Flood of memories

07:05, Mar 04 2009
DEVASTATING: Janet and John Meyer take in the damage on an Invercargill street after Southland's devastating "100-year floods" in 1984.

Twenty-five years ago today, at 4am on a Friday, Invercargill declared a state of emergency.

By 9.30 that morning it had been extended to the whole province. 

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Monstrous quantities of rain, dumped by a sluggish southerly front over Fiordland and Southland, had engorged river headwaters and gushed down to fairly parched low country and plains.

Days earlier, The Southland Times had been suggesting water conservation tips as the province prepared for what looked like a thirsty summer a drought even.

Instead, this: on average, Southland received about 150mm of rain in 25 hours.


By late Thursday night, many parts of Invercargill were covered by stormwater as blocked drains sent water streaming over roads, into properties and finally through homes.

In the early hours of Friday the Otepuni stream was threatening to burst into homes and businesses along its length, effectively splitting the city in two, while the flooding Kingswell creek and Clifton channel caused havoc for hundreds of families in the south.

Otautau succumbed to the Aparima River and the Otautau stream. Parts of Tuatapere were invaded by the swollen Waiau River.

Volunteers in many other communities isolated by flooding Te Anau, Woodlands, Thornbury and Bluff among them battled, in vain, to keep water out of homes and businesses.

By mid-morning, the Waihopai river was overtopping its north banks in several parts of the city between Racecourse Rd and North Rd. Water was beginning to pond in Gladstone Tce, Thomsons Bush and the Prestonville area.

About noon, a very bad day got a great deal worse. A serious breach ruptured the north Waihopai stop-bank, next to Cruickshanks bridge, east of Queens Dr.

Floating timber from the Naigara Sawmill at Kennington had caught on the bridge. Efforts to clear it had to be abandoned as the force of waters swept it away.

The flow across Queens Dr into Thomsons Bush became a torrent.

Prestonville quickly filled, the flood poured into Collingwood. The area east of the railway line quickly filled and the waters flooded western Grasmere, making their way towards the airport.

Most Grasmere residents had to be evacuated at short notice from some 550 homes.

The airport was flooded by midnight.

What followed was huge social displacement, leaving 1400 homes, 900 of them in the city, abandoned.

For health reasons, people had to wait before they could return home. For some it was months before their properties dried enough for repairs to begin.

Builders and other tradesmen, inspectors and insurance assessors, were pushed to the limit. By April 10 fewer than 15 per cent of the 900 Invercargill homes had been fully restored and reoccupied.

As many as 300 homes were not dry enough for repairs to begin and in only about 180 cases was restoration considered to be well under way.

Of the 186 homes flooded in Otautau only nine had been fully repaired; in Tuatapere about 30 of the 40 flooded homes were "partially occupied" while restoration continued.

According to insurers the floods caused $53 million damage making it the costliest New Zealand natural disaster since the 1931 Napier earthquake.

It was a traumatic time, evoking humour and heartache, bravery and despair.

The state of emergency was lifted at midnight, February 15.

Not a single life was lost, not directly anyway. A massive flood mitigation programme was launched through local and central government, and it has stood the test of time. So far.


The Southland Times