Southland’s battle as floodwaters rose

Milford Rd in Fiordland was washed out by heavy rainfall. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

A year ago, Southland faced its worst floods in a generation, prompting the declaration of a state of emergency and mass evacuation of communities as waters rose. Families were displaced, tourists were evacuated and businesses left counting the emotional and financial cost. Abbey Palmer talked to those who have done the hard yards during the past 12 months.

REBUILDING and accepting loss.

But in good Southland spirit, they have moved forward.

Gunn’s Camp in the Hollyford Valley, owned and operated by the Hollyford Museum  Charitable Trust, was a hot spot for workers, trampers and school campers.

When the floods hit, they hit hard — their force prompting the closure of the camp forever.
Out of about 14 buildings, only four were left unscathed.

Milford Community Trust chairman Ebel Kremer was one of those weighing up the damage.

Following his first helicopter trip into the camp, he described the scenes as ‘‘devastating’’.

A year on, the trust is still working with insurers to tie up loose ends.

‘‘The museum, the manager’s quarters, the workshops … the wastewater and the drinking
water, it was all totally destroyed.’’

Water and mud swept through the site. The following week, he and other emergency responders took several flights and a four-wheel-drive in to recover artefacts from the museum and shop.

Despite being able to recover most of the items, the camp was unsalvageable.

Due to its location and the likelihood of another flood, as well as the legislative requirements and approvals needed, it would not be worth rebuilding, Mr Kremer said.

‘‘Gunn’s Camp is part of the past now.’’

When the floods struck in Gore, they flowed from the Waikaka River and over a small section of the stopbank at the Gore Transfer Station.

Gore Automotive Services owner Murray Harris was on his way to Dunedin for an Elton John concert when staff called him to say he needed to turn around. His East Gore business in Ontario St was swimming in water.

When he arrived, emergency services had blocked off access to the street and there was no
way in.

‘‘I looked down the street from the train tracks and could see a car totally submerged in water.’’

When Mr Harris was able to return a couple of days later, the wreckage was tough to stomach. ‘‘It was a disaster area.’’

While the clean-up was enormous, Environment Southland (ES), friends, family, staff and customers all lent a helping hand.

Flooding response
As the water continued to rise, a state of emergency was declared in Fiordland.

The decision to extend this to Southland followed and allowed for more resources and
support from other organisations to manage the clean-up.

Helen and Jock Cummings’ 103ha dairy farm in Wyndham was 80% underwater. Fences were written off, paddocks soaked and almost all their stock feed and crops lost.

When the seven-week clean-up started, more than 50 friends, family and community members chipped in to help.

‘‘It was the most humbling thing I’ve ever seen,’’ Mrs Cummings said.

Between her and her one staff member, they did 780 hours of work.

The biggest cost was repairing fencing and replacing baleage, which thankfully, was covered by insurance.

However, the damage to the paddocks and mains supply was not.

She waited seven days for a pump to get rid of the water. ‘‘By that point, the grass had died and it all had to be resown.’’

While the pair had picked themselves up, they were still living with the consequences of the flood — a few paddocks were ‘‘really rough’’ and cows would not eat certain areas of grass due to the build-up of sand underneath.

Despite it all, she was incredibly grateful for her insurers, who made the process as smooth as possible.

Emergency Management Southland (EMS) acting manager Craig Sinclair was one of seven co-ordinaters working on the flood response.

‘‘If we can see the potential for EMS to get overwhelmed, that’s when we call for an

The biggest consequences of the floods were loss of winter stock feed, drenched paddocks which needed to be resown, and widespread damage to fences.

Farming close to a river, specifically for Mataura residents, was especially tough, Mr Sinclair said.

‘‘You have to have enough time to shift stock. I believe farmers did have enough notice, thankfully, so there wasn’t a huge amount of loss there.

However, once the feed was recovered, it was ‘‘no good’’, and vets were urging farmers not to use damaged material.

On the upside, there was not a huge demand for winter feed last season, he said.

EMS was still having talks about its processes for flood response.

‘‘We have 27 community groups we talk to on a regular basis and we’re always modifying our processes, it’s always ongoing.’’

With many Southlanders living close to the river and the increasing threat of climate change, he expected similar events to keep occurring.

Southland Federated Farmers vice-president Bernadette Hunt said the organisation’s role,
alongside the Southland Rural Support Trust, was to provide immediate support for farmers.

This included the Farmy Army response — whereby volunteers went on to damaged farms to clear debris and rubbish off fences.

A service was also established to help move dairy farm herds to ‘‘foster farms’’ to be fed and milked while dairy sheds and farms were out of action.

Mrs Hunt said most rural damage was not covered, or only partially covered, by insurance.
Gravel caused a lot of damage, and in some cases, lignite washed out of the river and was dumped on to pastures.

Bulldozers were required for some properties, while other areas of pasture were permanently lost.

Rather than being owned by ES, some significantly damaged floodbanks were owned and managed by landowners.

This meant they had to repair them urgently themselves, and in some cases, people were unaware of the ownership issue before the floods hit, she said.

While some farmers were still recovering from the financial impact, most made new plans with their banks and just ‘‘got on with it’’.

The money
However, to do that, they needed money.

Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) chief executive Tim Grafton confirmed claims totalled nearly $30 million — just for Southland.

Commercial claims made up about $20 million of that, while house and contents made up about $8 million; motoring about $1 million; other, which included materials such as crops or fences, was about $170,000; and marine-related damages accounted for about $60,000.

As far as ICNZ was aware, there were no outstanding claim payments. If there were, the information would lie with insurance companies themselves.

While conversations with insurers continued, the Government stepped in. Three national streams of funding were quickly introduced to assist in the recovery: $100,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries, which went to the Southland Rural Support Trust; $100,000
from the Ministry of Defence for the Mayoral Relief Fund; and $500,000 from ACC to establish a recovery team, Taskforce Green.

That team was never formed and the money for it was not used.

Southland Mayoral Forum chairman Tracy Hicks said more than $150,000 of the Mayoral Relief Fund was spent, which included more than $50,000 left over from the 1984 floods fund.

Across the four councils in Southland, 60 applications were received for funds: 65% for individuals, 19% for businesses and 16% for farming related costs.

Regionally, 80% of applications were from the Mataura/Gore area and 20% were from Te Anau.

Members of the public gave just more than $5000 to the cause. Some of the most common uses for the money included replacing household items, lost revenue for businesses,  vehicles and machinery, school resources and children’s car seats.

In July, Regional Economic Development Minister and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones
awarded Southland $25 million from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) — part of the Government’s infrastructure funding for ‘‘shovel-ready’’ climate resilience and flood protection projects.

It will support three projects. One will look at the stopbank infrastructure in Invercargill; funding for the other two projects includes just more than $10 million towards upgrading and raising the Gore, Mataura and Wyndham stopbanks by 600mm, and $800,000 for
erosion repairs on the Waiau River, following a flood in December.

This includes the stopbank which has been allegedly a problem in Gore.

Some of the work projects for the year 2020-21 include rock work on the Mataura stopbanks, and upgrading and extending the stopbank at Boundary Creek, upstream of the Mataura township.

Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips said most of the projects programmed for this year would be completed by the end of the financial year.

The rest of the shovel-ready projects would be completed within three years.

He was confident ES was well-equipped to deal with future severe weather events and the increasing risk posed by climate change.

‘‘The fact that the floodwaters in Mataura largely stayed within the stopbanks during the 2020 floods is a testament to the importance of our flood protection infrastructure and the
future-proofing that previous councils have undertaken.’’

A lot of resources went into ensuring staff and Southlanders were prepared, including  having a team on standby to monitor rivers across the region.

‘‘When they reach a certain trigger point, we notify Southlanders so they can take  precautions if they live in affected areas.’’

Roading woes
The damage to roads was widespread.

It cost the Southland District Council (SDC) about $2 million to repair its district roads,
excluding Lower Hollyford Rd, which was $3.2 million.

Of those, all but three had since been repaired; Lower Hollyford, Ellis and McLean Rds were expected to be completed by June.

SDC strategic transport manager Hartley Hare confirmed 50 roads across Fiordland and Southland managed by the council were compromised by the floods.

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) contributed $400,000 towards the estimated cost for repairs to Lower Hollyford Rd.

Further works in Ellis Rd were on hold until ES completed flood protection work.

An NZTA spokesman said in general, state highways, with the exception of State Highway 94, stood up well to the flooding, despite the fact that at one point, the whole Southland region was cut off from the rest of the country.

The Te Anau/Milford Highway was the worst affected section of SH94 and was closed for 17 days.

The estimated cost to repair the six highways, for which NZTA was solely responsible, was $10.5 million.

Depending on weather, the project was expected to be completed by early next year.

Department of Conservation southern South Island operations director Aaron Fleming said $13.7 million was allocated by the Government in Budget 2020 to repair tracks and huts in Milford Sound.

So far, the Milford and Routeburn Tracks were back up and running and the Howden Hut demolition project was completed.

The Hollyford Track had also reopened but was now categorised as a ‘‘backcountry adventurer’’ track to reflect a ‘‘lower-service standard’’.

The Chasm and small side-tracks off the Hollyford Rd, which head into the Humboldt and Darren Mountains, remained closed.

Structural and geotechnical assessments were required before any recovery work could be undertaken.

When the flooding swept through Gore and Mataura, several people were forced to leave their homes — some only for a few days, but one is still displaced a year on.

Initial support was there from the community including shelter and food.

Ministry of Social Development (MSD) Invercargill and Gore teams were on the ground at the Te Anau Library and Mataura Community Hall, working alongside other agencies to provide support after the flooding.

MSD southern regional director Sue Rissman said there were 146 requests for assistance, and $83,124 in grants were approved to help cover the cost of food, clothing and household goods.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Temporary Accommodation Service (TAS) principal adviser Julia Shanahan said 16 registrations for housing were received
following the floods.

Of those, seven were closed without placement — they either returned to their own home, were not eligible for the service or no longer required assistance.

Six households placed into TAS supply returned to their own homes after repairs, and two were placed into private rentals.

The average amount of time people stayed in temporary accommodation following the flooding was six months.

One household remained in TAS supply in Southland. The determination and support
evident in the tales of heartbreak highlight the resilience of a truly strong community.

Southlanders rallied — but some questions remain as to whether the new flood protection measures go far enough.

One year on, many recall feeling lucky, saddened by the material loss but relieved that no fatalities were recorded.