When surging neck-deep flood waters swept through their house, Esk Valley residents Katrina and John Harris thought they were “about to die”.
As their bed, clothes drawers and other household items floated alongside them in the early morning hours of Tuesday during Cyclone Gabrielle’s deadly strike on Hawke’s Bay, the family started smashing through their ceiling in a bid to gain some sort of potential life-saving respite.
Tragically, at least five people died in the cyclone, including a child who lost their life in the Esk Valley.
Two days on from the cyclone, the Harris family told the Herald how they are lucky to be alive after raging flood waters roared through their home.
“It was a humongous force [of water] . . . it was like a tidal wave, big surges and the water would go up and down,” Katrina told the Herald.
“I was in the corner of the bedroom and water coming rushing up to my neck. I was screaming at my husband and also on the phone to 111 and just saying ‘We are going to die, we are going to die’. They told me ‘we are getting to you’.
“We got away with our lives.
“The pressure of the water, it was just so strong. If you weren’t against a house or some other structure you would just be swept away.”
Added John: “We all thought we were dead”.
The Harris’ - who run The Doggy Farmstay at Esk Valley, just outside of Napier – were in bed when one of their sons alerted them around midnight of rising water on their property.
By that stage, the water was just below the porch of their rural home, in an area that is driven through by motorists between Napier to Taupo and where paddocks are renowned for their vineyards and orchards.
Katrina and John immediately started to pull together a bag of contents, and gather up nine dogs on the property – six which were boarding there and three dogs that were their own – and flee the area.
But in the short time it took to do that, the surging waters had started coming through the floorboards of their home.
Escape was too late – a sense of self-preservation took over.
“It just came so, so fast . . . we couldn’t get out, it was like a big torrent outside,” Katrina said.
“The water was rising up to our knees in the kitchen so my husband and my son put a German Shepherd in the bathroom, a rottweiler in the laundry, and six other small dogs on our bed in the bedroom.
“When the waters started rising up to waist deep, we went to the bathroom, we had to smash the door down to get to the German Shepherd. It had its head above water trying to breathe, then they put it above the pantry.
“We just stood there and basically froze while all this water rushed in around us.”
John and a son tried their best to stem the water, by pushing against the front door in a bid to keep it closed and reduce water flow into the house.
“But they couldn’t do it forever, and eventually it flung open with the force of the water and rushed through the house,” Katrina said.
With the water rapidly rising to neck level in pitch darkness, John then took to smashing windows throughout the home in a bid to provide escape points for the torrent.
That slowed the rise for a time.
“Our bed, our sofa, our TV . . . everything was just swirling around amongst it all,” she said.
Meanwhile, their son started trying to smash his way into the roof cavity.
“I had my son on the bed and said; ‘Start smashing the roof cavity, the tiles’, because if the water went up more we would have the roof cavity to climb up into,” Katrina said.
“He was smashing the tiles so that if we needed to get higher we could. But we didn’t need too. Eventually, the water did recede.
“If it wasn’t for my husband who smashed through those windows to release some water, we wouldn’t be here.”
John said he was still in a sense of disbelief at how “rapidly” the water had risen.
Once the front door of their home had been blown in, he said there was “no way out”.
“The water was hundreds of metres across the left of the house, and hundreds of metres across to the right of the house . . . the whole valley was just one big river, massive swift and fast,” he said.
“And the roar of it [the water] . . . it was like you were standing next to Huka Falls.
“It was terrifying. The volume of water was just horrendous.”
The flood waters finally started subsiding in the house after a lounge wall “popped out”, and about 10.30am on Tuesday the Harris’ were able to self-evacuate from their property by foot.
They were able to flag down a passing motorist on a 4WD who took them down to the Bay View Hotel & Holiday Park which is now being used as an evacuation centre.
The Harris’ escaped with the clothes that were on their backs when the shocking force of Cyclone Gabrielle hit.
Everything else from their previous lifestyle is now sadly gone.
“We have lost everything,” John said.
“But we didn’t care about anything . . . all we were worried about was surviving. Stuff was floating about, but we didn’t worry about trying to save anything, it was all about surviving . . . you just have to survive.”
Added Katrina: “We just wanted to get out with our lives. Who cares about photos!
“If we had of gone out in the water, we would not have survived. The house saved us in a way.”
The Harris’ are one of several families who are currently staying at the Bay View Hotel & Holiday Park.
The Esk Valley is a small yet incredibly tight-knit community.
Virtually everyone knows each other, and families have grown up together.
Publican Adrienne Morrin said both the immediate and lasting impact of Cyclone Gabrielle on those who called it home will be “devastating”.
“I have only seen pictures of what has happened over there,” she said.
“I haven’t seen it myself, but these guys have lost everything. Some of them didn’t even come out of it with their clothes on . . . they had their clothes ripped off them [by the surging water].
“It sounds like it was fast and furious.”
After the devastation that left havoc on Esk Valley on Tuesday, a sense of calm now is present at the country pub.
This morning, some people were seeking solace in their own thoughts, and some were sharing a joke in the toughest of times on the stairs up to the Bay View Hotel & Holiday Park.
“They are actually quite calm,” said kind-hearted Morrin, who has offered up her hotel as a place of refuge.
“Because the experience was so frightening, they are thankful that they got out with their lives and their families.
“I suppose it is just working through day by day [for them].”
The local Bay View community were rallying around their neighbours.
Items such as clothing, nappies, food and bedding had been donated to those who have lost everything.
A medical centre with nurses and a doctor has also been set up at the pub. A grief counsellor has also been made available.
The Bay View Hotel & Holiday Park is an important part of the local community.
In happier times it is a place where locals down a cold beer in the summer months, or gather to watch footy with mates during winter.
Morrin said there had been “no hesitation” in opening her pub’s doors to those who had lost everything in the cyclone.
“I was helping out at the fire station and I said we would open the pub,” she said.
“We can cook, we have some beds and it’s warm and dry. There was no hesitation.
“We had some idea it would happen [the need for the pub to be an emergency centre] at some point . . . whether it was an earthquake [or a storm]. You are always a little bit prepared for it.”