Hawke's Bay residents who self-evacuated yesterday as floodwaters rose and rivers burst their banks will return to assess the damage to their homes today.

The deluge yesterday morning saw residents in the rural areas of Eskdale, Rissington, Patoka, and Tangoio decide not to wait for an official evacuation to leave their properties, with many saying they had not seen flooding on this scale since Cyclone Bola 30 years ago.

Some were able to return home yesterday, others bunked down with family and friends.

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The Tong family were among those who fled Eskdale. Shaw Road resident Shanae Tong said that by 7am water was flooding their driveway, and quickly rose.

They left about 10am with just the necessities – their dog, technology, and a change of clothes.

"It rose so fast. Within an hour it was all the way up by our house, up in our front yard and decking," she said. "I was amazed I've never seen it like that in my whole life - 19 years of living here it's never been this bad.

"I had a call from my neighbour and she was in tears. She said, 'The river's banks have burst, we all need to go, we all need to go'."

When Ms Tong returned to the property about 11am to find her missing cat, the water was at their front doorstep, had flooded two cars and their shed which contained a quad bike, ride-on lawnmower, and belongings from Ms Tong's old house.

"It was so scary it happened so quickly. I'm so worried. The worst part for me is not knowing. I don't know what the house looks like, what the yard looks like."

When her family were able to return yesterday afternoon, father Kerry said: "We've been pretty lucky but we'll have to see what happens at high tide overnight."

Ms Tong said: "We saw inside our neighbour's shed and it's ruined. He had a lot of nice things in there but everything's just gone. He lost so much."

Eskdale Holiday Park owner Daniel Gale had begun evacuating campers from their riverside site shortly after river alarms sounded at 6.30am.

The storm left the campsite "under water". It was left covered in muddy silt but guests had returned and were happy to help clean up.

"I don't know how much it's going to cost yet. We'll just clean up and get ready for next season and hope our guests come back next year to support us."

Hukarere Girls College students also self-evacuated. Over in Rissington 60 Havelock North Intermediate students were evacuated from a school camp at Weka Point.

As the storm worsened, principal Julia Beaumont said it was decided early yesterday morning to bring the two classes back to school.

She said the school had not realised how severe the weather was going to be when the students left on Wednesday.

Rissington community group spokesperson Bronwyn – who did not want her last name used - said a number of residents in the valley had self-evacuated, with one fearful her house would shift due to the flooding.

River levels seemed to be higher than during Cyclone Bola – nearly at the height of the Rissington bridge – and around 210mm of rain had fallen between Wednesday evening and yesterday morning.

"It's been quite scary with all the thunder and lightning. It's taken out the power for some people," she said. "I've never felt my house shake so much from thunder."

The storm did bring out the community spirit: Eskdale's Jodi Roberts opened her doors to anyone needing shelter.