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Michele Beard's Matata home used to be at 18a Clem Elliot Drive "but it's now at number 16".

She was cooking the evening meal on Wednesday when she looked out of the kitchen window and saw a torrent of water heading towards the house.

It came after hours of torrential rain in the Bay of Plenty led to states of emergency being declared in Tauranga and Matata and left 300 people temporarily homeless.

In Matata, 14 vehicles were swept into the lagoon. Streams became torrents, huge boulders, logs and debris were swept through to the western end of Murphy's Holiday Camp, eight or nine caravans from the camping ground were washed out to sea, houses were pushed off foundations, garages were wrecked and cars were buried.

One house was left sitting on the railway line.

The Insurance Council estimates the cost of flood damage at tens of millions of dollars.

As the water bore down on their town, Ms Beard and her husband, Paul, piled their three children - baby Jasmine, daughter Ruby, 2, and son Ethan, 13 - into their truck. But as they drove up the driveway they realised it was too dangerous.

As they ran back to the house the water was already up to their knees.

Once inside, Ms Beard dragged a table into the hallway, where there was a manhole into the ceiling. She put a dressing table on top of the table and a chair on top of the dressing table and got the children into the ceiling.

The family kicked a piece of clearlight off the roof so they could see what was happening outside.

Ms Beard comforted the children as her husband looked out and described huge boulders, trees and even the house across the road coming towards them.

Their house started creaking and groaning from the weight of water and debris, she said, "then the house started to shake and it moved off its foundations and we started floating".

The only reason it did not end up in the river is that it came to a stop against a neighbour's house.

The family made contact with emergency services, who asked if they could get into the neighbour's house because it was two storeys high.

"My husband got down from the ceiling and went through the house with all the mud and everything. He had to kick his way through doorways and he kicked his way through the kitchen wall into a window at the neighbour's house.

"We went through a small hole in his window and into his house and we had to stay there until they could come and rescue us, and that took hours."

The family spent the time hoping the water would go down so the neighbour's house would not get swept away too.

About 10.30pm, in the pitch dark and driving rain, emergency services arrived. The family had to scramble across the boulders, trees and debris to get to safety.

"I mean it was only a couple of hundred metres but when you're scrambling over rocks, through rivers, it seems a lot further.

"My baby was screaming the whole time, my little girl who's 2 1/2 handled it really well, she's a real trooper, and my son - he's 13 - he handled it really well too."

But it was terrifying: "It's the scariest thing that's ever happened to me. Our house is 18A but it's now at number 16."

Ms Beard says she is devastated. "We don't have anywhere to put anything, we don't have anywhere to live. I don't know what we're going to do."

People wandered disbelieving through Matata yesterday, wondering how their tiny coastal settlement got away without loss of life.

Still the rain lashed down, hampering emergency services and clean-up crews trying to begin repairing devastation caused by a flood that roared down from the hills on Wednesday night spewing boulders into backyards - but remarkably not claiming any lives.

Police used kayaks yesterday to reach submerged cars to check for bodies. They went door-to-door to make sure everyone was accounted for and were stunned that everyone seemed to be. Searching and checking will continue.

Some residents likened the force of the water to the Boxing Day tsunami.