number of roads remain closed tonight.

The cold blast, which brought the worst snowfall in 15 years, blanketed earthquake-damaged Christchurch overnight, closed roads across the country and caused a slew of accidents from people falling or slipping on ice.

By 5pm, Orion restored power to all but about 50 customers in Christchurch and central Canterbury. Pockets of Harewood, Spencerville, Tai Tapu and Little River remained without power and residents there were advised to prepare for a night without power.

Snow continued to fall on the Desert and Rimutaka Hill roads this afternoon, with Rimutaka unlikely to re-open tonight, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) said.

NZTA operations manager Dave Bates said it was difficult to know if the roads would be better or worse as time went on, with the situation still changeable.

"Because the front is still active, roads that might be open now might not be in four or five hours time," Bates said.

"Even if the roads are open, they will still be icy and people should take extreme care."

The Desert Road was open, as was SH5 from Taupo to Napier, and a number of roads around Christchurch, but many more remained closed.

"We're focussed on the major roads at the moment. The smaller highways are probably not going to be re-opened tonight," Bates said.

Christchurch motorists were warned to stay off roads for up to two days, as snow and ice continued to make driving conditions dangerous.

Acting road policing manager senior sergeant Glenn Nalder said although only a handful of crashes had been reported to police today, road conditions remained treacherous as more snow fell across the city this afternoon.

"When the snow begins to clear, there will be a high risk of ice on the roads. 

"So the message remains - stay off the roads unless it's absolutely necessary."

MetService duty forecaster Chris Noble said as the country headed into evening the worst of the heavy snow should ease off.

"There will be a shift to other effects from cold weather - icy roads, heavy frosts, particularly in any inland areas as the weather clears," Noble said.

Frosts were expected across the country in coming days, he said.

The cold air had come straight from the Southern Ocean, and was moving over the North Island this afternoon. It was predicted to move to the east overnight.

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THE DISRUPTIONS

Tony Dowell, St John district operations manager for Christchurch, said 10 ambulances were working on the road in Christchurch today, and an extra crew had been brought in to supplement crews.

Four-wheel drive ambulances and vehicles were being used where appropriate and all vehicles were operating with chains, Dowell said.

"We encourage people to be careful in the icy conditions, and we encourage people to stay home and only undertake travel if absolutely necessary."

The snow has closed airports, roads, and major institutions in the South Island. Many South Island roads are not expected to reopen tonight, including main state highways. However the Desert Rd in the central North Island reopened around 2pm this afternoon.

Flights out of the South Island have been badly disrupted with flights from Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown cancelled. Flights at Invercargill airport were experiencing delays.

Christchurch Airport spokeswoman Monique Oomen confirmed all Air New Zealand flights out of Christchurch have been cancelled for the rest of the day. There would be some Jetstar and Pacific Blue flights arriving tonight.

More than 200 people were stranded in a hall north of Dunedin this morning. Police said the group were staying warm with hot tea and coffee after getting stuck in snow on State Highway 1.

Oamaru became a refuge last night for drivers turned back from State Highway 1 southward to Dunedin.

Chris Dawson of Invercargill said he only missed the closing of Highway 1 between Oamaru and Dunedin by half an hour.

Cars were already sideways on the road and in ditches by late afternoon, he said.

He waited in a line of cars for 3 ½ hours before turning around at 5:30 pm.

Denise Morris of Colonial Lodge on the Thames Highway in Oamaru, said that her doorbell was ringing until 11:30 pm.

"People were desperate," she said. Rooms in her own house were used when a young couple with a baby who had gotten stuck going back to Oamaru.

"It was either that or sleep in the car," she said.

 The severe weather was now easing over the lower South Island, but a final surge was expected in eastern and northern Canterbury and Kaikoura Coast, dropping another 20cm of snow.

Snow has also fallen in parts of the North Island with residents in Taranaki and parts of the lower North Island waking to snow.

Eltham woman Debbie Sheehy said she couldn't believe it when she peered out of her bedroom window. "It's the heaviest snow I've ever seen in Eltham."

The Hawke's Bay and Gisborne was expected to get a further 15cm of snow before the cold front moved offshore early this afternoon.

Patchy heavy snow falls were expected, especially about the southwest of the central plateau before easing tonight.

It was -0.3 degrees in Christchurch, 1.5 in Dunedin, -0.6 in Queenstown, 2.8 in Wellington, and 3.3 in Taupo this morning.

CHRISTCHURCH HIT HARD

A Christchurch City Council spokeswoman advised residents to stay at home, especially in the eastern suburbs, which already had poor road conditions due to the earthquakes.

Snow clearing and gritting was in progress in Christchurch, with crews concentrating on the arterial roads and the hills.

Conditions were "slippery and treacherous", and the hill suburbs were closed, police said.

Christchurch residents reported hearing a large bang around 10am this morning. There were multiple posts on Twitter from people fearing a building had come down.

A Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of any building that had come down this morning.

She said there were concerns that the heavy snowfall could cause further damage to buildings, such as bringing roofs down, but it wouldn't know till the central city was assessed tomorrow morning (the Red Zone is closed today).

Power was cut to parts of Christchurch, with homes in Belfast, Spencerville and Marshland without power since 11.43pm yesterday, a spokewoman for lines company Orion said.

By 5pm, Orion restored power to all but about 50 customers in Christchurch and central Canterbury. Pockets of Harewood, Spencerville, Tai Tapu and Little River remained without power and residents there were advised to prepare for a night without power.

"Orion crews will continue to work overnight but access is difficult in some areas due to heavy snow," said General Manager, Rob Jamieson.

This morning, student Alison Grant, from Riccarton, looked outside her window and couldn't help but gasp.

"Wow, so much snow, wow" she said. "There is a lot of snow, ankle-deep at least. It's still going really quite hard."

She was planning to spend the day enjoying the snow outside as the Canterbury University was closed, she said.

"I played outside last night as well. I'm going to enjoy the snow while it lasts."

"It's the first time I've seen snow like this," she said.

Sarah Joynson, from Redwood, was up early and also went outside to enjoy the snow, and said friends had done the same.

"We don't have snow like this ever."

Her partner had stayed home, rather than drive to Rolleston in the snow-covered streets, she said.

More than 30cm had already fallen in parts of Fiordland, Otago and Southland overnight.

SH1 between Dunedin and Oamaru and Dunedin and Gore was closed, along with SH75 (Little River through to Barrys Bay), SH5 Rangitaiki, SH93 Clinton to Mataura, SH35 Waipiro and SH94 Te Anau to Milford Sound.

In the North Island Desert Road was closed, with reports of snow being seen in Wellington's hill suburbs. State Highway 2 north of Upper Hutt was closed from Te Marua.

The MetService said the weather would mostly clear tonight, with some snow showers expected over the central plateau.

Heavy frosts were expected on Tuesday before temperatures improved.

ROAD CLOSURES

Heavy snowfalls have closed most state highways in Southland and Central Otago, and some may remain closed all day. The only current weather-related state highway closures are:

  • SH87    Outram To Middlemarch
  • SH 85   Palmerston To Kyeburn
  • SH2      Nuhaka To Gisborne
  • SH2      Rimutaka Hill
  • SH35    Waipiro

As snow is still falling in may areas, the situation on the ground remains fluid and conditions can change rapidly.

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