Queenstown declares state of emergency after historic rainfall

A state of emergency has shut down a major tourist town in New Zealand.

The declaration came after heavy rains caused flooding — compounding fears over a water parasite that triggered a boil water notice.

More than 100 people and up to 20 homes were evacuated in Queenstown on Thursday after rains caused “several flooding and debris events” in the South Island holiday destination.

Queenstown Mayor Glyn Lewers said the state of emergency declaration was necessary given the considerable rainfall in the area since Thursday, and that it would last for an initial period of seven days.

“The current weather event is an active and evolving situation,” Cr Lewers said in a statement early Friday morning.

“We have been working with emergency management throughout the night to assess the full extent of the situation in the current conditions.”

The declaration follows a similar one made on Thursday in the nearby town of Gore and another for the whole Southland as well due to the weather system.

A slow-moving rain band dumped more than 103mm of rain on Gore, and Queenstown and the Queenstown Lakes District recorded over 100mm of rain over the rain event – 71.6mm of it in the 24-hours from Thursday, 9am.

A MetService meteorologist told news.com.au that downpour makes Thursday Queenstown’s wettest ever September day, and fourth wettest on record.

Although the rain has cleared, the heavy rain watch remains in place for the Queenstown Lakes District until 7pm, with a heavy snow watch in place for the region (above 400m), too.

The deluge caused mass surface flooding and landslides that carried debris – including stumps, twigs, gravel, silt, mud, and slash (from tree felling) – across roads and into town.

It is believed more than 100 grave sites at the foot of Queenstown’s iconic Skyline Gondola have been buried or smashed by rubble after an overnight landslip.

Southland MP Joseph Mooney shared pictures of the slip’s aftermath on Friday morning, saying the debris flow below the gondola followed the road and “doesn’t appear to have damaged any buildings”.

Fire and Emergency NZ responded to 91 weather-related calls for assistance from Thursday to Friday morning across the lower South Island up to Queenstown, a spokesperson told stuff.co.nz.

“The calls ranged from requests for help with flooding of varying degrees of severity, trees across roads, small landslides in Queenstown and rescues of a few people from floodwaters,” they said in a statement.

An update to the Queenstown Lakes District Council website at 10am on Friday announced an “initial clean up operation” was underway since the rain had eased.

Geotech engineers are also assessing the extent of the damage caused by the weather event on the town.

Mr Lewers’ initial announcement advised against travelling through and around the town.

“If travel is essential, then please take extreme care,” he said.

Meteorologists say the wet weather that brought so much chaos to the South Island is set to reach the North Island on Saturday afternoon. The heaviest falls are expected in the west as it continues moving northeast and offshore.

Meanwhile, in the south, the rain is set to be replaced by snowfalls that could complicate clean-up operations.

This state of emergency only adds to Queenstown’s troubles this week, with an outbreak of cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite which causes severe gastric illness, sparking a boil water notice for the town.

It was discovered the outbreak started because the region’s water treatment plant lacked the necessary filters to remove the parasite from drinking water.

Cryptosporidiosis is not normally a serious disease to healthy people, but can be life-threatening to those with a weak immune system, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

About 17 people had been confirmed to have contracted the parasite by Thursday – but more have told local media they had experienced upset stomachs, but not seen their doctor.

Queenstown Lakes District Council told residents they had to boil their water in order to drink it and cafes, bars, and fast food outlets have been told to stop using coffee machines and drink dispensers, or to import their ice.

According to RNZ, Council had been progressively updating the water filter systems across its five sources, but that work was being brought forward since this outbreak.

The boil water notice will stay in place until the upgrades are completed or the town is switched to another water supply.

There is a risk of further contamination if flooding reaches the plant, but authorities say it is so far unaffected.

Leave a Comment