Severe weather in Fiordland – Expert Reaction

MetService has issued its first ‘Red warning’ following heavy rain in Fiordland that has damaged roads and left tourists stranded.

As of 10am Monday, Fiordland had received 350mm of rain, with another 300-450mm possible. State Highway 94 has been closed and hundreds of tourists have been stranded in Milford Sound.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the situation and the first use of the Red warning. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

Dr Caroline Orchiston, Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago, comments:

“The severe weather situation in Milford Sound has resulted in MetService’s first use of the Red warning severe weather warning. This requires people to act now because immediate action is required to protect people, animals and property from potential impact.

“Given that 350mm of rain has fallen up until now, and another 350-400mm is due to arrive in the next two days, it is likely that further damage to roads – by slips, rockfall and flooding – will occur. Milford Sound and all the agencies and tourism operators who work there have excellent, collaborative emergency management arrangements, and are well equipped to manage the stranded visitors. The response is being led by Emergency Management Southland, and their priority is the safety of all people in Milford, or on State Highway 94. This coordinated response will ensure the best outcome for the staff and tourists stuck in Milford over the coming days.

“Tourists in Milford will need to be prepared to wait out this weather, and are likely to be stranded until the weather lifts to enable air evacuation, or evacuation by sea. It appears from media reports that the damage to State Highway 94 is significant, and reinstating the road will take some time to complete, especially given the uncertainty of what further damage might occur over the next two days.

“The fact this event is taking place alongside the coronavirus outbreak is especially challenging, given many tourism operators are already experiencing cancellations and business disruption. This will add to their stress and anxiety due to travel delays and changed itineraries.

“For some tourists, their dream of visiting Milford Sound while in New Zealand will not be fulfilled. As we have seen in recent years, disruption to tourist activities as a consequence of extreme weather (e.g. Ex-tropical cyclones Fehi and Gita in 2018, and South Island-wide flooding in December 2019) and other natural hazard events like Whakaari White Island and the Kaikōura earthquake, happen with little warning and can have devastating consequences for people, businesses and infrastructure.

“New Zealand has a highly active tectonic environment, and we must expect these sorts of disruptions to happen again in future. There is a lot we can do as individuals, business owners and national agencies to become better prepared to respond and recover from these events. The tourism industry has a great deal of experience in dealing with disruption, and have a proven track record of looking after the safety and wellbeing of tourists in their care until they can continue their journeys (e.g. Takahanga Marae following the November 2016 earthquake).

“This is a very important part of the manaaki/hospitality that we give our tourists in New Zealand, and one which builds our international reputation as a tourism destination.”

Conflict of interest statement: I work closely with Emergency Management Southland on our AF8 project, so I know Angus McKay personally (Group Manager EMS).

Lisa Murray MetService meteorologist and Head of Weather Communications, comments:

“On Monday morning MetService escalated the orange heavy rain warning which had been out since Saturday, to a Red Warning. Red Warnings were introduced by MetService last year to highlight extreme and impactful weather events and are not issued lightly.  There needs to be significant impacts to infrastructure that is of concern to Regional Councils and safety concerns from Emergency Management who are in the area.

“At the time MetService issued the Red Warning, Milford Sound had already recorded 350mm in 24 hours to 10am Monday which is like getting a months’ worth of rainfall in a day and impacts such as surface flooding and slips were already occurring.

“MetService weather models were indicating a number of weather features combining to give periods of heavy rain through to Tuesday 4pm, totally over half a metre for the whole event, and this raised concerns for the area who had already been dealing with towns being cut off overnight and damage to roads. Our expert meteorologists issued the Red Warning before midday.

“I hope that a Red Warning can help get the message out to those who need the information, from tour operators and tourists to locals. We hope the colour coded messaging makes people pay attention to the weather when it gets this bad and to take action to stay safe until it passes.

“The rain will ease Tuesday afternoon with the warning currently till 4pm.”