Editorial: Murchison flooding plight needs action
As the people of tiny Harihari - along with scores of other West Coasters and tourists and those who rely on their business - were reminded this week, it's easy to take vital infrastructure for granted; at least until it fails.
When a one-lane bridge on the only highway between Hokitika and Haast was washed out following heavy rain, it took five days to reopen it. Tourists were stranded - some family members on opposite sides of the Wanganui River - milk production lost, prescription drugs and other vital supplies delayed.
While milk was being dumped, stores on the Coast were running out of milk and bread and telecommunications were lost in places for a day-and-a-half.
The economic impact might not have been significant in national terms, but some businesses on the Coast must have been hammered. It's easy to be wise after the event, and representatives from the NZ Transport Agency and telecommunications company Chorus are being invited to a meeting to thrash out what might be done to prevent recurrences.
It's even better to be wise before the event, which is what the residents of Murchison are hoping for - and they have every right to. Their fears about flood-prone parts around their town have been well articulated. Their call for action cannot be allowed yet again to fall on deaf ears.
Hotham St residents have had water through their homes five times within two years, three of them in the past year. That is unacceptable in anyone's book.
To have your house flooded once in a lifetime would seem bad luck. Five times in two years indicates something is seriously amiss and the Tasman District Council needs to address the area's plight with real urgency.
Equally troubling is the townsfolk's fear that the vital state highway link will fail if heavy flooding takes out the Matakitaki River Bridge at the southern entrance. According to someone who should know, Civil Defence Murchison controller Gary Blackburn, this is "not a matter of if - it's a matter of when".
People in his position are not generally prone to histrionics. Extreme weather events seem to have become much more common, and Mr Blackburn's concerns should not be taken lightly.
It is reassuring that both the Tasman council and NZTA seem to be listening. Council chief executive Lindsay McKenzie has promised to try to have options ready to put before the town by the end of the week. NZTA spokesman Rod James, meanwhile, says in the light of the Harihari situation, Murchison's fears are understandable and being taken seriously.
He says work is already under way to "manage any further risks" at the bridge, and the agency is well aware of local concerns about gravel buildup in the river adding to the flood danger - an obvious factor, given the significant number of floods recently.
Murchison people will be pleased they are being listened too, but only up to a point. Talk is the easy part. What they are looking for is action - and quickly. The economic impact could be significant if the town is cut off. However, far more important is the impact on individual lives - particularly of those people in the flood zones in the town. They've had to put up with far too much already in the past two years.
The Nelson Mail