Weather chaos affects holidaymakers

Last updated 09:45 03/01/2013

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The Neil family, from left, Alex, 8, Ruth and Barry, struggle with a tent during strong gusts at their Lower Hutt campground.
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The Neil family, from left, Alex, 8, Ruth and Barry, struggle with a tent during strong gusts at their Lower Hutt campground.

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Snow has joined the wild and wet weather chaos in many parts of New Zealand, particularly the South Island, with holidaymakers stranded and key services knocked out.


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Several days of heavy rain compounded yesterday, with the West Coast and Fiordland bearing the brunt of the storm.

In Central Otago this morning, people trapped by heavy snowfall were rescued from Lindis Pass.

Several cars had to be abandoned in the area and a police communications spokesman said the snow meant it was slow going on State Highway 8.

Snow had fallen to relatively low levels in parts of South Canterbury and Central Otago.

In the township of Naseby, residents and holidaymakers awoke to find snow on the ground and a heavy dump visible in nearby mountains.

Local motel owner Stuart Hore said the light skiff that fell in Naseby overnight was lighter than the 10cm of heavy, wet snow that fell in the area last January.

Despite two January snowfalls in a row, snow at this time of year was very unusual, Hore said. However, Naseby was 600 metres above sea level, and at that elevation "anything can happen".

"I'm 74 and at least three times we've had snow on Christmas Day or thereabouts," he said. On those occasions there had been 5cm to 8cm of snow.

He said the overnight fall would just be a memory by morning tea.

MetService chief forecaster Peter Kreft said snow was unusual for this time of year, but it had not been unexpected as a southwest change followed the front that had brought heavy rain to parts of the South Island.

Overnight the front had raced north, and by 7am most of the North Island was behind it.

It had been a classic northwesterly cloud band-type storm, Kreft said.

"The distinctive thing about this one was that the northwest flow over the South Island was very moist and lasted for several days."

Queenstown had the lowest temperature this morning, with 6.5 degrees Celsius but that was expected to increase to a high of 14C.

Temperatures in most other places were not particularly cold, with the likes of Westport and Greymouth reaching highs of 18C and 16C.

BRIDGES UNDER TROUBLED WATER

Rising river levels meanwhile claimed the Wanganui River bridge near Harihari yesterday, with flooding washing out one end of the bridge and forcing the closure of State Highway 6, the main road along the West Coast.

The washout severed a key fibre-optic cable, cutting most methods of communication between about 1000 Westland homes and the rest of the country.

Motorists heading north were forced take lengthy detours - of up to 400 kilometres to reach Christchurch via Wanaka.

The washed-out bridge, which linked the West Coast main highway to the Haast Pass, will be out of action for at least two days.

New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) spokesman Ewart Barnsley said contractors were working to divert the river back to its original course by shifting boulders.

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A structural engineer was also on site to inspect the 180-metre single-lane bridge.

''We need to know what damage, if any, has been done to that structure,'' Barnsley said.

The agency was also preparing to bring in a temporary bridge, known as a Bailey bridge, from Christchurch to get the road reopened quickly.

''We'll get it open as quickly as we can and only when we have assurance that it's safe,'' he said.

Snap chief executive Mark Petrie said the severed fibre-optic cable prevented residents from making emergency 111 calls, although a technician with a satellite phone was monitoring the phone exchange to ensure emergency calls were put through.

Telecom spokeswoman Kate Woodruffe said cell towers at Fox Glacier, Franz Josef and Mt Hercules had been damaged by the storm.

With access to the towns blocked, technicians would have to wait until it was safe to be helicoptered in to assess and repair the damage.

A slip last night blocked State Highway 6 between Inangahua and Westport in the lower Buller Gorge, but those trapped had since been rescued. Flooding also closed sections of State Highway 73 from Cass through Arthur's Pass to Otira, which remained closed this morning.

Flooding has also closed State highway 7 at the turn-off from Hanmer Springs to Springs Junction. SH69 from Inangahua to Reefton, the Buller Gorge and SH67 from Fairydown to Mussel Point were also shut off this morning.

Fire crews in Harihari and Whataroa had also checked on residents in the two West Coast towns, while the Fire Service had attended about five calls in Hokitika for flooding and helped move people's property to higher ground.

Police called for the evacuation of huts and low-lying areas around the Rakaia River, with flooding making the river ''extremely dangerous''.

Environment Canterbury South Canterbury duty flood controller Tony Henderson said both the Waitaki and Rangitata rivers had risen about 500mm during 48 hours.

The Rangitata went from an average of less than 100 cubic metres per second (cumecs) flow to 1800 cumecs in less than 18 hours.

Henderson expected the river levels to drop as the weather system moved north later today.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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