Photo essay: Canterbury In Flood



Mother Nature takes control in Canterbury, as floods cut highways and cause evacuations. David Williams reports

Mid Canterbury farmer Wayne Gregory’s ute winds towards the ‘Road closed’ sign, far from where the south branch of the Ashburton River, aided by a stormy rain, has decided its own way.

The river surges through the paddocks, through the trees and destroys the road to Ashburton Forks – a road to Mount Somers.

What was once a mismatch of irrigated green rectangles and circles in Valletta is now awash in murky brown. The brooding gray clouds above us promise more.

The Mayfield Valetta Rd … nowhere. Photo: David Williams

Almost a third of Gregory’s 325 ha farm – mixed cropping and dairy grazing – is underwater. The fourth-generation farmer and his wife Karen might be anxious for the water to clear to assess the damage to fences and culverts, but they accept that it is.

The last time this magnitude of flooding occurred – that’s what his father and grandfather told him – was sixty years ago. “We always knew this event was going to happen. You never want that to happen, but, you know, it happened in ’61. The ancients always said the water was right in front, varying about three meters deep. This is exactly what we have again now.

“We just saw history repeat itself.”

A river crosses it. Photo: David Williams

It’s at this point in our conversation that the clouds seem to be closing in a bit, perhaps taking on a shade of blue.

“This government will tell us that this is global change or something like that, and it has never happened before.”

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His voice drops, like a schoolmaster summing up today’s lesson. “You just have to live long enough. Or have a souvenir.

Paddocks flooded by the South Branch of the Ashburton River. Photo: David Williams

Mount Somers, not far from Gregory’s farm, has seen some of the most intense falls from a storm to hit Canterbury since Saturday. The resulting flooding triggered a province-wide state of emergency after rain and rivers cut highways, damaged bridges and forced evacuations.

Rural country roads have become highways by default, albeit dotted with orange cones as flooded fields spill over onto the roads. There are more exclamation marks on orange road signs than you would see in a preschool picture book.

State Highway 1 in Tinwald, Ashburton, is flooded. Photo: David Williams

Trucks and trailers hurtle down the narrow roads in front of the paddocks, more apt for paddling. Soggy farm animals congregate in the fields, while pivoting irrigators are dormant, redundant.

As Gregory, the farmer from Valletta, says, “It’s Mother Nature. You can’t beat him.

In Ashburton, closer to the east coast, groups of people congregate at either end of the main river bridge, separating the main town from its southern suburb of Tinwald. For some, this is not the first time.

The furious river Ashburton hits the bridge over the national highway. Photo: David Williams

“You could feel the bridge vibrate under your feet yesterday as you crossed it,” Skip Muir quipped, adding, “It was quite pleasant.”

Police tape is now blocking the pedestrian bridge on either side of the road bridge. Muir estimates the fast-flowing river was a foot higher on Sunday. The 51-year-old, accompanied by his family, happily says, “I’ve never seen him in my life – it’s awesome.”

You will not pass (under the railway bridge). Photo: David Williams

“I’ve talked to people older than me and they’ve never seen him like this. I talked to daddy and he said it had never been like this.

Her father is 75 years old. “We’ve seen it from bank to bank, but never, never like this. Never so much.

In Tinwald, a road under a railway bridge was closed in deep water. On the east side, the sheep graze, watching nervously the floodwaters crossing the lower part of the pasture. On the north lane of State Highway 1, transport trucks ply surface flooding, creating dramatic plumes of water.

A sheep seeks higher ground in Ashburton. Photo: David Williams

Debra Curtin of Ashburton, taking pictures on her phone at the Ashburton River Bridge, points to the parking lots leading to the Hood Lake Waterfront Trail. “Seeing this flood has shocked me.”

Back in Valletta, farmers Wayne and Karen Gregory team up for a grand double act. After Newsroom asks a question, and before her husband has time to speak, Karen indicates the answer by nodding vigorously or shaking her head.

The backseat passenger intervenes with comedic comments, like the fact that Wayne will now be more in the media spotlight than Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers chairman David Clark. (It must have hurt – Gregory says he doesn’t like media and begs the press room to be kind.)

Wayne and Karen Gregory check the water levels on their farm in Valletta. Photo: David Williams

They go home for about 45 minutes. (“We have radiators,” Karen enthuses. “Diesel radiators,” Wayne adds. “Really nice. It’s nice to come home to a warm, dry house – we were in a 114 year old villa. – it’s very nice to be in an almost new house. ”)

Then at 3 p.m. they set off again for the cattle – they have 2,500 lambs right now and 1,000 dairy cows on the pasture. (They cleared the river plains before the weather ran out – or as Gregory says, “We got it all in place on Saturday.”)

This has been an incredibly dry year, says Gregory. “If you take the irrigation off, we’re in one of the droughts of the 1980s. We’re all irrigated now, which is no use. It has changed our farming practices and I think for the best.

“We still have to tone down Mother Nature. You are working with her and we are reacting as best we can to stop the problems. But you can never beat her.

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