The army visiting flooded homes in the Buller region (Supplied, NZDF)

‘Dire reality’ dawning for Westport, says local business owner

As coasters wake up to drowned streets and sodden houses, we asked Tash Barnes Dellaca, the general manager of Westport’s innovation hub, what the mood is like in the flood-prone town.

Hi Tash. First of all, are you and your family and your property OK?

Yeah we’re sitting high and dry. Our property is significantly higher than the Buller River, so we could look out over it and watch it ominously creep up. But yeah we’re totally fine.

What about your business? (Epic innovation hub)

The water came up to the back door of Epic, but it didn’t come in. So I think we dodged a bullet there. Epic became a bit of a pop-up home to about five households. But there’s a few folks that got affected in the Epic community. Four of the folks out of about a dozen have lost their homes.

One of the guys had a foot of water through the whole house. They’re looking for accommodation at the moment, which was already in pretty short supply.

The view of the swollen Buller River from Tash’s house (Photo: Supplied)

That’s very sad. Did you expect the flood to be so bad?

There were weather warnings issued on Thursday. But you never quite know with the alerts, the West Coast always gets a bit of wild weather. But yeah this one seemed like a pretty big storm.

It started hosing down on Thursday night and the daycare shut at about 11am Friday. And I think at that point, the river was starting to come up. By 2pm, there was significant flooding in the streets and by early Friday night we started receiving notifications about potential evacuations.

Over the course of the weekend, about five households came to Epic because they couldn’t get home or had been advised to leave.

Tash and her daughter (Photo: Michael Andrew)

Sitting in between two rivers and the sea, Westport is quite vulnerable to wild weather and heavy rain. Do you think people expected the town to flood?

No one assumed it would come this quickly. But you know, we’ve always been pretty vulnerable to the tail of a cyclone that comes through. We’re in this dodgy little triangle with three big water forces. So I think there’ll be some pretty tough questions about the future of the town.

What kind of questions?

It’s one of those things where you start to wonder whether the town should still be where it is. It’s on a bit of a ticking clock. There is a conversation about moving the town but no one knows what the big move will look like. I’m not sure anyone’s ready to make that decision about picking up and totally moving.

Does this hit home for a lot of people the impact of climate change and the increasing likelihood of these kinds of events?

Climate change has come up in the conversation. There’s been some conversations about whether more could have been done to the rivers and riverbanks to aid the flow of water. But by the looks of the commentary on social media, the thinking is that even if the river was dredged better, the flow of water is just significantly more than it can handle. That’s what the Buller floodplain is about.

There was a bit about why the council hadn’t done more. But there’s a conversation about how no amount of flooding and sea wall protection is going to stop that much water coming out of the hills and down to town.

Moving an entire town is not easy to contemplate though.

It’s a hard one. I don’t think anyone probably wants to have that really difficult conversation about where people can build or rebuild. It was an issue when we were living in Christchurch with the Christchurch earthquakes. The whole country, the whole world really, has that issue. Where can we build on the coast with climate change moving forward?

We’re going to see more of these heavy weather events. And if the town can’t handle these kinds of floods, I think those big conversations have to happen.

So is there consensus that something needs to be done to protect the coast from rising sea levels?

Interestingly, I think the other issue that has more purchase on the West Coast is the alpine fault. Everyone agrees that the fault is going to go, but I don’t think everyone is clear about where climate change is going to impact the coast. Earthquakes definitely feel like this clear foe that we’re fighting. That seems to resonate really strongly with the community and this self-reliance and resilience to support our own, grow our own and make sure that there is enough food resilience on the coast in the event we’re cut off.

So what’s the mood like in the town now?

As of last night, I think there was significant relief that it wasn’t worse. The floods definitely started to recede, and there weren’t any further storm surges or high tides that were going to make it worse. 

But I’d say this morning, the dire reality is kicking in for a lot of people. I think a lot of people haven’t actually been to their houses. So now it’s that kind of trudging through, preparing insurance forms, and all those bureaucratic issues that are necessary, but they’re just no fun.

The flood waters haven’t totally receded yet but hopefully in the next couple of days that’ll settle down and the sweeping, mopping and cleaning will all kick in.

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