Remembering the big wet – 10 years on

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Lindsay Reid was at the end of his Bowen Street, Queenstown driveway picking up the morning mail when he realised something wasn’t quite right.

First he heard an almighty crash, followed by a loud rumble.

Seconds later, the former Arrowtown Primary principal was running for his life as a metre-high wall of water came raging down the road towards him.

“A river just appeared from nowhere,” Reid recalls. “With it came big rocks and logs.

“I thought the house would be gone.”

He didn’t know it at the time but Reid and wife Gill were caught up in one of the first dramas of the record flood of 1999 – Queenstown’s worst civil disaster.

On Wednesday, November 17, three days of incessant rain caused water levels to rise above danger point to bring chaos to the Wakatipu – and a repair bill of almost $57 million.

Some of the worst devastation happened when an old council dam burst behind Bowen St off Gorge Road, turning Brewery Creek into a torrent.

It took out the Reids’ cottage garden and destroyed their then-neighbour Ileen Mutch’s property.
It also forced Gorge Rd and surrounding commercial and industrial businesses to shut.

“Although our section was wrecked we were extremely lucky,” says Reid, who now lives at Ophir near Alexandra. “The water hit the corner of the house then somehow got diverted away by a stack of wood.”

The flooding brought New Zealand’s foremost tourist resort to a standstill, creating washouts, slips and damage everywhere from Glenorchy to Kingston.

Kids were sent home from school, businesses closed, cars were abandoned and police asked people to stay at home – those in danger were evacuated.

Visitors couldn’t get out, supplies couldn’t get in, highways broke apart and the airport closed.

Vital arteries like Gorge Rd – and at times, Frankton Rd – were shut for the first time in as long as anyone could remember.

It was a miracle no one was killed or seriously injured.

Downtown Queenstown hotels like the old Thomas’s, Gardens Parkroyal and many retail businesses in lower Beach St were evacuated, just as they had been in previous floods.

But just as the rain began to relent in the evening – after an almost continuous 72-hour downpour brought more than 350 millimetres – even the normally benign Horne Creek swamped the Village Green, endangering Camp St.

Lakefront structures that had supposedly been raised above flood level – like Steamer Wharf and the Bathhouse – were inundated.

Houses near Frankton Beach also took a hammering and residents were evacuated following two major landslides above Frankton Rd.

Queenstown dentist Ross Buchanan and wife Polly were woken by a man at the door telling them to get out as quickly as possible.

“It was around seven o’clock in the morning and I was still fast asleep,” Buchanan says. “Polly got me up, insisting we had to leave everything and just go.

“When I went back a few days later, the building was all out of shape and the lawn looked like it had been rolled up at the ends like a rug. The house was eventually demolished.”

As the scale of the devastation began to sink in, Queenstown’s community spirit was galvanised.

Contractors, boosted by scores of willing volunteers, tried to stem the waters by sandbagging.

But a lot of their efforts were in vain as the lake continued its march up the CBD.

Longtime local and then-coffee supplier Bruce Leitch brought welcome relief to workers when he waded through the streets to deliver piping hot coffee from a backpack container he remembered he had stored in his garage.

“I must have handed out about a thousand cups that day,” Leitch, now a fishing guide, says. “I got around town quite a bit and got to see a lot of the damage and it was bad.

“It got really unpleasant when sewage started to come up.

“But it was great to see the way people rallied round to help. People really pulled together to get through it.”

The waters eventually began to subside after a few days and the big cleanup began.

But for Queenstown developer John Martin – who at the time owned several major downtown properties – the ’99 flood was a defining moment.

“I decided then that I was selling up and moving to higher ground,” Martin says. “It took me about eight years to achieve this but I did it because I wouldn’t want to go through anything like it again.”

Martin adds ominously: “Because of ever-changing weather patterns, you’d be a brave man to rule out an even higher flood in Queenstown.

“The probability of the next flood being even higher is quite great and that would have significant consequences.”

Memories flood back

Philip ‘Scoop’ Chandler Then editor of Mountain Scene
I recall a flat-out deadline day. Amidst it all, I got a call from the Holmes show asking for a live TV interview. I was standing in gummies behind the old Pig & Whistle waiting for my cue. Then about 7.25pm when Paul Holmes introduced me, he apologised for keeping me waiting. I thought afterwards that it’s not every day someone apologises to you live in front of a million people

Erna Spijkerbosch Then councillor 
I became a lollipop lady and was directing traffic on Shotover Street with a stop and go sign in one hand and a big umbrella in the other. I did an eight-hour shift and it was really cold. People kept offering me cups of tea but I refused because what goes in must come out and there was no way I could break for the loo.

Tony McQuilkin Then sales boss with the TSS Earnslaw
We couldn’t get the Earnslaw in to dock at first because the main wharf was completely underwater. It was a boat ride to get to the boat and we eventually put up scaffolding to get passengers on board. There was also carnage over at Walter Peak to deal with because several hundred thousand cubic metres of material had slid down the side of the mountain close to our buildings

Marty Black Harbourmaster
We had been monitoring the situation continuously beforehand and knew the water was still going to come up even when the rain stopped. I remember regularly patrolling around the CBD on a jetski trying to keep people out of the area as there was a bit of sewage contamination going on. But in general, things were pretty organised and it was great to see how everyone pulled together.

Frank Marvin Then publisher of Mountain Scene
The paper was going to press the day it happened and we decided in the morning to scrap most of the stories we already had and put together a flood special. We sent out for gumboots and waterproofs for the reporting team. One of our journalists, the late Kevin Thomas, kayaked his way around town taking pictures. He must have shot about 20 rolls of film

Kim Wilkinson Owner of Unichem Wilkinsons Pharmacy
I remember getting a call about midnight saying it was going to flood and I went straight to the shop to see what I could do because water levels were rising all the time. I was up all night and tried to sandbag the place but it was no use. I started calling staff at 6am and we worked all through the day to save the stock