Wild weather leaves ‘living hell’ in its wake as 1000 people homeless, long clean-up begins

It’s going to be a long road back to normal for flood-stricken Westport, with 1000 people unable to go home, a shortage of rental housing and streets still filled with filthy water.

Some there say their houses have “had it” and others don’t know when they will get home to assess the damage.

Alongside the destruction of property – buildings, vehicles and treasured personal possessions – farmers at the heart of the Buller District have suffered stock losses.

One farmer lost around 700 animals after the Buller River rose to what some say were unprecedented levels.

The clean-up for the town with a population of just over 4600 will likely take months and it has been estimated “hundreds” of houses have been badly damaged.

Listen live: Acting Emergency Management Minister Kris Faafoi at 7.05am

The Buller and Marlborough regions were battered by heavy rain that caused flooding, slips, major road closures and left towns completely cut off.

The unforgiving weather forced evacuations on Friday night, leaving people trapped on the roofs of their cars and needing to be rescued.

Some have been able to return home but many will spend the next few days in evacuation centres as authorities get a better idea of the situation.

The majority of them are in the hardest hit area – Westport.

Yesterday the Government announced a $300,000 helping hand to Westport through a mayoral relief fund and a further $100,000 for the Blenheim-Marlborough region.

And a separate $200,000 has been committed for flood-affected farmers and growers across both areas.

'We're here to help' – Kris Faafoi

Acting Emergency Management Minister Kris Faafoi acknowledged the work that has already been done to help those on the ground and said the extent of the damage would be known over the next day or so.

Speaking to Newstalk ZB’s Mike Yardley this morning, he said: “Today and the next couple of days, as the waters recede, we’ll get a really good idea of just how much of a clean-up there is.”

He said there is a “significant number” of people who will be out of their homes over the next few days as a result.

One challenge was making sure families whose homes have been flood-damaged had a place to stay while repairs were being carried out at their properties.

Officials are working closely with the Civil Defence, as well as the Defence Force, to ensure locals were taken care of in that regard, he said.

“We’ll keep working with them to make sure they have everything they need.”

Asked if he had a message for farmers, he said: “We’re here to help.”

He said the Government would be there to assist where possible.

Aerial views of Westport showed most houses in the central town area under water – many up to window-level with parked cars completely submerged.

Murky and stinking brown floodwater covered entire streets, and paddocks surrounding the town looked more like lakes.

Wendy Bullard has lived in Westport for decades and has endured two previous floods – but nothing like what smashed through the town at the weekend.

The Herald was with her when she was allowed to go back to her property, the water still knee high.

Her tears flowed – a mixture of sadness, anger, frustration, hopelessness, exhaustion – as she surveyed the damage.

Photo albums with decades of family memories; sopping wet, destroyed.

Her bathroom layered with foul smelling mud; her flooring, her furniture – everything soaked, splashed and ruined.

As her most personal and loved possessions floated around her in the filthy brown and cold water her voice broke.

“Everything … my whole life up to this point, 58 years … my daughters’ things,” she said.

“It’s a living nightmare.”

“I’m gutted, I’m in shock.”

First responders out helping the community also returned to badly damaged homes.

The Herald is aware of a number of police, volunteers and Salvation Army workers whose homes had been ravaged.

Yet, they continued to serve others.

Dave Henderson said he’d thought his house, which he purchased last year, was on high
enough ground to avoid the flooding.

When the evacuation alerts came through he reckoned he could stay put.

And then, too late,he realised he couldn’t.

“When it started seeping in the house I thought better of it, let’s go.

“It was pretty wet. It was just coming up through the floor boards and every orifice.”

He was rescued by Civil Defence and police staff in a Unimog truck.

“We were up to our waists in water,” he told the Herald.

“It was pretty good to get a lift down here, we couldn’t walk it.”

Henderson, like many, will be staying at the evacuation centre for the foreseeable future.

Yesterday, Faafoi, Agriculture Minister and West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor joined Buller District mayor Jamie Cleine for a flyover of the flooded area.

Later, Faafoi thanked the efforts of emergency services and first responders.

He confirmed there were still about 1000 people who remained evacuated, with about 500 of them who still need welfare support, possibly for weeks and months.

Many of them were in Kainga Ora housing.

Cleine told the AM Show one of the main risk factors for the less affected homes was that a lot of the water that had flooded the houses had been contaminated with sewerage.

Although a number of houses would be cleared later today and people could return home, he said there were a significant number of properties that have been damaged and some beyond repair.

He said the town was “very anxious and concerned” particularly around where they would stay and he hoped to be able to provide some clarity for people around accommodation options later today.

There was a lot of planning going around accommodation and options were being worked on as rental accommodation in the area was already limited, he said.

“Certainly the rental property market is very limited and obviously worse now with the flooding.”

Cleine early said nearby towns might be able to help with extra beds if needed.

O’Connor said the Buller River had never been so high, and emergency services had done incredibly well in difficult circumstances and were able to keep the death toll so far to zero.

Faafoi said building assessments will take place in the coming days, which will provide a better idea of who can return to their homes.

“Some people won’t be able to go back into them immediately,” he said.

O’Connor added that friends and families have provided a lot of accommodation.

“It’s not going to dry up in a hurry, as you can tell.”

The clean-up would likely take months, said Buller Emergency Management Operation Centre controller Bob Dickson.

About 800 homes had been affected, he added.

“We have a lot of anxiety. Resilience is still high but we’re conscious that can change over time,” Dickson said.

“It’ll be more than a week. Probably many, many months. This is a big, large-scale event.”

Across the district a boil-water notice remains in place and some roads are still closed.

The same goes in Marlborough, but just before midday yesterday all residents were able to return to their homes.

Marlborough mayor John Leggett told the AM Show that while the majority of the 900 people evacuated in his area had been able to return home, there had been significant damage to the roading network.

The Awatere Valley Rd has been washed out, a bridge had been destroyed in the Waihopai Valley and there was major damage to roads in the Marlborough Sounds.

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