Marlborough Sounds community struggling a year on from big storm

Source: Q and A

In July last year, the West Coast and the top of the South Island were hit by a massive storm. Even now, life for some still isn't back to normal. 1News reporter Jessica Roden visited the remote Marlborough Sounds for Q+A.

A year after a major storm, Kenepuru Road still looks like a construction site.

Piles of dirt line the sides of the roads, there are too many diggers to count and temporary traffic lights every few kilometres.

But it's an improvement. For more than four months last year, residents couldn't use the road at all. The only way they could leave the Sounds was by boat.

It's hard to describe just how challenging the past year has been for many there. Kenepuru Road was amongst the worst hit in the storm, connecting many in the outer Sounds to the mainland.

Adrian Harvey has lived in the Marlborough Sounds for decades and has seen his share of weather damage.

But, even he says it's been testing.

"Mentally I think it's been stressful. On a level of one to 10 I think it's probably been about a seven or eight."

Like many, he believes the road repairs have been too slow.

"Personally it's just been a shambles".

A 'significant' impact on Marlborough's roads

While the flood waters subsided and residents in Blenheim could return to their relatively damage-free homes, the region's roads bore the brunt of July's storm.

Marlborough Deputy Mayor Nadine Taylor says it was unlike anything they had experienced before.

"Immediately there were 460 kilometres of road damaged, and we had 350 kilometres of road closed. So it's a significant impact straight after the storm event."

All up, it's expected it will cost $85 million to fix the roads across the region.

"This is the second-largest roading repair works or event in New Zealand, second only to the Christchurch earthquake, local roads I'm talking about," Taylor says.

On Kenepuru Road there are still four major areas of damage that are so complex the council doesn't know yet how to fix them.

The ongoing impact on residents and businesses is the extensive road closures that now dictate daily life. On a weekday the Kenepuru Road is closed between 8am and 5pm, with a short opening at 1pm.

Businesses battling: 'The financial impact has been huge'

Robert Harper owns Sherrington Honey. He couldn't get to his hives scattered throughout the Kenepuru Sounds for months last year.

"Before Covid and this weather event we were running just over two thousand units. We're now back to around 1300 units, and we've gone from a staff of eight back to a staff of just two now".

The ongoing road closures cost him more than just his time.

"The financial impact has been huge. And that's ongoing every day that goes by where we have restrictions. Basically, it costs money."

One of the biggest issues is that stock trucks aren't allowed on Kenepuru Road at the moment. This means sheep and cattle have to be barged out, at a huge cost to farmers.

A farmer told 1News the past year had cost them more than $100,000.

Nicolai Heard moved to his farm just before the storm hit.

"Oh, it's been exciting, but also very challenging. Didn’t really sign up for the road to go out, and now we’re just faced with a whole lot of new challenges."

Heard says the barge has been helpful, but it's not ideal.

"We get a lot of stuff delivered into Fish Bay and then of course it's an hour to get over there, an hour back. The barge is only an estimated time of arrival, so sometimes you end up waiting, you know you kill half a day.

"They’ve promised us we’ll get truck and trailers back on the road so we’ll hold them to it."

1News put that to the Deputy Mayor, who wasn't so definitive.

"I don't think we can guarantee at this point that stock trucks can return. That's our intention, but we can't guarantee it," Taylor says.

After the interview, the council announced they'd pay half the cost of the barge for farmers. They've also run water taxi subsidies over the last year too.

"We're trying to put in place and plug every little gap that we can see in order to bring as much normality as we can to a situation which we know is absolutely not normal," Taylor said.

An uncertain future: Residents prepare for more storms

As 1News has covered this story for the past year, one sentiment is pretty universal. Countless residents say they "hold their breath every time it rains" concerned it could happen again.

Even this week's rain bought down another slip which closed Kenepuru Road for the day.

With climate change, bad weather events are more likely and new sea level rise data show the Marlborough Sounds is among the most vulnerable areas.

In Moetapu Bay, near the start of the Sounds, they've come up with their own solution.

Residents were stuck for weeks last year with supplies bought in by helicopter at one point. They realised they had a problem in the event of an emergency because there was no public jetty.

Peter Standish, chair of the Moetapu Jetty Assn, says they fundraised $300,000 and built their own. In his words, for next time.

"There's no doubt that the frequency of these weather events is increasing as is the intensity. So we need to be prepared for future events which are no longer one-in-a-100-year, one-in-50-year events. They're now looking like at least one in 10 years."

Some residents have already left the Sounds, unable to cope with the ongoing uncertainty.

For Kathryn Omond, who lives in Moetapu Bay, it's made her consider the future.

"I found it quite frightening. And with climate change, we get a lot of king tides. We've been here four years, and our steps going down to our beach are disintegrating. That's down to tides. The water is warmer. All those things add to it... it does make you think."