Abandoned - Qtown graves remain wrecked five weeks after storm

by Lauren Pattemore - Oct 27, 2023

Five weeks on from Queenstown's state of emergency, headstones at the Queenstown Cemetery remain buried in silt, while logs litter the grounds. 

Dates and messages inscribed on headstones cannot be read, underneath several layers of debris. 

Some 207 plots were hit by the deluge of slash and debris that came down the hillside from the site of Skyline's tree felling works during a rain storm in September. 

One third of the cemetery's grounds were impacted by the event, and patches of grass are now just visible in amongst the debris. In some spots, the tops of headstones can barely be seen, poking up through the silt; likewise a sign for the Tiki Trail.

From above, the view for visitors heading up the new and improved gondola is a sombre one.

Debris still litters the Queenstown Cemetery on Thursday, October 26, 2023.

The day after the rain cleared, and the state of emergency was lifted, the Queenstown Lakes District Council indicated that the cemetery clean would be a priority. 

But clean up has not yet started - it's on pause until the ground above is stabilised.

Diggers have been on the hillside above the cemetery this week, but Skyline has refused to answer questions from Crux on what work is happening.

The QLDC has told Crux that logistics and planning work is underway for restoring the cemetery "in a safe and effective manner".

Once the clean up does begin, 54 headstones will need to be excavated from the debris. 

For now, family members with graves in the impacted area have been able to visit the final resting spots of their relatives, although other areas of the cemetery are open to the public.

The council did hold a blessing ceremony at a safe spot on the grounds on October 5, and affected families were included.

Queenstown local Jon Mitchell says he had a nervous wait initially to see if the graves of his parents were impacted by the flood.

He was relieved that they were not, but with a professional background in disaster management, he is still interested in the situation. It is his view the council should by now already have a good idea of what the residual risk is for the land above the cemetery. 

"I would have thought, having been involved in similar situations before, that they should have a geotech report by now that tells them one way or another, whether the incident has ongoing risk, and if there is an ongoing risk, what they're doing to mitigate that." 

Council has advised Crux today that they have completed a geotech report of the area, and they are comfortable with the degree to which they have kept the community up to date.

However, Mr Mitchell believes that the geotech report should have been made public by now, and this would help give the community confidence in what the council is doing. 

The view of the Queenstown Cemetery from the Skyline gondola, Thursday, October 26, 2023.

The council has publicly released a five-step Queenstown Cemetery Restoration plan. While there are limited timeframes given for when each step is to be completed, the QLDC says it aims to have it all done by "the holiday period".

But Mr Mitchell thinks there should be specific timeframes assigned to each part of the clean-up process. 

The stabilisation of the ground above it is set to be complete by late October, and the QLDC has told Crux today this timeline will be met by Skyline, which is responsible for the land above. 

"Skyline contractors are currently undertaking mitigation activities within the Ben Lomond Reserve," QLDC recovery manager Bill Nicoll says.

"Stabilisation lessens the potential for any additional material coming down into the cemetery, thereby increasing the safety of both restoration workers and those families with impacted plots. It also reassures the wider community who may be concerned about further damage."

However, when it comes to the holiday period full completion deadline, there's less certainty from Mr Nicoll.

"Several factors could impact this timeframe – for example, the complexity of the work, adverse weather, the number of grave items to be collected during excavation, etc.

"More detailed cleaning may still need to take place afterwards, but we fully acknowledge it would be ideal if families visiting over the holidays were able to enter the cemetery. At all times, safety and sensitivity in managing the site is of paramount importance."

QLDC parks officer for cemeteries and heritage Tarsy Koentges is in contact with all impacted plot holders for whom council has contact details, sending them weekly updates. 

She says that the 80 impacted families are naturally upset about the impact of the event on the cemetery, and they have voiced concerns about the potential for further damage due to the ongoing risk posed by the unstable material above the site as well as from contractors on the hillside doing clean-up work.

However, Mr Nicoll says none of the 80 families with relatives in the affected area have expressed concern to council about gravestones being left in silt for an extended period of time.

He says it is important that robust protocols are in place for the contractors undertaking the restoration work to ensure no damage is done to the headstones during the clean up.

Of the 207 plots that were impacted, council records show 44 did not have interments, 33 were unmarked graves and 47 were historical with no plot holder listed.

The council says it has a contact email for anyone who would like to be kept updated on progress at the cemetery.

Main image: Multiple graves and gravestones remain buried by debris and logs more than a month after a severe rain event caused flooding at the Queenstown Cemetery. 


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