Russell Kirkpatrick's Journal
I blogged yesterday about the end of the drought. We all knew it was coming; the full day's steady rain was predicted well in advance by the Met Service.
Sadly, late yesterday afternoon six students and their teacher were swept to their deaths in a swollen mountain stream a couple of hundred kilometres south of where I live. They were participating in outdoor education run by the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre.
The centre's chief executive, Grant Davidson, told TV3 News last night that 'water flow in the gorge rose from 0.5 cubic metres per second (cumecs) at 3pm to 18 cumecs at 3.30pm'. He said that 'when they entered the gorge the water was at very low level and there was no prediction for heavy rain.' He went on to say that 'I am comfortable this was a normal activity we had with this age group in these sort of conditions. Obviously if we had known or predicted about the pulse of water we would not have been there.'
He actually said these damning things on national TV last night. I was astonished. Being a geographer familiar with New Zealand's climate, I waited for someone to use the magic words - and they did. 'This was a freak accident attributable to a weather bomb.'
No it was not. Mr. Davidson is either woefully misinformed about the weather yesterday or he's lying. The Met Service warned of heavy rain for Tuesday as early as late last week, and continued to reinforce those warnings throughout the weekend. Moreover, they issued a severe weather warning, a bulletin all professional outdoors people must take seriously. According to MetService spokesman Bob McDavitt, the MetService had said on Sunday that the rainy weather would last all week.
'A heavy rain warning for the area was issued on Monday and a severe thunder storm watch was issued from Northland to Taupo at 9am yesterday.'
Mr McDavitt said the MetService had forecast 40-50mm of rain an hour and he said levels had been recorded between 30-50mm/hour in surrounding areas (http://www.stuff.co.nz/4482946a10.html).
A band of rain moved southwards across the North Island on Tuesday: heavy rain fell in Hamilton from 11am until 3.30pm. According to locals in Turangi, the nearest town to the scene of the tragedy, they had experienced heavy rain all day. This was not some freakish 'weather bomb.' It was simply heavy rain and thunderstorms embedded in a low pressure system, a very common occurrence in New Zealand.
So the obvious question is this. What on earth were they doing in the stream that afternoon? I've been on plenty of tramps, and I know when to stay out of the water. Yesterday no one in their right mind ought to have gone near a stream, particularly one so close to the headwaters. The site of the Outdoor Pursuits Centre on Mangatepopo Stream is only a few kilometres from the summit of Tongariro. Yesterday's events were NOT abnormal or unusual, and not even that infrequent. The headwaters of rivers in New Zealand are often drenched by heavy rain, and every care must be taken to stay out of them.
In my view the teacher and pupils who died were the unfortunate victims of someone's criminally careless decision to be on the river at a time when the likelihood of severe flooding was extremely high, and had been predicted. I expect the various inquiries which will follow this event to lead to charges being laid against whoever made that decision. Further, I expect that particular centre to be either reorganised or closed.
This was not a 'freak accident'. It was an entirely predictable and entirely preventable tragedy.
There are, apparently, going to be a number of investigations.