Time and time again Northland towns succumb to heavy rain and floods - and the recent 1-in-500-year storm was no exception. Reporter Jenny Ling finds out what's being done to help these vulnerable communities.
When Gazala Khan woke to the sound of running water on July 18 she thought her husband had left a tap on.
As the rain lashed their Moerewa home, the heavily pregnant 24-year-old called out to Zameer who was finishing his morning prayers in another room.
The couple noticed the floor was damp, but didn't think much of it.
"Until we stepped onto the carpet and it was floating," Gazala said.
"When we stepped on it, we realised how much water was in the house."
Panicking, Gazala tried to climb out the window, and failing that, threw a few precious belongings into a bag.
Then Zameer opened the front door, letting in the full force of floodwaters wreaking havoc on Northland during a relentless, 1-in-500-year storm.
The couple managed to escape after Zameer carried his wife through the waist-high water, fearing it could cause a premature birth.
Miraculously, their partly submerged car spluttered into life, and they drove to Auckland to stay with Gazala's parents before moving into a motel in Kawakawa, where they'll stay while their house dries out and their insurance claim is sorted.
• Once-in-500-year storm floods Northland, traps residents
• Northland floods: No hope for drying out in storm-hit Far North
• Northland storm: Some roads still closed after slips and flooding cause major damage
• Torrential rain in Northland closes highways, floods homes
"Pretty much everything" was damaged in the flood. Mattresses, furniture, clothes - all were thrown into a skip bin. When the Northern Advocate visited, a few salvaged boxes were stacked in rooms. Half a dozen high-powered fans worked frantically to dry the house.
To make things worse, their garage has been burgled twice while they've been away. About $2000 worth of tools Zameer bought to refurbish the home they bought four years ago were stolen.
"We've had a pretty tough time," Zameer said.
"It was really bad. But my wife and baby are safe and that's all that matters to me."
Moerewa and Whangārei copped the worst of the region's storm, which dumped more than 200mm of rain in just 10 hours on July 17 and 18.
The Khans were among dozens of people forced to flee their homes and emergency services and Civil Defence worked to free people trapped in cars and pluck them from raging floodwaters.
The deluge left a trail of destruction - landslides, slumped roads, masses of potholes and damaged water treatment plants that will need millions of dollars and take months to fix. Ōtiria Marae chairman Mike Butler is coordinating the response in Moerewa, working with Northland Civil Defence to help to whānau in need.
Sixteen skip bins are on a constant rotation around town, being filled with residents' damaged belongings, and at least 100 septic tanks have been pumped out to prevent them overflowing with raw sewage.
Butler reckons 60 Moerewa homes had water lapping at their doors that weekend, and four – including the Khans' and Skip Kidwell's place one street over – had to be evacuated.
The storm has been labelled a 1-in-500-year event - but residents can recall plenty of other dates.
2007, 2011, 2014 and now 2020: Butler has seen it all before.
So has Kidwell, who's experienced four floods in 16 years and said: "We just get used to being flooded and being ignored".
"They're happening quite frequently," Butler said.
"What can we put in place to alleviate the water coming into Moerewa?
"Because it never did before.
"Over time, things have changed. Back in the old days the borough council used to dredge the Taumarere river. So, I think the river needs to be dredged again.
"We seriously need to look at draining systems further up the valley – proper draining systems.
"I've noticed things have changed, and roading heights, they've increased, but the drains on the side of the roads haven't really been looked after."
Butler also wants the worst-hit houses in town to be raised.
"If I had my way, I would ask the Government to lift their houses like they did at Kāeo," he said.
"It would give the families peace of mind, so they know they're not going to go through another episode like this."
In Whangarei, 65 homes had to be evacuated or were inundated with floodwaters.
Four have been deemed dangerous and cannot be lived in.
The deluge put all three of the district's water treatment plants temporarily out of action.
The damage is still being assessed, but the initial estimate to repair roads, pipes, parks and reserves sits at $8m.
And it could have been worse, had a stormwater retention dam in Maunu not stopped 300,000 cubic metres of water from flooding into central Whangārei.
Whangārei District Council chief executive Rob Forlong said the dam "worked a treat".
But Forlong is concerned the current infrastructure won't cope if another storm hits before repair works are done.
"It coped exceptionally well but if we get another event, even a smaller one might do more damage. That's why we're moving as fast as we can."
Forlong also acknowledges the impact climate change is having on the region.
"With climate change we're going to need to do more. These things may not be as rare as they currently are.
"Whangārei is quite well served for its infrastructure, it's pretty robust and resilient. We got through the drought and we've got through this huge storm, but it could always be better.
"The question is how much are you prepared to pay for something that's once in a lifetime?"
Damage to the rest of the region has also been extensive.
The New Zealand Transport Agency estimates the cost of storm response and repairs at $5.9m.
This doesn't include the final repair bill for the Mangamuka Gorge on State Highway 1, south of Kaitaia, which remains closed due to a series of massive slips.
Far North District Council estimates at least $2.65m of repairs will be needed on its roading network.
Contractors are still working on a permanent fix to the damaged Paihia water treatment plant.
The Insurance Council of New Zealand can't yet say how many people have put in claims, but spokeswoman Leah McNeil said: "We expect there to be several thousand claims to repair the damage of the Northland floods."
The Earthquake Commission has so far received around 200 flood-related claims.
A REGION CUT OFF
The July floods have highlighted the vulnerability of the region.
Hundreds of roads and numerous bridges were closed because of flooding and slips, many of them state highways.
More than 200 roads were affected in the Far North alone, and many more were reduced to one lane.
There is still no indication of when Mangamuka Gorge will reopen, as two slips on the northern side continue to cause concern.
An entire hillside has fallen away, and the other is clinging on thanks to some trees by the roadside.
In the meantime, motorists must take SH10, adding 30 minutes to their journey.
NZTA Northland system manager Jacqui Hori-Hoult said the road would initially be opened to locals in light vehicles "in convoys at set times of the day".
"But the road won't be open to trucks and buses for a while."
Northland MP Matt King said money desperately needs to be invested in the region's roads.
The flood damage exacerbated an already poor roading network, he said.
"Weather events are weather events, but there's mitigation that can happen to control flood damage.
"It's a matter of access and getting decent roads built from the foundation up so we don't have issues with getting cut off.
"The roading network is poor and has always been the case.
"We're very susceptible in the north, more so than other areas, because of our roading network. Not enough is being done in that area."
Small towns like Moerewa, Kāeo and Kawakawa are known for being repeatedly flooded during heavy rains.
The Northland Regional Council [NRC] says Kāeo is one of 26 catchments identified as priorities for flood risk reduction planning.
The township is built on a flood plain and has flooded for as long as weather events have been recorded.
In 2007 Kāeo was hit by two 100-year floods five months apart.
Two more devastating floods followed in 2011, where 81 homes in Kāeo, Totara North, Whangaroa and Kaitāia were declared unfit to live in.
Kāeo resident and Whangaroa Community Trust chairman Raniera Kaio remembers the "disastrous" 2007 storms that twice inundated the local rugby club.
It wasn't long after the club's $250,000 refurbishment and he spent a few weeks helping with the clean-up.
When the recent rains came, he got ready to close the office early and waited for the usual flooding.
But this time, he was pleasantly surprised.
"It didn't really eventuate as bad as we're used to," Kaio said.
"This was the first year that Kāeo flooding hasn't been as bad as the rest of the north.
"We didn't expect that - usually we get the brunt end of everything.
"The stop banks that were put in, they seem to be doing the job."
Kaio acknowledges the work that's been done by the regional council, including a flood warning system and stop banks to protect local schools and deflect high-speed floodwaters away from the town.
But he said the town is still vulnerable and more infrastructure is needed to help drain the flooded river back into the harbour more efficiently.
Paddocks still turned to swamps and there were a few issues with houses closer to the harbour which, although not flooded, "still saw a lot of water".
"Kāeo is still very vulnerable. We were just lucky this time the heavy rain seemed to be isolated to Moerewa and Whangārei. Had it been further north we could have seen similar levels of flooding here."
Kāeo Primary School principal Paul Barker agreed the stop banks were making a difference.
"In the past we would have had a bit of trepidation but it hardly affected us at all.
"For many years the rain used to come and everyone got stressed out not knowing what it was going to lead to.
"Eventually they invested some money and now it seems like, unless it's really bad, it's going to be ok, which is fantastic."
Between 2009 and 2016, the NRC helped raise and relocate eight homes in Kāeo to reduce their risk of flooding.
NRC environmental services general manager Bruce Howse said some werein high-risk locations on the floodplain.
Could similar work be done in Moerewa?
"As per the situation in Kāeo, this is not a straightforward matter," Howse said.
"Each individual household and its circumstances are unique and in each case this would require consideration of the full range of these circumstances."
SO, WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Howse said the NRC is working with communities in flood-prone areas to reduce flood risk.
"River working parties" had been set up in Taumarere and Kāeo catchments where local residents, ratepayers and council representatives discuss flood risk reduction matters, he said.
What about other flood prone areas?
"There are potential options to reduce flood risk in these areas," Howse said.
"Works have been undertaken in the past and future works to reduce flood risk are being investigated and discussed with the community."
Within a couple of days of the recent storm, the Government put $30,000 towards a Mayoral Relief Funding to support Northland communities.
Civil Defence minister Peeni Henare visited his home region and announced he was "heartbroken" over what he saw.
By the third day, another $26 million was pledged by the Government to strengthen Northland roads and protect the region from future floods.
Of this, $14.2m will be given to the FNDC, and the other $12.5m has been granted to the NRC.
Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones promised that regional leaders would work with WDC to address flooding problems, and bring forward flood prevention work planned at Moerewa, Panguru and the Awanui River.
Work includes river benching and setting back stopbanks, flood wall protection and constructing bypass spillways to divert water away in times of crisis.
Jones admitted damage in the Far North was "built on earlier flood events where slips have never fully been corrected".
"The bottom line is these adverse weather events – 2007, 2014, 2020 – are not one-in-500-year events," he said.
"I remember how devastating the Motatau incident was when we lost SH1 south of Kawakawa, and in Awanui when the flood went over the stopbanks. We hardly manage to recover, then another event afflicts us."
Jones said the recently allocated funding was designed "to help councils adjust because we're not in control of mother nature".
In the Far North, "bog standard" repairs like cleaning up rivers, creeks and drains, and upgrading culverts were urgently required, Jones said.
"The bridge at Moerewa is constantly getting blocked up, but in the catchment no remedial work is being done, rivers and drains are not being cleaned and the culverts are collapsing under the pressure of flood waters.
"The funding is to enable councils to get on with these projects.
"We should expect a well-staged plan that starts as soon as possible for stuff that doesn't require resource consent. Get the diggers in and get the nephs, and get on with it."
FNDC infrastructure project delivery manager David Clamp said the $14.2m will be used to strengthen the resilience of the road network, which will provide more dependable alternative routes if state highways can't be used.
Planned works include widening and sealing sections of Ngapipito Rd near Moerewa, and Peria Rd to improve links with Kaitaia.
"This will provide routes suitable for heavy commercial vehicles and high-productivity motor vehicles.
"Flooding issues will be specifically addressed by improving road drainage and enhancing the resilience of road bridges."
Clamp expected the work to be done by September 2021.
As they wait, and with more heavy rain forecast this weekend, residents remain resigned and philosophical.
The saying in Moerewa goes: "When Waiharakeke [stream] breaches, Te riri Ōtiria will take the load", Butler said.
In Kaeo the saying is this:
"Plan for the worst, expect the worst and if it doesn't happen wait for the next one," Kaio said.