Edgecumbe flood: What the river washed away

by Kelsey-Rae Taylor / 25 November, 2017
Photography / Artur Francisco

“No Go” on the window sums up the fate of these houses, which took the full force of the April flood.

Eight months after the great flood of 2017, many Edgecumbe residents are still sifting through what’s left of their homes and possessions – still putting their lives back together. Photographer Artur Francisco and Oxfam New Zealand’s Kelsey-Rae Taylor take stock of the town the Rangitaiki River ran through.

In the autumn of 2017, a succession of record-breaking weather systems tore up and down New Zealand. Each seemed to be heralded as a once-in-a-century event. The Bay of Plenty was hit hard, battered by one freakish storm after another.

Long-time residents of the small town of Edgecumbe, 15km west of Whakatane, said they’d never seen the Rangitaiki River running so high.

The tight-knit riverside community had already weathered its fair share of natural disasters, including the 6.5 magnitude earthquake of 1987 that dropped parts of the town and surrounding rural land by up to two metres – making the plain more vulnerable to flooding. Early on April 6, news shot around that the wall holding back the flood-swollen river was about to breach. Just an hour later, the town was submerged.

Eight months on, the waiting game for Edgecumbe residents continues. In a state of limbo between the disaster and a new beginning, many are still in rental houses, if they were lucky enough to find one, making do with a mishmash of borrowed furniture, clothing and donated household items. Some talk about sleeping in their clothes, just in case they have to leave in a hurry again. Emergency water supplies and non-perishables line car boots – just in case. Only a handful of those whose properties were damaged have been able to move back in. For the rest, “going home” fades into an uncertain future.

Gayle Bourk (right) was brought up in Edgecumbe and says the sense of community remains strong.

GAYLE BOURK

“Another two steps and I wouldn’t have heard the phone.”

Gayle was heading out to the backyard to feed her chickens when her phone rang; it was her husband, Graeme, who told her to drop everything and get out.

“I’d just made the porridge for the hens. I was taking it out when I heard my cellphone ringing. That’s what made me go back… I’d have been caught unawares. As I was backing [the car] out with one minute’s notice, the water was coming up like a tsunami.

“Rubbish bins were rushing past, people’s garden gnomes. I left my little dog, Cilla, behind, I forgot to get her.”

Gayle says Graeme went back for the dog, wading through chest-high water to rescue her. “We got our budgies out after five days. But I lost my hens, they were drowned.”

The Bourks’ home of 43 years was destroyed by the flood, along with most of their belongings. “We couldn’t get in for five days, so [all the time] you’re wondering, has the flood gone right through the house? And then on TV, we saw our own place full of water. The next day, I was allowed in for 15 minutes. They said just grab what you want. But when you walk into your own house like this, your mind isn’t focusing… you can’t work anything out. What do I need? I didn’t know what I wanted. I just stood there and said, ‘Why did this happen to my home?’

“I looked at the water, the mess, the stink, everything. I just couldn’t take it in. We had masks on. It was like we were aliens in our own place. I had to wear gumboots and the mud was thick. I found that really hard.

The rotted floor of the Bourks’ house.

“My wardrobe was emptied out. We couldn’t open the front door. We had to kick it hard to break it down. You went into the kitchen slowly and tried to open the doors, but everything was stuck and swollen and huge. The floor has rotted. You couldn’t even open the fridge because of the stink. It wasn’t our home.

“I’ve lost so much. I know they’re material things, but we had to go back in and face that stink. It was horrific. What we had left, we put in the lounge on the floor. And I said, after 43 years, that’s all I’ve got after being in this home.

“I was brought up in Edgecumbe. I moved here when I was three. [Our daughter] Sharlene was three when we moved into this house and Melissa was six months. We had overseas students living in the house – foster children, too. They ring me and they’re broken; they said it wasn’t a house, it was a home. This was the only home they loved. 

“Edgecumbe is a cool place. It doesn’t grow in population, but the people who are here want to be here. It’s safe to bring up their families and they know each other. One of my neighbours, Pete, has been here for 12 years. He’s just lost his wife. He would come over every week and mow my lawns.

“Some people don’t want to come back. It’s the shock. With the earthquake they said the same, and some of them did come back. Because their roots are here.

“I miss the people, but now I’m [volunteering] in the hall and I see them. I came back [to the street] the other night after the hall, and I thought, ‘Where is my awesome neighbour?’ He can’t live in his house, either. Next thing he said, ‘Oi! What are you doing here?’

“‘Pete!’ I said and ran over. ‘Have we been through a flood or what?’ He laughed, you know. He said, ‘It’s just like old times, eh?’”

Kristy Lowe: “We ended up buying [in Edgecumbe] because we got a four-bedroom house on what was a beautiful section... I really loved it here.”

KRISTY LOWE

In the months since the flood, the task of recovering, cleaning and restoring belongings has consumed Kristy’s days. Her treasured record collection has been a special project – she rescued it from the garage, covered in slime and silt, and has spent hours carefully restoring it. Each record is individually soaked, wiped and pressed flat, then inserted into a specially ordered plastic sleeve. It’s been a cathartic exercise for Kristy, helping make up for all the belongings she will never get back.

“We’re about three streets back from where the river broke. The flow came pretty well directly through here. We didn’t know what we could recover, if anything. So that was a tough time. Meanwhile, you’re wearing other people’s clothes.

“In amongst all that, you’re dealing with the insurance, which is not always straightforward. It’s not like your car got dinged or the TV fell over. We were paying our premiums based on what we could afford, rather than the replacement value of everything. So we’re finding now that we’re under-insured. We certainly won’t be able to replace all the things we’ve worked for over the last 30-odd years.

“It’s not just losing stuff or having this experience; it’s also the barriers you don’t foresee that impede the recovery. I’m not expecting to be back in our house until next year. The water was nearly a metre high inside. If you think about all the things in your own home that are on the floor or less than a metre off it – it’s pretty much everything.

“Cutlery, linen, furniture; wooden furniture sat there soaked for two weeks, with the house closed up. So even things that weren’t touched by the water are mouldy or damp. The wallpaper has come off in places, and there’s some pretty funky mould. I’d put some chicken out on the bench that morning to thaw, so you can imagine what that was like after two weeks. The deep-freeze in the shed had a lamb we’d just had butchered. The garage door got pushed in and the freezer tipped over, so the contents spilled out. The neighbour’s cats survived off some of them.

“Luckily, Elijah and I weren’t home. Elijah is our 11-month-old. He’d started going to a carer on Thursdays, so we were going into town, but usually I don’t go in till about nine o’clock. This particular morning, I just put the nappy bag in the car and was pretty stoked that I was so organised. Driving out of Edgecumbe over the bridge, I saw the river up so high, and thought, ‘Whoa, I’ve never seen it like that.’ I didn’t have any thought of it being a flood hazard; I was just amazed at how high it was.

Kristy Lowe says cleaning and restoring her record collection has been a cathartic exercise – helping make up for all the belongings she’ll never get back.

“Then I got a few phone calls from people saying, ‘Edgecumbe’s being evacuated, you gotta get out.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no worries, I’m heading into town anyway. It must be the other side of town, our yard’s dry.’ We’d had all that rain the night before – the water was up to the brick. But by the time we got up, there wasn’t even a puddle in the yard. The sun was shining and I thought I should do some washing and hang it out.

“Thank goodness I wasn’t home, especially with the baby, because a lot of people who were got a secondary level of trauma – separate from seeing your home and your memories destroyed. They feared for their lives. And we’d have lost the car. That would have been another issue, because of Elijah’s vision impairment, he has a lot of appointments with specialists.

“There are similarities between what happened at Elijah’s birth and what happened here. Even though they were totally different events, there’s still… out-of-control feelings, you’ve got no control over where you’re sleeping, staying, what you’re eating. People are making decisions about your life without even talking to you.

“The loss… it’s a different sort of loss, but having that experience with Elijah’s birth, I feel a little more understanding. I think it’s helped, in a way, in preparing me. We were told he wasn’t going to make it, that he was going to be blind. He has progressed so well. He’s got functional vision.

“It’s important that his environment is stable and familiar to him. We had three things we did for Elijah that help him settle. We have lavender essential oil, a night light because he seems to see better in the dim light, and a Lulla doll – a doll with a heartbeat, that breathes.

“When we left the house with just the nappy bag and the clothes we were wearing, we didn’t have those things. So he was very unsettled and he started to head-bang. It was distressing for him not to understand, and us not to be able to explain it to him. A friend of mine got in touch with the manufacturers of the Lulla doll and explained what had happened and they sent us a free one, thank goodness, because money’s tight. Elijah settled pretty well straight away with just that one thing.

“He’d been used to the noises the house made, the rooms he was in, or the smells. Now we’ve been in this rental [for a while] he’s starting to settle. Shayne and I are still up late, washing and soaking things we’ve recovered. Shayne and I both had nightmares, even though we weren’t in the flood; nightmares of things being destroyed and your life getting turned upside down. Sleep helps any recovery, really, but that was hard to come by for quite a while.

“My husband is a fitter and turner. He works for an engineering place in Kawerau. I’m a full-time mum but also a naturopath. We moved to Whakatane because Shayne had a job offer. I was six months pregnant, so it was not a decision we made lightly, to move away from family and friends, but it was a good opportunity for Shayne and we were ready to do something different. The weather’s pretty awesome. We ended up buying out here because we got a four-bedroom house on what was a beautiful section, for an affordable price. I really loved it here. It’s the most settled I’ve felt in a long time. To see a whole area affected… it’s not just your own house, it’s the community as well. 

“My sister came up from Taranaki. She’s got two jobs and three kids and she just came straight here. When Elijah was born, she was at the hospital with me. To have someone who has known you your whole life, who can speak for you and advocate for you when you don’t have the mental capacity to do it yourself, I’m really glad I had that.

“The volunteers who came through were amazing. Not only is there the physical effort of getting all your rotten possessions out into the street, there’s emotional connection with those objects and reliving some of the memories that came with them.

“It’s moved into a different phase now. The trauma is less acute. Now there are long-term issues, like dealing with insurance. Still, it’s generally a pretty positive vibe. You look after yourself, look after your neighbours, which is what we’ve done on this street.

“I think I’ll always be frightened of that river bank… Every time I leave the house now, it crosses my mind that I may never be able to go back.”

Riley Cobden surveying the shell of the home her family has lived in for generations.

RILEY COBDEN

“She was our little silver lining.”

Riley’s niece Thea was born early, a week after her family fled their home. They’re now packed into a flat above the fire station, where most of them are volunteers.

Riley works at the local service station. She was born and grew up in Edgecumbe. This isn’t the first time they’ve had to rebuild the house that’s been their family home for generations – and although it now sits gutted and empty, they are already focused on rebuilding again.

“I was here for the earthquake in 87,” says Riley. “I was only young then. I was here for the first flood we had in 2004, and now this one. My koro, when he rebuilt the house after the earthquake, he used asbestos. They had to cordon off the house and get all the asbestos out before the builders could go back in. So it’s not liveable, and won’t be for another 12 months or so.

“At the moment, we’re at the fire station. It’s a temporary place. I think Dad – he’s a shift worker – is looking at putting a caravan on the section while the builders do their thing. There are five of us in the two-bedroom flat. My brother’s partner went into labour and had their first baby [Thea] a month early. She was our little rainbow.

“In the last floods [in 2004], the breach happened on the other side of the river, so it was mainly farmland flooded, only a few houses. This time it came into the town… Our whole house is gone pretty much. They’ve cut the walls halfway down, where they’ve deemed the water level was – 1.2m. I wanted them to test higher, just because the water sat here for so long.

“This is my mother’s homestead; she and my uncle grew up here. My brothers and I grew up here. My daughter’s grown up here. My mum has cancer. But she’s okay, it’s not terminal. She’s still pushing on. So who am I to cry over a house?

“My daughter goes to school in Whakatane, so she doesn’t live here day to day. She wasn’t around, which I was really thankful for. My brother, father and I knew the wall was leaking. Just after 8am, my brother and I drove right around. I’ve never seen our river that high before. By the time I’d walked back in the kitchen, my cousin was running across the field going, ‘Uncle! Uncle! The wall’s broken!’ So we got Dad… we got in the truck, which was just parked outside our step. By the time we got to the bottom of the driveway, we had wheelie-bins and fences flowing past. You don’t realise how destructive water is until you see it like that. It looks quite majestic, otherwise.

“It’s exhausting… because my family, we’re volunteer firefighters, so for the first few weeks we were busy as heck trying to help everybody else. Now everyone’s kind of dispersed. The army isn’t here anymore, we don’t have the extra [fire] brigades from the other towns, and those extra pairs of hands are slowly dwindling. We’ve had time to sit and think a bit more. That’s when it starts to set in. But you just have to keep positive, otherwise it’s gonna eat you up inside and you’re gonna be an angry resident. That doesn’t help at all. Everyone’s doing the best they can and doing what they can.

“This is home, always will be, always has been. It’s one of those things. It’s just happened unnecessarily, that’s what’s hard about it. But you know. Onwards and upwards. Otherwise I’d sit here and cry all day, every day. I feel that’s what small towns breed, anyway; they breed that onwards and upwards [mentality].”

Rosanna Lowe found herself in the role of volunteer co-ordinator after the flood disrupted her home business.

ROSANNA LOWE

In that crucial first month after the disaster, an outpouring of donations and a network of volunteers arrived in Edgecumbe. The community hall was set up as a hub for social services, medical support, council advice and building inspectors, as well dishing up hot meals provided by a local charity. Rosanna (who’s not related to Kristy Lowe) had moved to Edgecumbe with her four-year-old son in February. When the flood hit and her business plans were shattered, she stepped up to co-ordinate donations pouring into the hall and saw first-hand, in their most vulnerable moments, families who’d lost everything.

“I moved here to buy a house. We were just getting some form of normality, and then the storm happened. My backyard flooded. Then we had the second storm, which was blimmin’ unfortunate. It was a very funny weather pattern. It was a nice steady rain, as if it was winter. Then it was wind like you wouldn’t believe. The windows, you could hear them making a cracking noise. We lost a lot of trees and in a way that rain was needed to wash away the silt. But it was too soon. Our drains hadn’t been fixed. I’ve been hearing all the stories from people who lived through the earthquake, the flood in 2004, then this one. They say the flood’s ‘a once-in-500-year event’, but this is two in 500 years, because they had one in 2004, before they built the stop-banks.

“I was setting up a business at home. I’m a qualified beauty therapist. I wanted to offer different services to people in Edgecumbe but also rural families, farming mums. Then the flood happened and there was no clientele left, so I came down to the hall and one of the Edgecumbe council reps said, ‘Hey, we’ve just had this dropped off, do you wanna set that up?’ As time went on, I took over. We ended up with a team of people and a hall full of stuff.

“We’ve had donations from all over New Zealand. We’ve had stuff come from Germany, from everywhere. We started out providing the necessary toiletries. Then we got into warm clothes, towels, blankets and stuff like that. As people are getting back into their homes, we’re now providing the furniture. I used to volunteer at rest homes. But the co-
ordinating role just naturally happened. Some people would come in for a hug or a coffee, just to see how we were doing.

“When we first started out, the people coming through the doors were sad, they looked broken. Now we’re getting more smiles, more hugs. People are starting to go through the healing process, I guess you’d say. But you don’t get over it in a couple of weeks. Some of these people have been in their homes for over 65 years. Imagine having 65 years of memories gone, just washed away.

‘My role has always been that I approach families and get an understanding of their needs. Slowly you see them kind of relax, and that’s when they start to tell you what’s happened, how badly they’ve been hit. Insurance was a big one – you can tell the difference between the insured and uninsured. The insured have some form of security; others have lost everything. We’ve been delivering new whiteware to those people, the uninsured families with young children or the elderly.

“I still love it here. I was a farmer for a long time, 11 years, and I’m used to small communities. It’s like one big family here.”

Joe and Vicky Richards with daughter Nethia outside their damaged house.

THE RICHARDS FAMILY

Standing on top of the wall on the morning of the breach, Vicky Richards marvelled at the water level – she had never seen the river like that before. There was no warning then that danger was imminent.

Vicky and her family are in the red zone – their house only a few metres from where the river breached. Just minutes after she stood there, the wall was gone, and the foundations of their house with it. They managed to get out with a few precious items and their cat, warning family and neighbours on their way out. The Richards have always been involved in the community, running a home gym in their back shed for the neighbourhood kids. Now they quietly carry the resilient spirit of the town they love.

Vicky: “Finding a new normal is the tough part, but we’re gonna get there. And the good thing about Edgecumbe is it’s a really cool small town, with good town spirit. Everyone’s helping each other. We’ll rebuild again. A lot of the families have been through a disaster before. Even though [the earthquake] was 30 years ago, it had a big impact on the families who lived here.

“We live directly at one end of the wall. We know, when there’s significant rain, to go check the river. This time, my neighbour and I were standing there… our mouths just dropped. We’d seen it like this in 2004. But this was just immense, massive water. Last time, it was squirting through the slabs. This time, it was seeping right under. It was crazy.”

“On the outside it looks okay,” says Vicky, ”but underneath it’s got massive sinkholes.”

Joe: “If you were to sit in our house, the wall is higher than our house.”

Vicky: “We were walking along the wall all morning, but no authorities were telling us to evacuate. One council guy came in and was testing it. We asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He was like, ‘Well, I’d pack a bag.’ That was the amount of warning we got.

“So we all ran back to our homes, waking up children – we’ve got neighbours with little babies – and were out. We were shoving what we could in the cars. We had, what, 10 minutes? You’re in a panic. I grabbed our cat. She was thinking we were playing games with her. And photo albums. That was the only thing I thought, ‘Okay, if it goes, I’ve got those two things.’

“That was at about half past eight. We woke up Joe’s dad, who lives out the back in a granny-flat. We got him in the car, and the brother-in-law. We made sure our neighbours were sorted, then we drove off. There were no alarms going off, nothing. The river broke and chased us right out. It was a matter of minutes. It was quite surreal, actually. It was just neighbour to neighbour, telling each other to get out.

“It was a sunny day, no rain. In places where it normally floods up to the curb in a downpour, nothing. Thank God the school was closed for the day. Kids would have been walking to school at that time, and it could have been so much worse.”

Joe: “The screaming was terrifying. I’d dropped the truck off to Vicky, because she rang me at work to say that the wall’s leaking. We heard the screaming on this side, and we looked across and the wall had gone.”

Vicky: “We knew it was bad. On the outside our house looks okay compared to the others. There’s some really mangled homes. But underneath our house is the dodgy part. It’s got massive sinkholes. Edgecumbe’s been built on swampland. I said to Joe, maybe it was a natural river under there anyway, because it’s quite uncanny how it’s run through like that.”

On the front lines of climate change

Climate change is already lapping at the doors of our Pacific neighbours. This photograph was taken on Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu, in 2011.

Climate change is dramatically changing the world we love. It’s putting our homes, our land and food at risk. It’s already lapping at the doors of our Pacific neighbours’ homes, and bursting through the banks of our small towns’ rivers. Cyclones, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and severe. Seasons are less predictable and crops are failing. Rising sea levels are threatening to swallow up coastlines, communities and even countries.
Every year that we delay action, the job gets harder for our children and the generations to come. So Oxfam has joined a coalition of Kiwi international aid agencies calling on political parties to back the proposed Zero Carbon Act, which will ensure New Zealand ends its greenhouse gas pollution by 2050.
Oxfam takes a leadership role in international climate change diplomacy, calling for the needs of the world’s poorest people to come first. The Back the Plan: Back to Zero campaign is a coalition of 14 leading humanitarian agencies who are calling for climate legislation in Aotearoa, and a clear pathway towards a safe and stable climate for all. To find out more, visit bit.ly/backtheplan.

This is published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.

 

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