It was an event that shook the town of Edgecumbe to its core.

Husband and wife Deborah Mainwaring and Reuben Coen got out of their College Road home just in the nick of time.

"We got in the car and stopped by the fire truck, which had just arrived. We asked which way we should go. They said Awakeri," says Deborah. "By the time we got to Awakeri, which is only about a six or seven minute drive, we were told the wall had gone.

"Suddenly your life changes because you realise it really has gone and you can't go back."

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The night before the flood, Deborah called the three local authorities to warn them of the danger. But no one listened and the Rangitaiki River swamped the town.

Two weeks later, when the couple did return to their home to salvage what they could, they couldn't believe their eyes.

"First you are disoriented because all the boundaries have been ripped away. All the outside has been swept away. When you go inside the house you are contending with the smell, which is dire, it is a horrible smell of silt and sewerage. You are in boots, you don't know what you can touch - if you open a cupboard water pours out. You go completely numb and you don't do the right things at all," says Deborah.

"This is our kitchen...but it's not," adds Reuben. "The abandonment of the place, things were still on the table, things were in the sink that I should have washed before leaving the place, but of course you don't have time to do that. And then leaving the place again, do you lock it? What do you do?"

Even today, five months on, the couple struggle to return to the place they once called home.

Deborah says a large part of the town has been gutted.

"It is highlighted when you drive through Edgecumbe at night. There is a whole section of the town where there are no lights. There may be people in portacabins with curtains drawn, but you see no lights and it is very spooky. The area of Puriri Crescent and Ngatipu Place where the houses are being stripped, dried and rebuilt - it's completely empty."

At the time of the disaster, reports indicated no fatalities. But the couple say all that's changed.

"What we are seeing is the after-effects, of people getting sick, people having heart attacks and strokes, lots of breakdowns, people not coping and feeling unsettled. People have lost all their neighbours; they're in Kawerau, they're in Te Teko, they are struck out all over the place.

"They are on hold - they don't know what they should be doing. Do they go back? Can they go back? For a lot of them that's a big question."

Reuben believes they received sympathetic treatment from the council negotiator, but struggled with the officiousness of many at their district and regional councils.

"Our lives were being taken over by other people. Other people were telling us what to do and when to do it. We could have no plans for ourselves. We couldn't say we would visit this friend who was a neighbour, because the phone might ring and the phone did ring. That's when we noticed it - our lives are not our own anymore."

Deborah and Reuben have moved to Ohope Beach where they are trying to rebuild their life together.

"We have had settlement with the insurers. But we haven't completed settlement with the council, because the council requires taking our property from us for the purpose of public works."

Deborah and Reuben have made peace with the fact that they will never see their home again, but warn councils across the country to be vigilant when facing the prospect of future disaster.

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