If it's this bad now, what's still to come?

07:05, Mar 04 2009

"Is it?" Garry Goodman needed reminding that 25 years had passed since the Southland floods of 1984.

Today, he is chief executive of Palmerston North International Airport Ltd. Then he was Invercargill's city engineer, technically the person in charge of the city's infrastructure such as drains, sewerage, roads and so on.

He was also on holiday in Christchurch with his family when the heavens opened that day in January 1984. But what was happening back home overwhelmed any further thought of rest or recreation. The news from staff grew graver and graver. Relentless rain, surface flooding all over the city, the Fire Service pumping out buildings already and nagging thoughts that if it's this bad now, what's to come?

The holiday was over. Mr Goodman knew he had to get home. His patch was going under.

"I can't even remember thinking about whether I should," he recalled a quarter-century later. He just did.

As the Southland Catchment Board would officially but drily report in the Journal of Hydrology later that year: "On 26-27 January 1984, heavy rain fell in Fiordland and southern Southland; 134mm of rainfall was recorded at Invercargill airport in the 24 hours to 9.00am on the 27th; nearly twice the previous high (73mm) of January 1980.


"Severe flooding occurred in the lower Waiau, Aparima, Makarewa and Waihopai rivers, and in several smaller streams which drain through Invercargill city.

"The townships of Tuatapere, Otautau and parts of Invercargill city were inundated. Damage to houses, bridges and roads was widespread in Southland, and insurance claims amounted to more than $50m, making the January 1984 flood the costliest natural disaster in New Zealand since the 1931 Napier earthquake." Garry Goodman knew his staff were going to be up most of the night of January 26, they would be facing more and worse problems the next day and it would be very important to have people about who knew the lie of the land literally.

Many parts of Invercargill were low-lying, some below mean sea level. This meant that surface water or floods would pond.

The immediate problem was water getting in. A longer-term issue was getting it out, not to mention the devastating effects it would have on houses, buildings, property, stock and, above all, people.

Invercargill's topography, the lie of the land, is not one of the flat city's features.

But, as many of the city's residents found to their cost that night, what seemed flat was in reality a patchwork of higher and lower points, barely recognisable as such usually. But when a deluge of water landed from above, instant puddles became larger ponds and in many cases small but rising lakes.

Mr Goodman flew into Invercargill on the first flight the morning of January 27 and saw for himself the vastness of the flooding. He arrived to a city that wasn't open for business.

Garry Goodman had a momentary thought that he was perhaps lucky in one respect. With his family away, he'd be able to throw himself fulltime into the task that lay ahead.

A bizarre, enforced sort of calm fell over Invercargill that morning as people were advised to stay at home. The rain eased and authorities representatives of local bodies, civil defence, health and emergency organisations, insurance representatives, industry groups like the Master Builders Association and others began to assimilate what had happened, what needed to be done, where and in what order.

There was also a grim realisation as reports continued to come in about the extent of the damage, that there would be much more to come. And the unexpected.

As Garry Goodman recalled, late in the morning, it "all happened" again.

The northern stopbank of the Waihopai River east of the Queens Dr bridge breached suddenly, and an unstoppable torrent poured over Queens Dr, through Thomsons Bush and into the Prestonville industrial area.

North Rd presented a barrier, but only a small one as the muddy water rose up as a wave and rushed on through car yards and into Grasmere, Collingwood and Waikiwi to surround and eventually submerge scores of houses. Residents, including children, had but minutes to grab what belongings they could and flee. Some made on foot, others used vehicles and some were lifted out by three handy helicopters.

"Everything was well under water," Mr Goodman said. The rogue Waihopai roared on, joining floodwaters already ponded and trapped behind the stopbanks of the Waihopai River and Stead St.

There, during the rest of the day, the water rose and rose as it was joined by flood spillover from the Oreti River. A cut in the stopbank later that evening to allow the water back into the river proved much too little.

At 1.15am the next day, The Southland Times reported Mr Goodman as saying it was "only a matter of time" before Invercargill airport was submerged, the second time in six years.

An RNZAF Iroquois helicopter had already arrived to help, and a second arrived on the Saturday morning. They gave a bird's-eye view of the damage.

A priority was to close the hole in the Waihopai stop-bank above Queens Dr, and discussions were held with the pilots who had experience of such manoeuvres to airlift stockpiled sandbags from Queens Dr to the breach where they could be quickly dropped into the gaping hole, thus plugging it.

Mr Goodman and his team did the calculations and appealed, via radio, for volunteers to lift the sandbags in and out of the helicopters as they shuttled between the stockpile and the breach.

Scores of people responded, and it worked. Within a couple of hours, the breach was filled.

But again, that was just a beginning. Later, they would cut a breach in the stop-bank over Stead St so the deep water that had swamped the airport terminal and meteorological service offices among other buildings could be let out at low tide, and blocked again as the tide came in.

There were still more sinister aspects to deal with.

"The health risks were high," Mr Goodman said. The city's sewerage scheme was still working but water lying around the city and flowing through houses was undoubtedly contaminated.

It caused many a heartache but the likes of soft toys caught in the floods had to be thrown away.

And then there was the huge social impact the dislocation of people and families, damage to homes, the loss of treasured belongings, and human strains and stresses. "It's not just water."

The January 1984 floods also changed views on what constituted a 100-year flood, he recalled.

For Mr Goodman and his team, the floods were a vindication in one sense. They were about to be taken to the then equivalent of the Environment Court for making things difficult for a developer planning a subdivision on low-lying land.

After the floods, the hearing never occurred. But to this day Mr Goodman holds fast to a belief for public education about the lie of the land and what is likely to happen if there's a flood.

He was part of the team that began constructing flood protection and other measures before shifting a couple of years later to Palmerston North, where he was city engineer until 2000 when he joining the airport company.

When interviewed for this publication, he seemed surprised a quarter-century had gone by. But in terms of "making an impression", the Southland floods were the biggest event of his career.

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