West Coast slip may close road until late January

Power lines down on State Highway 6 at Mt Hercules. Photo: RNZ
Power lines down on State Highway 6 at Mt Hercules. Photo: RNZ
Westland Mayor Bruce Smith says a huge slip that has cut off his district could have a bigger economic impact than the washout of the Waiho Bridge earlier this year.

An estimated 970 tourists are stranded in Franz Josef due to the washouts and landslides that have cut off the town to the north and south.

A large slip on Mt Hercules, to the north of the Franz Josef, is likely to take six weeks to clear, devastating the local economy during one of the busiest times of the year. 

The tourist meccas of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier were relying on a good season this summer, after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars when the March washout left them cut off from the north for three weeks.

Mr Smith said road access to the glaciers and the 44 dairy farmers cut off near Whataroa should be possible from the south in the next few days.

But access from the north would take much longer, because a large section of Mt Hercules had come down onto State Highway 6, south of Hari Hari.

The NZ Transport Agency says the damage to West Coast roads is extensive, but most likely will be fixed within weeks, not months.

It says the full extent of the damage won't be known until engineers can make assessments, but most of it is likely to be small things like trees down - that are quick to fix.

A spokesperson, Pete Connors, says SH6 at Mt Hercules, and the Fox Hills section between Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier are the worst, with "massive" slips.

But he disagrees with comments by the Westland mayor, Bruce Smith, that the damage will take until February to fix.

Mr Smith said engineers were hoping to assess things on Sunday.

"Wanaka to Franz will be open very quickly as will Hokitika to Hari Hari. The piece in the middle is Mt Hercules and all I can say is looking at the photos, this is a bigger problem than the Waiho bridge."

Raging floodwaters destroyed the Waiho Bridge on SH6 in March. Photo: DOC
Raging floodwaters destroyed the Waiho Bridge on SH6 in March. Photo: DOC
Stranded dairy farmers would also have to discharge the milk through their effluent systems, Mr Smith said.

He said the timing of the slip was a blow to the farmers as cows were milked at this time of year, meaning the farmers would miss out on vital cashflow.

Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare is on his way to the West Coast Sunday evening to assess the damage.

Mr Henare was due to fly from Christchurch to Hokitika this evening but the flight was cancelled. He and his team will now drive over to the West Coast.

Tomorrow, Mr Henare says he plans to fly over the areas most affected by the severe weather, with the director of Civil Defence.

He also plans to attend a community meeting in Franz Josef, to hear the concerns of locals.

Meanwhile, police were hoping to lead a convoy of tourists south and out of Fox Glacier at some stage today.

The news was not so good for an estimated 970 stranded in Franz Josef, because the road south was unlikely to be usable for at least three days.

Franz Josef has power at least, after electricity from Lake Wahapo was redirected to the township.

But Fox Glacier could be reliant on emergency generator power for some time after powerlines were brought down due to the slip at Mt Hercules.

The slip took down the 33kV line which powers the township.

Mr Smith said contractors were unable to repair the powerlines as SH6 was blocked as a result of the slip.

Civil Defence West Coast says the new update from Westpower indicates power may be restored to Fox Glacier this evening.

Westpower says its generator has arrived at Fox Glacier and is now being installed and tested.

"All going well, supply may be restored to Fox and south to Paringa this evening. Otherwise, we will still be aiming for tomorrow morning."

Haast, however, had full power, Mr Smith said.

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