West Coast floods: person missing, bridge wrecked


The search for a missing woman in the Haupiri River has been suspended for the night, after heavy rain caused severe flooding and battered the West Coast. 

Greymouth police said emergency services were alerted just before 8pm on Thursday.

The search so far had been unsuccessful but would be resumed in the morning. 

The river runs past the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale.

Earlier, a bridge near Arthur's Pass on the West Coast was swept away by floodwaters. The New Zealand Transport Agency confirmed Goat Creek Bridge on State Highway 73 is down.

Motorist Jess Dempsey said the weather there has been "absolutely terrible". She and her husband live in Otira, and discovered the bridge just east of town had been washed out this afternoon.

Another nearby bridge - Kellys Creek - was also flooded, with water covering part of the road.

Goat Creek Bridge was replaced just a few years ago in 2010, after the former timber bridge was deemed to be nearing the end of its life.

MetService tweeted tonight that 300mm of rain had fallen in Arthur's Pass, while Franz Josef just topped over 200mm.

Bridge collapse at Goat Creek, just east of Otira. Photo: Jess Dempsey via NZ Herald
Bridge collapse at Goat Creek, just east of Otira. Photo: Jess Dempsey via NZ Herald

The wet and wild weather system has bashed the West Coast, forcing the closure of schools, roads and potentially stranding students for the night. 

Meanwhile, Otago Boys' High School pupils have been marooned in a hut in the Mt Aspiring National park after heavy rains made a creek impassable.

Areas of the West Coast have been drenched, the Ivory Glacier receiving 391mm of rain - more than Clyde, Cromwell and Alexandra saw in the entire of 2017.

The Hokitika River was threatening to sweep away a campervan parked on one of the braided river's islands.

Westland District Council mayor Bruce Smith said the second alarm for the river had been activated, and there was still another few hundred millimetres of rain forecast.

He said the first alarm is when it hits a level that is considered a flood, the third is extreme and if that goes off they will have some problems "for sure".

The MetService says Hokitika copped more than 800 lightning strikes in a 20-minute period this morning.

The conditions have caused parts of roads on the West Coast to crumble and fall away, forcing the NZTA to close main highways.

State Highway 6 from Hokitika to Haast and State Highway 73 Arthur's Pass between Arthur's Pass township and Jackson were likely to remain closed overnight.

Drivers in the area are being urged by NZTA not to travel unless it is absolutely essential.

NZTA also issued a caution for motorists using SH6 between Queenstown and Lumsden in Southland, saying surface water had pooled in the southbound lane near the Oxford St intersection.

A caution for flooding was also put in place for SH90 from Tapanui to McNab SH1 Juction.

In New Plymouth, all flights were grounded due to problems caused by heavy fog and low visibility.

The Rimutaka Hill Road (SH2) linking Wellington and Wairarapa remains closed due to high winds. 

Strong winds were ramping up about the Canterbury high country, Wellington and southern Wairarapa today. Gusts could reach 150km/h in exposed parts of Canterbury, and 130km/h in other affected areas.

The strongest winds recorded so far were 80km/h at a station near Lumsden in Southland, and 65km/h at Le Bons Bay on Banks Peninsula.

WEST COAST SCHOOLS CLOSED

Eight schools were closed on the West Coast due to the heavy rain and flooding, the Ministry of Education told The New Zealand Herald.

Students were being taken home in a police escort this afternoon, but some were facing the prospect of a night at school thanks to road slips.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said local staff have been in contact with the West Coast schools and have offered support where needed.

"The school and road closures affects 900 students," she said. We encourage parents to keep in contact with schools and early learning centres tomorrow following today's severe weather."

The schools closed are:  Whataroa School, Haast School, Ross School, Kokatihi-Kowhitirangi School, Kaniere School, Westland High School, Hokitika School and St Mary's School Hokitika.

Casey advised parents to check school early tomorrow or check websites or Facebook pages to see if they will open.

SNOW AND HEAVY RAIN WARNINGS

The rain was expected to spread slowly east over the South Island today, with a cooler southerly change behind it that could bring snow to some places.

Heavy snow was expected about northern parts of the Canterbury high country above about 800 metres overnight, with lesser amounts down to about 500m, affecting higher roads and passes in this region.

Road snow warnings were in place for several South Island highways from early tomorrow throughout the day.

MetService advised that Arthur's Pass (SH73) could get up to 12cm of snow, Porters Pass (SH73) up to 10cm, the Lindis Pass (SH8) up to 8cm and the Crown Range Road just 1cm.

The heaviest rain was expected in the western and southern districts of the South Island and also about the headwaters of the Canterbury and Otago lakes and rivers. Heavy rain warnings were in place for many of those areas through to tonight, with some spots expecting to receive up to 300mm of rain.

NZTA issued several road warnings in the South Island for heavy rain.

In Nelson, SH60 from Riwaka to Takaka has a warning in place for heavy rain, and in Canterbury parts of SH73 and SH7 have warnings of strong winds, meaning care was required by all high-sided vehicles and motorcycles.

The weather also prompted a warning from the Mountain Safety Council for people planning backcountry trips in Aoraki/Mt Cook and Arthur's Pass.

Heavy rain in the Southern Alps was expected to significantly change the snowpack and has seen both Aoraki/Mt Cook and Arthurs Pass regions upgraded to ‘High/Don’t Go’ danger on the NZ Avalanche Advisory, the council said.

“Heavy rain and severe gale winds make for dangerous conditions to travel in, both from Avalanche risk and exposure possibilities.

“Very heavy rain to above 3000m will saturate an already wet snowpack creating a high likelihood of extensive wet loose avalanching on all aspects. Backcountry travel is not advised in Aoraki/Mt Cook and Arthurs Pass at this time."

The only parts of the country to escape any of the wet today will be the North Island's east coast, from Gisborne south to the Wairarapa, parts of which could crack 30degC today.

 

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