Opinion: A ‘phenomenal’ rainstorm

Flooding on the inland scenic route in Arundel, Canterbury. Photo: Rebecca Ryan
Flooding on the inland scenic route in Arundel, Canterbury. Photo: Rebecca Ryan
Nobody could honestly say they were not warned about the weekend rainstorm that has transformed the face of Canterbury and the lives of many Cantabrians.

Until Saturday, the region, always one of the driest in the country, had that familiar orange-brown desiccated look to it. Just two days later, significant swathes of it are under water.

When all the official rainfall readings are tallied up, there will be many records set. But it seems even the least affected places, around Christchurch, have still had about 100mm of rain — or about one-sixth of the city’s average annual rainfall — in just 48 hours.

Reports from inland Mid and South Canterbury, up against the foothills, right in the firing line of the southeasterly storm, are of colossal falls of three or four times that much rain. It’s all that water making its way into the rivers of the Canterbury Plains that has caused destruction and chaos downstream.

Despite days of excellent notice from all the weather forecasting agencies, there is a limit to preparations that can be made. Unfortunately, even the best forecasts cannot stop it from happening. Nature will do what it wants.

The disruption from this storm is huge: thousands of people either evacuated or under threat of evacuation, farms swamped, stock washed away, stopbanks breached, bridges damaged, power lines brought down.

When the clouds finally break and the waters recede, mud and debris will be strewn across the waterlogged landscape as far as the eye can see, along with broken fences, farm equipment and ripped-up trees.

Tales of heroism and amazing rescues are already coming to light, with plucky helicopter pilots picking farmers out of trees and from sodden paddocks, and others saving people stuck in vehicles in floodwater.

Civil defence workers, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, members of the Defence Force and local council staff have been working overtime to deal with the flooding and keep communities safe.

We have seen time and again how such events bring out the best in Kiwis. Despite all the trappings of modern life, and the best engineering efforts to protect from hazards, our nation and economy remains highly vulnerable to the elements.

Major natural events such as this can affect any part of the country, and threaten life, livelihood and the infrastructure on which communities and the country rely. While they are not everyday occurrences, they are far from rare either.

For a storm that will likely have a clean-up bill of many tens of millions of dollars, the $100,000 Acting Emergency Management Minister Kris Faafoi announced for the Mayoral Relief Fund for flood-affected communities seems pitifully small. It is to be hoped that is just the start.

It seems ironic that, for months, Cantabrians have been pleading for rain. They still were at the start of the weekend.

Rain was still falling steadily across parts of Canterbury yesterday, but was forecast to ease by today.

One can perhaps detect the hand of climate change at work here, though of course there have always been similar rainstorms down the South Island’s east coast. In some inland places it is likely this could be a more than one-in-100-year event.

Otago and Southland have been fortunate in dodging a bullet this time. We need to do whatever we can to help support those of our northern neighbours who face a long, painful recovery from such an extraordinary storm.

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