Easter storm batters South Island

Roof tiles fly 'like missiles' from homes

BLAIR ENSOR, JOELLE DALLY AND ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 16:23 18/04/2014

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Fairfield Tce flooding
Stacy Squires/Fairfax NZ
IN DEEP WATER AGAIN: Heavy rain overnight caused the Heathcote River to burst its banks, flooding Fairfield and Riverlaw terraces.
Oamaru floodwater rescue
Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter
RESCUE: Sergeant Peter Muldrew pulled the woman into the bucket of a digger driven by farmer Robert Borst.

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A woman has been plucked to safety after an hour and a half trapped on the roof of her submerged car, after gale force winds and torrential rain lashed parts of the country. 

It has been torrid 24 hours, with the remnants of cyclone Ita cutting a swathe across the country. Heavy rain and "hurricane"-like winds have caused widespread damage, with the West Coast worst affected.

The middle-aged woman was driving to Oamaru when raging Kakanui River floodwaters swept her vehicle off Fuchsia Creek Rd about midday today.

It sparked a dramatic rescue involving firemen, police, a jet boat driver, a rescue helicopter and a local farmer.

When rescuers got to the scene, the water had risen above the windscreen of the car. Only a thin wire boundary fence prevented the vehicle, and the woman, being swept downstream. 

Local farmer Robert Borst was on his motorbike out moving cows when he saw fire engines go past.

"I saw a car was in trouble and someone was sitting on the roof," he said. "The fence was really the only thing holding the car from going downstream."

Police, fire fighters and passers-by were already gathered at the scene. Borst returned to his farm to collect his 14-tonne digger, and Sergeant Peter Muldrew was harnessed up and climbed into the digger's bucket.

Weston Volunteer Fire Brigade chief fire officer Bevan Koppert said a jet boat was on stand-by at the river, while a rescue helicopter from Dunedin turned out as back-up. 

Said Borst, "I kind of crept out. I couldn't see where the road was. I got as far as I could, reached it right out, probably within a metre of the car".

"The water was in the digger as well where I was sitting. It was fairly deep and hairy in there. The adrenalin was certainly pumping."

The fireman reached out his hand and managed to get the woman into the digger bucket shortly before 1.30pm.

"It was a good outcome. I think she was suffering from a bit of hypothermia and shock," Borst said.

Koppert said the woman's car had drifted at least four metres off the road.

He did not know whether the woman had phoned for help, or if passers-by discovered her predicament and raised the alarm.

"She was very lucky. It could have gone very, very wrong," he said.

"It's nice when it turns to success," Koppert said. 

The "devastating" storm which struck the West Coast would take days to clean up after, says Buller District mayor Garry Howard.

 

The region is reeling today after gale force winds and torrential rain destroyed buildings, downed trees and flooded streets.

''I've lived in Westport all my life and this is the strongest wind I've ever seen," he said.

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''It was horrific, it was scary and . . . it was ridiculous.

''Thankfully we haven't got anyone seriously hurt.''

He recalled watching helplessly as slates were blown from the roof of his own home.

''They were like missiles.''

Hundreds of residents rallied yesterday to help those worst affected, Howard said. He was unable to estimate the cost of the damage.

''It's certainly going to add up to be quite a lot."

Strong winds had ripped off roofs to about 60 homes in the Grey District, destroyed Blaketown Hall and aircraft hangars at Greymouth airport, and tossed shipping containers at the port onto fishing boats, mayor Tony Kokshoorn said.

The historic Runanga Miners Hall had also lost its roof.

Twenty-seven residents spent last night in welfare centres.


Have you experienced severe flooding or wind damage in Canterbury or the West Coast today? Email your photos to newsflow@press.co.nz


Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn this morning held a meeting where it was decided not to declare a state of emergency after much consideration. It was a close run thing though, he said.

"We're not going to declare a state of emergency. We see it as a significant event but we've stopped short on the basis that there's no threat to life."

Forecast rain had arrived and emergency services and volunteers were racing to patch up the damaged homes before forecast heavy rain arrived.

"We've got it under control. Having said that, there's a huge amount of damage."

A Red Cross centre had been set up at the Baptist Church on High St.

The damage was similar to a storm which swept through the area about years ago, Kokshoorn said.

"We've got a huge amount of damage to get on top of. Coasters are resilient but it's something we didn't need."

DAMAGE TO POWER NETWORK 'LIKE A HURRICANE'

Buller Electricity chief executive Erik Westergaard said the company's entire network, which serviced 4500 customers from Punakaiki to Karamea, was without power this morning.

Fallen trees had caused ''significant damage'' to power lines, he said.

''I've never seen this sort of damage to a network. The only thing that could compare to it would be a cyclone or a hurricane.

''I don't think many people outside of the region realise how much damage is over here.''

Westergaard said power would be restored to the network in chunks from early this afternoon. Westport residents would be first to come back online, he said.

It was hoped many homes in the area would have power again before it got dark this evening. 

''There's still a lot of homes who won't have power today," he said.

"Trees are a huge problem in this industry. If we didn't have the tree damage we'd have most of the power restored probably by now.''

It would take two to three days to complete temporary repairs and up to six months to permanently fix damage to the network, Westergaard said.

''Rain is setting in and that's the next worry. Getting to some of the areas is going to be problematic.'' 

Helicopters were being used to assess damage to remote areas of the network.

More than 1500 homes in Canterbury were without power this morning as a result of the storm.

Diamond Harbour was the worst affected area with 681 customers offline.

Orion operations manager Stu Kilfduff said slips on the road to Akaroa had made it difficult for crews to get to affected areas.

Residents in Cashmere, Halswell and Martins were among other areas without power.

It was hoped power would be restored to all customers by this evening, he said.

HEAVY RAIN LEADS TO CANTERBURY FLOODING

Canterbury, Nelson, Marlborough and the West Coast have been hit with heavy rain and strong winds overnight, causing flooding, felling trees, closing roads and cutting power to homes.

There have also been some minor slips and flooding in Lyttelton.

An island of mud with a tree lodged in it was "slowly slithering" down the hill at the intersection of Jacksons and Hawkhurst roads, Fire Service southern communications shift manager Andrew Norris said.

There were also minor slips on Selwyn Rd and Brittan Tce, and flooding on the corner of Canterbury and Exeter streets. 

Blocked drains were causing minor flooding into residential properties. However they were nothing like the issues seen in the town during the storm last month, Norris said.

Many roads are closed but authorities hope the weather will improve this morning to allow staff out to clear those blocked by debris.

A large youth camp in Canterbury has also been cancelled due to the weather. 

This morning, MetService issued a severe weather warning for Nelson, northern Marlborough, Canterbury, north Otago and Dunedin. All weather warnings for the North Island were cancelled.

A deep, low-lying west off Taranaki was moving south slowly, which would lie west of Hokitika tonight and cross Fiordland later tomorrow.

The forecaster said a strong moist northeast flow covered the South Island. It would likely gradually turn northerly as the low moved south. 

Further heavy rain was expected today for all of Nelson, northern parts of Marlborough, including the Marlborough Sounds, Canterbury, North Otago and Dunedin.

The wettest places would likely be the western ranges of Nelson where a further 200mm could fall today.

Rain in Canterbury and eastern Otago would likely ease this evening and clear overnight. 

''People in these warning areas should watch for swollen rivers and streams, surface flooding and hazardous driving conditions," MetService said.

Easterly gales for Nelson and the West Coast had eased and windwarnings lifted.

Southern Communications Centre shift commander Inspector Rick Dury said: "In a general sense, the top half of the South Island is experiencing bad weather. We've got a lot of surface flooding - a lot of trees etc down.

"Obviously a few of the State Highways are blocked and we're clearing those this morning."

A Christchurch City Council spokesman said 65 millimetres of rain fell across the city overnight and 180 mm in Akaroa.

All river levels were high and the Heathcote River has flooded.

Rainfall throughout Christchurch and Banks Peninsula was easing and should start clearing by around 9am. 

High tide was due at 7.51am at Ferrymead but wasn't expected to create further issues.

WEATHER HAMPERS WEST COAST CLEAN-UP

Westport Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Alan Kennedy said heavy rain was compounding damage caused to buildings in the town by the winds yesterday.

Firefighters were busy this morning helping residents patch up their damaged homes.

Firefighters could not respond to some jobs yesterday because it was too dangerous.

"It [the wind] was like standing behind a 747 [airplane]. If you lost your footing you were on your backside."

Luckily there had been no reports of injuries attributed to the weather, he said.

In Westport's Mitre 10 this morning, a generator was fired up so the store could open to people who needed supplies to carry out urgent repairs.

The store's assistant manager Troy Scanlon said trong winds cut power to the area and it was not known when it would be back up. Winds eased last night but it was raining heavily this morning, he said.

"It's pretty bad. A lot of people have lost roofs," Scanlon said.

"When the gusts hit you struggled to stand up. People have lived their whole lives here and never seen anything like it."

Scanlon said staff had given up their public holiday and had come in to work.

"This is the first Good Friday and the only Good Friday we'll be opening.

"Obviously we'll get raided pretty quick. Tarps have pretty much gone already.

"The good thing about a small town is that people will pitch in and help out."

Fifty vehicles, including campervans and trucks, spent the night stranded at Springs Junction after State Highway 7 - Lewis Pass - to Greymouth closed. The road had now re-opened.

WEATHER CANCELS FLIGHTS

The weather has forced the cancellation of some flights out of Christchurch.

Flights to Dunedin and Rotorua from Christchurch Airport were cancelled this morning.

Airport staff were kept busy printing new boarding passes and answering passengers' travel-related questions.

Arrivals were also disrupted, with some inbound flights, including those from Hokitika, Blenheim and Dunedin, cancelled.

Christchurch Airport spokeswoman Yvonne Densem said Christchurch airport was open and operating, but regional services were affected.

"Wellington and Auckland airports are fine as far as we can tell. The jet planes operating between the three main centres are not having any issues. Just the smaller planes," she said.

- The Press

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