River protection work takes on immediate significance

A submerged car in Westport. Photo: Supplied / NZ Defence Force
A submerged car in Westport. Photo: Supplied / NZ Defence Force
The flood that swamped Westport at the weekend should convince even the most doubtful ratepayer that the town needs river protection work, West Coast Regional Council chairman Allan Birchfield says.

The one-in-100-year flood forced 2000 people — half the town — to evacuate and many could be homeless for months, as they wait for houses to be stripped, dried out and repaired.

The township was effectively cut off as an island between a 12m flood in the mighty Buller River and raging floodwaters in the usually placid Orowaiti River.

Cr Birchfield said the regional council proposed setting up a rating district for Westport four years ago to pay for river protection and other work that would mitigate the flood risk to homes and property.

‘‘There was some support for the programme in 2017 but it was pretty lukewarm and we like to have a decent majority in favour before we start rating, so it didn’t go ahead.’’

The council had been able to set up a rating district in Westport last year, after getting enough ratepayer support for a new flood-warning telemetry system, which was a relatively minor project, he said.

‘‘I think they might have to revisit that after what’s happened, and look at some floodwall-type work, although protecting Westport won’t be as straightforward as Greymouth, because it’s bordered by two rivers and the sea.’’

The flood that turned the town into an island at the weekend might have been the worst in a century but was not ‘‘unexpected’’, Cr Birchfield said.

And it was not necessarily a sign of climate change, in his view .

‘‘It’s happened before, and they’ve had bigger floods in the past.’’

Westland Mayor Bruce Smith, who chairs the West Coast Regional Emergency Management Committee, said the weekend event was as big as the flood of 1926.

There had been at least one bigger, before the area was settled by Europeans.

‘‘It’s not the worst — the Buller flood of 1857 was four metres higher,’’ Mr Smith said.

The size of the flood has revived concerns about the wisdom of building a new medical centre at the former Buller Hospital site in Derby and Cobden Sts, both heavily flooded at the weekend.

On Friday night, patients had to be moved to a makeshift ward at the local workingmen’s club or flown to hospital in Greymouth, after floodwaters damaged the Buller Health Centre boiler room and entered underground service tunnels. The coal-fired boiler heats the building and provides hot water for the health centre, and it will be closed for at least a week, for repairs.

Work has begun on a $20million Family Health Centre, just next door.

West Coast District Health Board chairman Rick Barker said there was no need to rethink the project or its location.

‘‘The new building will not have a boiler room or underground service tunnels, and it will be raised above the ground level — that is the preliminary advice I have had.’’

At least one of three patients evacuated to Club Buller at the weekend was unfazed, according to social media posts — one reported dad was hoping the bar would still be open when they arrived.

DHB general manager Phil Wheble said services at Buller Health should be restored from Monday.

This is yet to be confirmed and will depend on how fast we can dry out and carry out the essential repairs in the boilerhouse.’’

Three patients were in the makeshift ward yesterday and more staff had arrived from Te Nikau Hospital in Greymouth to let the local team rest and see how their homes had fared in the flooding, Mr Wheble said.

Some hospital beds were transported by army Unimog to the temporary ‘‘Club Buller ward’’ for use by seriously ill patients needing a hospital-type adjustable bed.

- By Lois Williams, local democracy reporter

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