From 'unbelievable' summer to 'biblical' storm

9:00 pm on 1 February 2018

"Unbelievable"; "I've never seen anything like it"; "Biblical".

People caught up in the aftermath of ex-Tropical Cyclone Fehi all put it a little differently but they were capturing the same feeling - astonishment.

Flooding in Westport

Flooding in Westport Photo: Chris Cooper

From Dunedin, along the South Island's West Coast, around to Tasman, across the Cook Strait into Wellington and Taranaki, the storm smashed its way through the languid summer which had cosseted the country.

As evening fell, thousands remained without power, or were out of their homes.

Just a few days ago "unbelievable" was the word being used to describe the summer's record breaking temperatures. It probably still applies, but "weird" might be the better word: 35°C in Christchurch and with bush fires while the storm raged elsewhere, while winds gusted to 135km/h in Wellington in 25° heat.

Westport's race course, Patterson Park, was completely covered in water.

Westport's race course, Patterson Park, was completely covered in water. Photo: Westport Trotting Club

In Westport, farmer and local trotting club spokesman John Reedy Jnr agreed it felt a bit "biblical" after rescuing horses from stables and a race course which was underwater.

"It's unbelievable. The storm surge just came up - we had half a metre of water in the stables. I've never seen it like that."

Westport's race course, Patterson Park, was completely covered in water.

Westport's race course, Patterson Park, was completely covered in water. Photo: Westport Trotting Club

His farmland further inland, away from the sea's salty reach, had not actually seen much rain.

Fellow Buller farmer Matt Birchfield was surveying the damage to his calf shed.

"I look out my door and it's all over my paddock."

Buller mayor Garry Howard

Buller mayor Garry Howard Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Buller mayor Garry Howard laconically described some houses as now being on "residential islands".

Further south, in Hokitika, Westland mayor Bruce Smith strode around the shoreline chatting to RNZ's John Campbell as the wind howled in the background and water sloshed over his boots.

"I've never seen anything like it," he hollered into the phone.

He described debris half the size of a car being tossed up on the shoreline and sea foam being pushed into the main street, which is about 150m from the beach.

At the top of the island, Nelson Airport chief executive Rob Evans described the scene there, where hangars were "completely flooded", as "catastrophic".

Nelson City Council's Paul Shattock said the storm surges were the "highest in living memory".

For Reedy it was all a bit perverse: "Last month we had the drought and now this ... it's just as well it's not March and the next race day."

Too right.

- RNZ and Westport News

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs