Nothing like the Big Wet


WE should thank our lucky stars that the past week’s flooding bears scant comparison to the Big Wet of 1999. 

You could even argue that all we got this time was a high lake. 

The past week’s been nothing like the devastation 11 years ago, when Queenstown’s only civil emergency was declared as several Frankton homes had to be evacuated. 

Lake Wakatipu rose 1cm an hour last week – in November 1999 it was a furious 4cm an hour. 

The lake engulfed downtown Queenstown, lapping almost halfway up The Mall and into Cow Lane. 

People jetboated and kayaked on Rees and Beach Sts, and even through Steamer Wharf in water contaminated by raw sewage. 

About 100 downtown premises were inundated, many taking weeks and even months to recover. 

And it wasn’t just a lakefront problem in 1999 – benign Horne Creek swamped the Village Green, endangering Camp St. 

Schools closed, cars were abandoned, there were major slips on Frankton Road, Gorge Rd and Glenorchy Rd, the resort was almost isolated – local insurance claims reached $56 million. 

Lake levels in 1999 were 1.3 metres higher than last Saturday’s peak – check the mark for yourself on the flood memorial in Earnslaw Park. 

Which begs the question of whether last week’s extensive preparations were overkill. Well, they were and they weren’t – had Thursday’s worst weather forecast materialised, we’d have had a decent flood, for sure. 

We dodged the bullet simply because there wasn’t the same deluge in the Shotover River headwaters as in the Dart catchment. 

Unlike 1999, Horne Creek never broke its banks and the Shotover never rose high enough to block lake water from draining off down the Kawarau River. 

Phil Dunstan, civil defence controller in the Big Flood, says Queenstown Lakes District Council over-reacted
this time. 

“Experienced people could have pointed to the state of the Shotover, which meant water was never going to get into shops. It was very similar to the 1994 flood during the Glenorchy Races, when it mostly only rained in the Dart catchment.” 

But compared with 1999, most retailers now don’t have insurance cover to fall back on so you can’t blame them for over-caution. 

You’ve got to support mayor Clive Geddes’s statement when he says he didn’t mind if people later accused him of crying wolf if preparations this time proved unnecessary. 

Best of all, a lot of people not around in 1999 had a good dress rehearsal for the real thing when it comes again – as it inevitably will.