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Wednesday 11 December, 2019
Natural disasters and emergencies seem to have a very effective knack for pointing out our vulnerabilities and this past weekend was a case in point for the South Island. But in the face of the difficulties presented to us, our community and emergency response agencies really stepped up to deal with the situation at hand.
When severe flooding breaches the banks of our major rivers or the bridges are damaged, the South Island is effectively broken into a series of smaller islands, cutting connections and bringing our movements and economy to a jarring halt.
When heavy rain fell in the upper catchment of the Rangitata River on Friday night (6 December), increased river-flows prompted safety concerns for those downstream. The response from Ashburton and neighbouring councils was swift: Campers and hut holders close to the river-mouth were directed to evacuate or prepare to leave.
While there was insufficient reason to declare a civil defence emergency here in the Ashburton District given the flood damage was all south of the Rangitata River, the Timaru District declared on Saturday morning.
By 10.30am on Saturday, we announced with other local authorities that the Route 72/Arundel bridge had closed, followed by the bridge on State Highway 1 not long after.
What ensued was a weekend of stranded travellers and residents who were now trapped on either side of the newly created islands unable to return home, get to their appointments, continue on their journey or access the milking sheds for milk pickup and delivery.
Despite some comments in the media that the Ashburton District Council was absent or behind the eight-ball, throughout the weekend, our people set up an Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) where they monitored the unfolding situation, liaised with local accommodation providers to assess where stranded travellers could stay and communicated via our social media, website, text alert system, media releases and flyers to keep the community informed.
By early Sunday afternoon, armed with new information that the event could continue for longer than initially expected, it was determined that a Civil Defence Information Centre was needed to help dispense information and to assess the welfare needs of displaced people.
At 2pm that day, the EA Networks Centre became a physical information point for people affected by the flooding and road closures, where they were able to learn what accommodation was available in the district.
Regular updates were provided throughout the weekend, and information flyers were distributed to stranded drivers around the road closures. These flyers continue to be updated and dispensed to drivers at the SH1 closure who have mistakenly driven through the road barricades.
Although the disruption is by no means over, I'd like to thank and acknowledge everyone who has stepped up to look out for each other: the people who offered up their homes and gave necessities to those stranded in our district, the businesses who provided accommodation, emergency service personnel, the roading contractors who worked tirelessly to reopen Route 72/Arundel and man the road closures, and the countless people involved in the Civil Defence response, both here and across in Timaru.