Remembering the big wet (with slideshow)

The latest lake threat has brought memories flooding back of Queenstown’s worst civil disaster, in November 1999. 

Affected residents and business owners recall the devastation that caused almost $60 million of damage and shut parts of downtown for months. 


We ran in fear from raging wall of water

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. 

Homes evacuated

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.”


Flood-busting ideas floated down the years

Feb 96 Otago Regional Council proposes 2m high, 2.3km lake wall around Queenstown Bay, scotched after public outcry 

Nov 99 Landscape architect Paddy Baxter claims removing parts of the weir beneath Kawarau Falls Bridge would lower Lake Wakatipu 

Dec 99 Mayor Warren Cooper moots $2.5m extension to Queenstown’s existing waterfront wall and blasting of Kawarau Falls rock sill and Kawarau River’s Smith Falls 

Jan 01 Chard Farm owner Rob Hay successfully opposes Queenstown Lakes District Council plans to blast a rocky bluff opposite him at Smith Falls to increase Kawarau River flow 

Jan 03 Alexandra retiree Paul Wright suggests a $200m 17km Kinloch tunnel to Milford Sound could serve as a “plug-hole” during floods 

May 03 QLDC’s $3.5m flood mitigation scheme to lower Lake Wakatipu in flood-prone months rejected by ORC 

Mar 05 ORC boss Graeme Martin concedes Queenstown has to “get used to floods” 

Apr 05 QLDC says a “flood sausage” idea proposed by local engineer Bill Walker looks feasible – but drops idea soon after 

May 06 Local hot-air balloon operator Hugh McLellan proposes inflatable portable flood walls 

Nov 06 North Canterbury businessman Clay Griffin demonstrates a 1.8 m high removable steel and plastic flood barrier to hold waters at bay 

Jul 09 A multi-million dollar, 3m
high dyke across the Shotover River mouth proposed by ORC for flood protection is jeopardised by a river protection order


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