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West Coast state of emergency: Conditions ease, but residents not out of the woods yet

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Heavy rain is expected to ease for much of the West Coast today, after a night of intense downpours that left some in a state of emergency.

The dire overnight forecast led to Civil Defence declaring a state of emergency along State Highway 6 from Hokitika to Haast as the region prepared for what was expected to be the heaviest rain of the evening.

“This means the road between here and Haast — including the Glacier region and townships in between — is now closed. Travellers have until 6pm tonight to clear the road,” Civil Defence said last night.

“All travellers are instructed to move to the nearest township, park up and remain in place until the emergency is lifted. Anyone camping in the region must immediately pack up and move to the nearest township and seek accommodation in a camping ground or motel.”

West Coast Emergency Management said the NZ Transport Agency would be checking road conditions at first light on Saturday, hoping to reopen the road as soon as possible.

Emergency operations staff from Westland district worked through the night monitoring rain and river levels.

MetService told the Herald rain was beginning to ease for parts of Westland, but residents weren’t out of the woods yet.

Meteorologist Mmathapelo Makgabutlane said “there is still rain, especially out in the ranges. There is also thunderstorm activity, especially over southern Westland”.

Makgabutlane confirmed a red heavy rain alert was in place for Westland until 8 o’clock this morning, but the rain is expected to ease by noon.

“That red warning goes until 8am. We will be continuing to assess the situation and will update it as needed,” she said.

“Keep an eye on the latest warnings for the Westland and Grey region and further north, in the Buller region and out towards the Tasman district, where watches and warnings are in place.”

NZTA closed SH6 from the West Coast town of Ross to Otago’s Makarora due to flooding yesterday afternoon.

Police, meanwhile, were patrolling the area and directing drivers to the nearest township. Emergency management staff and volunteers were also giving help.

“The rain expected this afternoon and tonight will likely cause dangerous river conditions and significant flooding. Slips and floodwaters are likely to make some roads impassable and could isolate communities,” Civil Defence said.

“The Grey and Buller districts to our north are also expecting heavy rain, but not quite to the same extent. Heavy rain may cause streams and rivers to rise rapidly. Surface flooding and slips are also possible and driving conditions may be hazardous.”

West Coast Emergency Management group controller Te Aroha Cook said the safety of people was top of mind and the best way to do this was to keep them off the roads.

“Our main priority is to ensure people are safe. By declaring the emergency now and getting people off the roads in the daylight, we are greatly reducing the risk of danger to our locals, our tourists and our emergency service teams.

“We know there is an increased risk of accidents and issues in the dark. With rivers at risk of breaching and the chance of slips increasing in this weather, we need to act now.”

Residents were advised to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Motel and hotel patrons must stay in place and anyone camping near waterways needed to immediately pack up and move to the nearest township for safe and secure accommodation, Cook said.

“All our emergency service partners and our local communities are behind us in making this decision. People have until 6pm to clear the roads — after that time, police will be actively enforcing the road closure. Emergency Management staff and volunteers will be providing assistance as necessary.”

Civil Defence will advise when the state of emergency is lifted.

The bridge on a swollen Waiho River. Photo / RNZ
The bridge on a swollen Waiho River. Photo / RNZ

Officials were also trying to work out whether to evacuate homes before dark as a precaution.

St John said it was closely monitoring the weather on the West Coast and deployed a command unit and a welfare camper to support its team there.

“This is being co-ordinated by our Major Incident Support Team. Two managers from Canterbury are also travelling to support our response,” St John said.

Sandbags were being handed out on the streets of Hokitika from Thursday, and Civil Defence staff from across the South Island were pulled in as residents prepared for the massive deluge from an atmospheric river of moisture.

Civil Defence mobilised staff and resources as “a month’s worth of rain in one day” began falling on the West Coast yesterday — and while 80mm had already been recorded, the heaviest downpours were tipped for this morning.

Westland District Mayor Helen Lash said Friday afternoon’s rain levels would be critical for the region from Haast to Hokitika, with a further 300mm of rain expected in the ranges on top of what has already fallen. The worst of it was expected between 10pm Friday and 6am Saturday.

Emergency services also have additional staff in Franz Josef, Haast, Hokitika and Greymouth.

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