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The reopening of a bridge across the swollen Rangitata River means the two halves of the east coast of the South Island have been reconnected, but the weekend's chaotic weather means parts of West Coast remain isolated.
The Rangitata River in South Canterbury burst its banks after a sustained period of heavy rain, leaving both State Highway 1 at Rangitata and the Upper Rangitata Bridge at Arundel impassable on Saturday.
However the two halves of the east coast were reconnected just before noon with the reopening of the Inland Scenic Route 72 which includes the Upper Rangitata Bridge at Arundel.
An alert was sent to motorists at 10am this morning saying Inland Scenic Route 72 was set to reopen to all traffic at noon and Timaru District Council later confirmed it opened 15 minutes early at about 11.45am.
The scenic route crosses the upper Rangitata River near Arundel.
Motorists were warned to expect delays.
SH1 at Rangitata would remain closed until further notice.
Timaru District Council said in a statement speed restrictions would be in place and, due to the backlog of traffic, it expected travel times between Timaru and Christchurch to be significantly longer than normal.
"We would suggest travellers add at least an extra hour to their travel times, and expect delays.
Localised detours would be in place from Orari and motorists were asked to drive carefully and follow instructions. Police would be present along the route.
Timaru Emergency Operations Controller Tracy Tierney thanked contractors from who had been working through the night to get the "vital link" restored.
“This will still be an active work site, so for worker and general safety please be patient, follow all signs and instructions and keep your speed down.
“Thanks for everyone’s patience.”
Earlier on the weekend any nearby residents were evacuated as their homes and farms rapidly succumbed to the deluge, while travellers were left stranded on either side of the Rangitata.
Dunedin missed the worst of the weather but did not escape unscathed.
MetService duty forecaster Paul Ngamanu said the city received 16mm of rain over a six-hour period yesterday afternoon, as the city was hit by two successive thunderstorms.The wild weather was being driven by a deep low south of the country, which was starting to move on by late yesterday, he said.
The effects of the storm were felt at Dunedin Airport, where lightning knocked out airfield power for a short time.
An Airways spokeswoman said lightning struck the airfield power centre at 2.10pm, knocking out the airfield lighting system and some other equipment until about 3pm.One flight had been able to land in that time, and another flight was delayed as a result of weather conditions around the airport.
Lightning also sparked several small fires around Dunedin, keeping fire crews busy for much of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, supermarket shelves around the city were bare last night, as shoppers started to panic-buy milk, bread, and other items that could not be transported from Christchurch.
Foodstuffs NZ Ltd head of corporate affairs Antoinette Laird said the company was having issues transporting items such as milk, produce, and chilled and frozen products.
Foodstuffs owns supermarket chains New World, Pak ’n Save, and Four Square.
"We would like to ask that shoppers just buy what they need and resist the urge to stockpile, as this puts unnecessary stress on stores and the wider supply chain," Ms Laird said.
Couplands shoppers may also notice a shortage.
Managing director Lance Coupland said they usually trucked stock south from Christchurch every day, but that was impossible due to the road closures.
The company had an agreement with Goodman Fielder, which would bake some bread for Couplands in Dunedin to help out.
And for those eagerly awaiting a parcel or letter today, you might be out of luck.
An NZ Post spokeswoman said it was unable to bring items south from Christchurch last night.
"Unfortunately, this will mean delays on overnight courier parcels as well as all other mail and parcels, including international items, that were due for delivery on Monday," she said.
Up to 1000 people were stranded in Franz Josef after heavy rain caused a huge slip in the area.
Westland Mayor Bruce Smith said he and government officials would check residents and assess the situation today.
The road to the glacier was not expected to reopen until at least Friday, and the only road between Hokitika and Wanaka-Haast would be closed "for weeks and weeks, if not months and months", he said.
He said the situation was terrible for the tourism industry in the area, which was already facing problems and low earnings.
Power was also out from Fox Glacier to Paringa, and was likely to remain so for a couple of days.
State of emergency
The Timaru District Council declared a state of emergency on Saturday as a result of the flooding at Rangitata.
The Timaru Emergency Operations Centre was remaining open last night to monitor the status of the Rangitata River.
In a statement last night, the council said roading contractors had put up floodlights and were working through the night to start re-establishing the inland route.
"If everything goes to plan over the next 24 hours, priority will be initially given to essential supplies and recovery teams."
The Government has set aside up to $50,000 to support farming communities in South Canterbury significantly affected.
The weekend’s weather left travellers stranded around the South Island.
Queenstown-based tourism company Action Adventures chartered flights from Dunedin air operator company Mainland Air to ferry tourists to Christchurch by plane.Action Adventures chief executive Wendy van Lieshout said it had three trips in progress when the weather turned — one at Franz Josef, one near Mt Cook, and another at Tekapo.
Some of the tourists had flights due to leave from Christchurch yesterday, so they organised charter flights to transfer them there.
"They’re all in reasonably good spirits, especially now that we’ve been able to find a solution for them.
"They’re just anxious to get home."
The group at Franz Josef was not as lucky.
They would be taken by helicopter today to Fox Glacier and then bussed to Queenstown.
Mainland Air chief executive Phil Kean said the phones had been flat out and it was picking people up in Timaru and transporting them to Christchurch.
Queenstown and Wanaka
After several days of flooding, a watchful eye was still being kept on river and lake levels in Queenstown and Wanaka last night.
Lake Wakatipu was still slowly rising, but there was little sign of flooding in Queenstown’s CBD.
Over the hill in Wanaka, the lake was also still rising and expected to reach its peak today.
Over the weekend, the waters rose to cover large areas of Ardmore St, Pembroke Park and Dungarvon Sts.
Queenstown District Council property and infrastructure general manager and acting controller Peter Hansby said the predicted lake levels were in line with what had been expected, but the council would keep a close eye on them as the week progressed.
— Additional reporting RNZ and The New Zealand Herald