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Manawatū Gorge to open as road crews battle to connect communities

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The NZ Transport Agency is expecting to reopen State Highway 3 through the Manawatū Gorge this evening, less than one week after some of the worst floods in the lower North Island’s history.

However, State Highway 4 between Whanganui and Raetihi is likely to remain closed for a month, and the Transport Agency is warning motorists that the roading network remains vulnerable to further disruption from forecast rain.

Transport Agency regional highways manager David McGonigal says geotechnical specialists have cleared the Gorge for reopening this evening, to both lanes.

The Gorge closed last Saturday afternoon during the severe floods. It suffered a number of small slips, and while they were cleaned up relatively quickly, the Gorge remained closed to allow experts to assess the slopes and ensure the risk of further slips had eased.

“While there was understandably some damage to rock fences and mesh, our assessment shows us that the safety barriers worked well.  Crews managed to clear the road within two days, and over the next few weeks we’ll be repairing mesh barriers and rock catchers. Safety remains our top priority, and we’ll be monitoring the Gorge closely in case if Mother Nature has any more tricks up her sleeve.

“We’d like to thank Stringfellows and Higgins, whose workers have teamed to do a great job keeping the Saddle Road open. Given the severity of last weekend’s weather event, the Saddle Road performed well under the circumstances, and once the upgrade is complete it will be an even more sturdy backup route.”

Mr McGonigal says crews are continuing to work on State Highway 4, which is the most severely affected of all the state highways.  Emergency single lane access for four wheel drives has been restored, and is restricted to landowners, contractors and emergency services. Early estimates are that the road will be closed for at least a month due to the sheer scale of the damage.

“State Highway 4 has been severely damaged, and we’re still working to assess the extent of this damage.

“We are pleased to have opened up emergency access, which will give residents peace of mind  that they can be reached, while also enabling our crews to drive in to assess the flood damage.

“Crews are working from each end to inspect the many sections of SH4 that have been affected. So far, we know that there are six major dropouts that need to be repaired, as well as damage to guard rails and a number of slips, including a huge one in the middle. The road is still fragile and there is a risk that more rain may cause further damage, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can keep making progress.

“We know this closure is a long and frustrating one, and we want to acknowledge how difficult the last week has been for the communities who rely on this and other vital roads. Reopening State Highway 4 will be a really big job, and our contractors are pulling out all the stops to get it open as soon as it is safe to do so.

SH4 Anzac Parade in Whanganui is still under Civil Defence management and crews are continuing to work to clear the road to restore access to landowners and the general public.

SH54 between Cheltenham to Vinegar Hill is closed with single lane access for 4 wheel drive emergency vehicles only. There are three major slips to clear and the Transport Agency expects that it will be next week before the road is open to traffic. Crews have successfully reopened State Highway 43.

Mr McGonigal says that drivers must continue to take extra care while driving across the region, as blocked drains and culverts are causing surface water on the road.

“We have crews getting stuck in clearing drains and culverts, but  in the meantime we want to ask drivers to keep their wits about them, because with the very cold temperatures at night, any water on the road could turn into black ice.”

Mr McGonigal says that with drains and culverts blocked and the land still waterlogged, the roading network remains fragile and any further rain could result in more disruption.

“We ask that motorists keep a close eye on the weather and road conditions, and plan their journeys ahead of time. We’re not out of the woods yet, and we’re going to be in recovery mode for some time to come.”

“We would like to give a big thanks to road crews who have worked tirelessly to restore access through major routes, and who are continuing to work in difficult conditions to repair slips, clear debris, and restore access to residents and businesses across the region.”

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