A local State of Emergency has been declared for the Westland district from Hokitika to Haast amid heavy rainfall, rising rivers, and dangerous driving conditions, Civil Defence announced this afternoon.

State Highway 6 between Hokitika and Haast will be cleared of all traffic from 6pm today, with police actively directing travellers to safety.

West Coast Emergency Management group controller Te Aroha Cook said the safety of people in the region is top of mind and the best way to keep people safe is to keep them off the roads.

“By declaring the emergency now and getting people off the roads in the daylight, we are greatly reducing the risk of danger to our locals, our tourists and our emergency service teams.

“We know there is an increased risk of accidents and issues in the dark. With rivers at risk of breaching and the chance of slips increasing in this weather, we need to act now.”

Cook urged people to take the risks seriously.

“South Westland is experiencing heavy falls now, and they will be moving up the West Coast this afternoon and this evening. We’re expecting at least another 350-550mm in the ranges over the next 24 hours, which will have an impact on roads and rivers.

“High tide in Hokitika is around 7am tomorrow, so our teams will be keeping an eye on river levels through the night,” she said.

“We’ve got around 1500 people in Franz Josef at the moment, and there’s a lot of traffic on the road. We strongly advise people to take extra care on the roads and keep up to date with road conditions and weather conditions.”

The Waiho River has already reached its 8m first alarm level, Cook added. Its peak is expected at about 2am tomorrow while the Hokitika River is expected to peak at about 10am tomorrow morning.

A red heavy rain warning is in place for the Westland District until 9am tomorrow, with thunderstorms “possible at times”.

“This rain is expected to cause dangerous river conditions and significant flooding,” MetService said.

“Slips and floodwaters are likely to disrupt travel, making some roads impassable and possibly isolating communities.”

It comes after significant rainfall overnight.

“In the last 24 hours since the start of the red warning, we have recorded up to 100mm of rain in lower lying areas of Westland and over 250mm about the ranges, particularly near the glaciers,” a MetService spokesperson told 1News at about 9am.

“As of right now Hokitika Airport has recorded 73mm of rain in the last 24 hours.

“We are still expecting the rainfall to continue through today and into tomorrow.”

West Coast Emergency Management is warning people to be prepared, particularly anyone that needs to travel.

“There is still A LOT of rain predicted with the heaviest rainfall predicted for late morning tomorrow (Friday),” the organisation said in a social media post last night.

People in affected areas were urged to make a plan, including having a grab bag handy in case of evacuation.

Westland Mayor Helen Lash echoed the message: “If this rain eventuates later today and into tonight, the best thing people can do is stay off the roads.

“We do not need to have resources out there trying to rescue people off roads when their attention needs to be elsewhere, and it would be good to have people’s support with that.”

She said there’s no need to panic and there are no “serious concerns” around the ability to accommodate people.

“Peak rates generally 20 to 30 mm/h but the heaviest rain is expected from late Friday morning, when peak rates of 30 to 35 mm/h are likely,” MetService confirmed in its Westland warning. “Heavy rain is expected to ease from the south from early Saturday morning.

“On top of what has already fallen, expect 350 to 550 mm of rain to accumulate about the ranges, and possibly more in localised areas, and 50 to 150 mm about the coast.”

It’s the result of an atmospheric river of moisture, NIWA said on social media.

Other severe weather warnings and watches in place include orange heavy rain warnings for Buller from 11pm tonight to 11am tomorrow, the Grey District from 1pm this afternoon to 9am tomorrow, the headwaters of Canterbury lakes and rivers from Arthur’s Pass southwards from 9am this morning to 6am tomorrow, the headwaters of Otago lakes and rivers from 9am this morning to midnight tonight and Fiordland from 9am to 9pm today.

Heavy rain watches are in place for Gisborne from 3pm Sunday to 6am Monday, Mount Taranaki from 3am to 6pm tomorrow and Tasman District west of Motueka from 3am to 3pm tomorrow.

Strong wind watches are in place for Canterbury High Country from midday today to 3am tomorrow and for Fiordland until 6pm tonight.

“These are associated with the same front as the red warning,” MetService said.

‘We take these events seriously’ – Westland mayor

Lash spoke to 1News at about midday as the heaviest rain loomed: “We’re by no means through the event at this stage.

“Quite often we get rain — I mean, we get stunning weather as well, there’s no two ways about that — but when we get rain, we’ll get a bucket load of it,” she said. “This is a significant rain event.”

And it’s not particularly fast-moving, the mayor added.

“It’s the fact of what it can dump in that period of time,” Lash said, adding she’s “very happy” with how residents are responding.

“We’re actually probably more prepared for this than previous events.

“We’ve got police and civil defence in the communities, we’ve got support teams there in place, the amount of support that we’ve received from outside of the [West] Coast has been exceptional.

“Communities have been through the drills of this because this happens often enough and probably too often — but they’re well drilled, they’ve got the resources.”

There are a lot of travellers in the area as well, she explained.

“I wouldn’t say I’m relaxed about the resources we’ve got, I’m not relaxed because of the event that’s potentially going to unleash itself on us, but I’m very, very happy with the resources and how things are falling into place.

“These events are happening everywhere — in the world, for that matter,” Lash added. “It’s just a matter of understanding them.

“You cannot turn a blind eye, you cannot turn your back on them.

“We take these events seriously, we have a lot of tourists in our region and we take the care of them seriously.”

She urged people to remember that the Coast is “open for business”, reassuring possible visitors that authorities were prepared to manage any potential affect on the road network as quickly as possible.

“Life goes on, that’s our attitude here.”

‘Five-and-a-half days and very wet’

At the Otto/MacDonalds Campsite in Westland, Frances and John Reardon said they’ve been Department of Conservation (DOC) volunteers in the area for three years and have seen the impacts of this weather before.

“Five-and-a-half days and very wet,” Frances said. “We’ve had worse than this before.”

“Two years ago, we had weather like this and when we arrived the nearby Macdonald’s creek was absolutely dry. And the space of three days it was flowing bank to bank,” John said.

John said DOC had blocked off the lower part of the campground near the river as in a bad storm that area “can be underwater”.

“So we’ve come up here and we check people in and make sure everybody’s comfortable and if any issues arise hopefully we can deal with them,” he said.

John said one of the main issues in this area is the lack of good internet service, which makes it difficult to communicate and know what’s going on.

“I don’t expect to have a large influx of people tonight, we’re kind of half expecting part of the road to be closed with a slip somewhere, but it hasn’t happened as far as we know,” he said.

One of those people warned to move out of the lower campground was German tourist Anna Schmoha.

“We were at first at the other campsite, but we got evacuated because of the river [levels], they said it’s dangerous there and we can camp here as it’s better,” she said.

Schmoha said she and her friends were going to wait until the rain stops before attempting to head south.

“We have books, so I’ll read a lot and we have cards so we will play together. Just chatting, that’s it,” she laughed.

Another tourist taking shelter is Fabian Balle, who said he was “pretty stuck” now that he can no longer go south.

“There’s nothing much to do,” he said.