Army called in to help evacuate residents

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has sent a helicopter, two Unimog vehicles and soldiers to help evacuate people trapped by flooding in Southland.

Mataura, Wyndham and large parts of Gore have all been evacuated and rising river levels have inundated ow-lying homes, businesses and farms in Gore. 

DairyNZ reports more than 100 farms are affected and says it is a "dire situation for many right now".

Authorities have sought to allay fears of the threat posed by floodwater inundating an old paper mill in Mataura where chemicals are stored, but there remains a risk gas could be released if water reaches the chemicals.

The NZDF announced this afternoon that the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) NH90 helicopter left RNZAF Base Ohakea for Invercargill this morning and would carry out flights to assess damage and assist in evacuations near Mataura, Gore and Wyndham.

Two New Zealand Army Unimog trucks, each with four soldiers from 2/4 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, were in Mataura this afternoon, where they were helping police evacuate people from the area.

NZDF liaison officers were working with Civil Defence Emergency Management Southland to coordinate tasks for the NZDF personnel and resources as part of the civil defence emergency in the region.

Environment Southland staff earlier said they were  "concerned" as flood water threatens an old paper mill storing chemicals which could turn toxic when mixed with water.

An aerial view of the flooded Mataura River and Gore. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
An aerial view of the flooded Mataura River and Gore. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

Thousands of tonnes of a potentially dangerous chemical — known as ouvea premix — are still stored in the the former Carter Holt Harvey paper mill in Mataura.

The dross from the New Zealand Aluminium Smelters' (NZAS) Tiwai Point smelter is classified as a class 6 hazardous substance, which can generate poisonous ammonia gas if it comes into contact with water.

Southland Civil Defence Emergency Management group controller Angus McKay this afternoon told the Otago Daily Times flood waters were now "right on the level" where they could flood through the building.

However, even if a gas reaction occurred, he was confident a 500m cordon — already in place as part of the response to rising flood waters — would keep people safe from any gas which was released into the air.

The river itself was also running so high that any ouvea premix released into the water would be diluted to the point it was unlikely to pose a threat to wildlife, he said.

Southern District Health Board sets up emergency operations centre

Southern DHB has set up an emergency operations centre (EOC) in response to rising water levels in the Mataura River, with the risk of flooding, and road closures in the affected areas.

The EOC is currently working to support Civil Defence Southland, and to ensure staff and patients in facilities in the affected areas are safe from potential flooding, and that all health needs are met.

Southern DHB EOC is also assisting a number of age residential care facilities in the affected areas who are at risk of flooding to evacuate residents to alternate accommodation, and are currently coordinating placement beds.

18 residents of Wyndham and Districts Community Rest Home were evacuated to Mimihau Hall in Wyndham, Southland earlier today.

To ensure these residents receive the most appropriate care, the Southern DHB EOC has coordinated a helicopter to uplift the 18 residents from Mimihau Hall to Southland Hospital by helicopter.

Four of these residents will be cared for at Southland Hospital, and the remaining 14 will be taken to age residential care facilities in the Invercargill area.

Towns evacuated

Mataura was almost completely empty by 9.15am and the bridge was closed about 9.30am.

Civil Defence Southland said residents in low-lying areas in Gore, Mataura and Wyndham should evacuate.

The river was expected to peak at 2450 cumecs at Gore before 9.20am, and at Mataura with 2665 cumecs at 11.50am, it said.

Wyndham is expected to bear the brunt of rising river levels this afternoon.

The Mataura River, which flows through the Southland town of 550 residents, is expected to peak at 3.20pm at  2,740 cumecs.

This is 4.21 metres above normal river level. 

Everybody has been ordered to leave and head for the Mokoreta or Mimihau Halls, which are serving as evacuation centres.

People have been asked to take enough belongings to last them for a number of days as it may be some time before they are able to return.

The view of flooding in Gore from east of the town. Photo: Allied Press
The view of flooding in Gore from east of the town. Photo: Allied Press

At 7.15am it told the residents of East Gore to evacuate as the river continues to rise.

"The main bridge in Gore will be closed shortly."

"Go to higher ground and stay with family or friends," the alert said.

People were being  encouraged go and stay with friends and family on higher ground.

"Before leaving, check on neighbours and share this information if doing so won’t delay you. Call 111 if you are in danger.’’

Top cop: 'I have never seen the river like that'

Inspector Jon Bisset, speaking from Mataura, said people in low lying areas were being asked to evacuate for their own safety.

The Mataura River in Mataura this morning. Photo: Luisa Girao
The Mataura River in Mataura this morning. Photo: Luisa Girao

"So we’ve got evacuation points set up all over the place.

"All our staff going around communicating that to the community – we are going around door knocking all the addresses at the moment to make sure they are clear and assisting anyone who needs a hand out.

"People who need assistance can contact us via 111 if it’s an emergency or on the 105 number if need be.

"Personally I have never seen the rivers like that – I grew up in the Southland and I’ve never seen the river like that."

One farm 90% under water

Otago Federated Farmers president Simon Davies described it as a strain.

However, he said for some it was still too early to assess the extent of damage. He confirmed Tapanui had been badly hit with stock food washed away.

"There has also been stock evacuations. I know of one property in particular that is 90% under water.  They had to cut fences and move stock into neighbouring land.’’

"The things that are most of concern are milk collection in the short term, which is probably not going to happen, and longer term stock supplement, and damage to property

depending how long the water stays around for.’’

"In relation to overall implications it is too early to say.’’

Southland Federated Farmers vice president Bernadette Hunt said the situation was ‘‘quite varied’’ across her patch. She confirmed there had been significant crop damage and some stock losses.

Southern Southland is now the biggest area of concern, south of Mataura.

‘‘There are cows there that are surrounded by water. They are on higher ground but it is only a matter of time and hoping the river doesn't come up too high for them.  There are a lot of people moving cows to higher ground or to neighbouring property ahead of the peak coming down. There is still a significant risk.’’

She said a lot of crops were underwater in northern Southland. "A lot of work went in yesterday to protect stock to minimise losses there. ... There were helicopters helping get cows
across rivers and things like that.’’

She confirmed she was aware of "some small numbers" of losses.

"But I don't know of anything significant. I don't of large animals being swept down river or anything of that scale.

Trains abandoned 

Attributable to KiwiRail Executive General Manager Operations Siva Sivapakkiam

Severe flooding halted two freight trains in the Gore area on Monday night.

The trains have been secured and will be moved after the track has been inspected and any necessary repairs have been carried out.

Continuing high water levels mean we have been unable to  begin inspecting the track.

We apologise for the disruption to freight services.

Town emptied

A reporter on the ground in Mataura said the town was almost completely empty by about 9.15am and the bridge was closed about 9.30am. 

Meanwhile a reporter on the ground in Mandeville, inland from Gore, said huge chunks of farm land were flooded.   She confirmed about a kilometre radius around the river was flooded.

She was preparing for evacuation but said the rain had stopped.

"It is actually beautifully sunny here."

The new Pyramid Bridge under construction surrounded by flood water at 5.30pm last night. Photo:...
The new Pyramid Bridge under construction surrounded by flood water at 5.30pm last night. Photo: Sandy Eggleston
People were reminded to take any medications they require, some clothing and personal items including documents.

"If you are evacuating with pets, ensure they are contained on a leash or in a cage and that you have food for them.’’People were being advised to stay away from flood areas until Civil Defence gave the all clear.

Members of the public were being advised not to drive or walk through flood waters.

''The water may have washed away parts of the road and may contain debris. Tread all flood water as contaminated and unsafe.''

Community hubs are open in the following locations:

Gore:

  •     Calvin Community Church
  •     Croydon Lodge
  •     Waimumu Hall
  •     Waimumu Field Days site, where people can evacuate with pets

Mataura

  •     Buses will be departing from the Presbyterian Church around 8:30am and from the Mataura Community Centre around 8:30-9am leaving for the Edendale Presbyterian Church and the Christian Activity Centre. These will evacuate residents and do round trips

Wyndham

  •     Wyndham Community Centre

Emergency Management Southland said on Facebook early this morning that more roads would be affected by floodwaters today.

"The Riverton Highway is likely to be significantly affected, so please bear this in mind when planning any travel.

"We advise avoiding any unnecessary travel - taking extreme caution if you need to go out and checking [the NZ Transport Agency] and local council websites for road closures."

In a statement released from Powernet this morning, it says the company "is closely working with the Gore District Council and Emergency Management Southland with the threats of flooding in and around the Gore and Mataura areas’’.

PowerNet chief operating officer Justin Peterson said PowerNet teams were currently developing a plan on The Power Company network to de-energise electricity supply in the low-lying areas around the Mataura River.

"For public safety we will be disconnecting power supply to some areas of Gore and Mataura, we will notify the affected areas on our outages website as well as through our Facebook page." Mr Peterson said.

"The safety and well-being of employees and the community are our first priorities when working in a state of emergency.’’

The statement also reminded members of the public to not approach broken lines on the ground and were reminded to keep themselves and other people away.

Among residents evacuated is Hokonui Breakfast radio host Luke Howden and his family.

He described having to wade thorough waist-high water to leave their home late yesterday afternoon.

"It would've been about 4 o'clock yesterday that the water just started to rise quite rapidly and before we knew it, it was licking on the back doorstep.

"We had the fire crews outside whistling for us to grab some things and get out," he said."It was a matter of wading through waist-high water to get to the end of the street and into safety."

He said it had been an unsettling night for everyone.

"Lying there thinking: 'Well, what sort of state is the house going to be when we return'?"

He said there was a "pretty eerie" feeling in the air this morning, as they were effectively now cut off from the rest of the country.

"Every major trunk line in and out of Gore has been closed. As a result, you don't have the through-traffic that you usually would at this time of the morning.

"Yet in the background, you can hear the surging torrent of the Mataura River. I went for a wee walk down the banks moments ago and, at this stage, it looks contained."

Two motorists find a dry refuge in the Mataura area. Photo: High Country Helicopters
Two motorists find a dry refuge in the Mataura area. Photo: High Country Helicopters

Additional reporting RNZ and NZ Herald
 

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