Drone footage shows extent of flooding after West Coast overnight deluge
Drone footage shot by an Australian tourist shows the extent of the flood that inundated the West Coast.
Flood waters have begun to recede after a river broke its banks near Franz Josef overnight, forcing 186 people to evacuate.
Sydney-based event photographer Jakob de Zwart was staying with his partner in a cottage about 300 metres from the centre of the township when the deluge started pummelling the roof during the early hours.
He said he was woken by the rain and wondered what was happening and whether they were safe.
"It sounded like a fire hose on the roof.
"My partner's from Gore and she said it rains like this all the time on the West Coast.
"But then the flash flood broke the river banks. When we got up we realised the town was in a state of emergency."
He shot the drone footage around midday on Thursday.
Cars are submerged, a hotel has a "river running through it", and a new water channel is running through an area 1km north of the town.
However, by 3pm West Coast Regional Council chief executive Chris Ingle said rain was clearing, allowing the area some sign of a reprieve.
A "significant" problem with the town's water supply had been fixed, but residents were still being urged to conserve water, he said.
Crews were attempting to restart the pipeline, and the water to this area should be back on later tonight.
However, due to the water issues the Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park would not be accepting guests on Thursday night.
The state of emergency would remain in place tonight, and would be reviewed in the morning, Ingle said.
"What we need to do is wait for the river to go down this weekend. We're starting to see a clearer picture but it will be a few more days until we can provide a full report.
"Tomorrow will be the day for assessing the damage, cleaning up and thinking 'Where to from here'"
Two accommodation houses, used by the Scenic Hotel, would remain evacuated tonight, but all other residents were back in their homes.
Contractors have started emergency rock work to repair the riverbank breach. An emergency operations centre has been set up.
The Waiho breached its banks in heavy rain about 11.50pm on Wednesday. Civil Defence evacuated 186 people, cars were "tossed" around car parks and water swept through buildings. State Highway 6 closed for about two hours.
A local state of emergency was declared at 2am.
Westland Civil Defence public information manager Andy Thompson said the Franz Josef town itself was largely unaffected, but engineers had established problems with the town's water supply were "significant and ongoing".
"We've issued an official boil water notice for the whole of Franz Josef," he said.
Sewerage oxidisation ponds, located on the side of the river and downstream from the Franz Josef township, were destroyed in the flood.
However, Thompson said their was no sewerage risk to the town itself.
The Heartland Hotel, known as the Mueller and owned by the Scenic Hotel, was significantly flooded.
"I've seen the [Mueller] and it is significant. It has got a river running through it, literally.
"There are cars submerged," Thompson said.
Red Cross personnel arrived in Franz Josef on Thursday morning with relief supplies for displaced people. The extent of damage to buildings and vehicles remained unclear.
State Highway 6 reopened about 4am, but still had surface flooding.
186 PEOPLE EVACUATED
First, water flooded through the Mueller, causing the evacuation of 70 people, 60 staff and 10 tourists. They were relocated to the unaffected Scenic Hotel Franz Josef.
At 1.15am, the water reached the Top 10 Holiday Park, where 100 tourists were evacuated.
Sixteen people were evacuated from the Westwood Lodge.
By 4.35am, civil defence had evacuated 186 people, most of them tourists, Fire Service spokesman Brent Dunn said.
About 80 evacuated people were housed in welfare centres in Franz Josef. The rest drove north out of the flood zone.
Canadian honeymooner Shawn Elford arrived in Franz Josef about 9pm Wednesday.
"Then about 45 minutes later we got a notification saying we were on high alert for flooding just up the road, that we might be evacuated.
"About 1.15am the fire brigade came and the sirens were on. Everyone was escorted out," Elford said.
He stayed in Whataroa.
"We're making our way further south to continue our honeymoon."
FLOATING IPADS IN HOTEL ROOMS
Mueller hotel chefs Joseph Kenny Hoeflich, Thabo Rasimeli, Jack Moledi and Uzile Maqungo were among the 60 hotel staff evacuated from their accommodation on Wednesday night.
They collected their belongings at 1.30pm on Thursday.
Moledi said he was at work on Wednesday night at about 11pm when all staff were told they would need to evacuate their accommodation.
The Mueller is one kilometre north of the main Scenic Hotel in Franz Josef. It houses 60 staff members and some tourist accommodation.
"We were just told there might be a flood so everyone had to evacuate. We wanted to go and collect our stuff but we weren't allowed in because the river was so close," he said.
He was relieved that the hotel had been given warning and no staff or tourists were in the Mueller when it flooded at about 1am.
Maqungo said some staff went to the welfare centre but they were then given spare hotel rooms and other hotels and motels around town had opened their doors to them.
They went back to the Mueller on Thursday to see if their belongings were damaged.
"We are lucky because our rooms are OK. Some people had floating iPads in their rooms. It's pretty bad," he said.
Scenic Hotel Group managing director, Brendan Taylor said "our priorities are ensuring the safety and comfort of our guests and staff".
"Where this is in any doubt, we are relocating to our two unaffected properties [Scenic Hotel Franz Josef and Te Waonui Forest Retreat]."
COUNCIL AWARE OF RISK
West Coast Regional Council chairman Andrew Robb said it had been aware of the Waiho River flood risk for a "long time".
The river bed had built up over time, increasing the risk of flooding in the area, Robb said.
"There's been flood protection on that river for years and years and years."
Work to maintain the stop bank was ongoing, he said.
"People can say they [the council] are potting around, but there's been a lot of money spent on flood protection down there and people can only afford to pay so much.
"The amount of gravel that comes down that river is virtually impossible to deal with."
Robb said a discussion needed to be had about the long term future of the town. Some communities might have to move, he said.
"There might be little pockets of that land that is just way too expensive to protect."
The council, with the help of other stakeholders, recently bought motels on the southern side of the river because it was too dangerous for them to stay.
FLOOD WAS 'PREDICTABLE'
Long-time Franz Josef resident Gavin Molloy said what happened was "pretty predictable".
The Waiho River was one of New Zealand's "wildest".
"You can't tame it. If we keep pushing it on one side it will break on the other. I've seen it before. It flooded in 1987 and an airstrip got washed away five days after it was built. It's something this river does," Molloy said.
He called the flood risk a "man made problem".
"The regional council is responsible for the bank. The riverbed is building up to 500mm a year so it's going to push out the sides and we have melting glaciers that's the biggest problem.
"The regional council have been working on the bank for the past few weeks and they dug a trench to keep the water from where they were working and directed the water to where it's breached its banks. They've contributed to it," Molloy said.
He added the regional council could not control the weather "but it was only 175mm".
"I've been here when we've had 500mm [of rain] overnight," he said.
Another resident, Arthur Richard, said the Waiho River was always going to break its banks, "it was just when".
"So it's been building up for a while and they've just been potting around. They'll have to sort it [the river] now." he said.
A pre-school had recently been built in the flooded area and other businesses also operated there, something Richards believed was "ludicrous" given the risk.
West Coast regional councillor Allan Birchfield said the issue of a flood risk had been before regional council meetings.
He declined to comment further, referring questions to the council's chairman.
Franz Josef Glacier School principal Janet Ristow said the water was running "hard and fast" on the school's back boundary, where the river had created a new channel.
"We have closed the school, "The school is sitting higher than the river," she said.
During Ristow's 15 years as principal there had been constant chatter about the river breaching its banks.
"They have been working on the north stop bank for a few months now. We've been in contact with Civil Defence for about the last month regarding evacuation procedures," she said.
Another Franz Josef resident, who asked not to be named, said "the town itself is fine".
"A couple of places [north of the town] have had a flood risk for years. It's been a known risk," he said.
Thompson said the area north of the town was a "known concern" in terms of flood risk.
"The whole effort was to get them [evacuees] out. Some of them just got in their cars and drove north," Thompson said.
The Waiho River did not flood often, but Thompson said flooding was expected over the weekend.
"[We] didn't expect it last night," Thompson said.
Thompson said 138 millimetres of rain fell between 11pm and 3am.
MetService issued a heavy rain warning for Buller and Westland.
Fire Service spokesman Brent Dunn said a kindergarten also flooded.
Further north, firefighters were dealing with flooding in the Motueka and Riwaka areas, but rain was easing, he said.
Franz Josef fire chief Mike Charles said he had been up since about 3am responding to the flooding.
"The rain seems to have eased a bit through the night," he said.