Children at Edgecumbe Primary School are still affected by the flood that hit their town two years ago.

"We still have the post-trauma," principal Kahu Walker says.

"We'll get times where children dive under a table if it's going to rain really hard. There is the occasional time when a student might come to me and say 'Are we okay today?'"

After days of relentless heavy rain, Walker decided to close the school before the flood hit on April 6, 2017, about 8.30am.

Advertisement

Many believe that decision saved lives.

Students would have been walking to school at the time the Rangitāiki River – the Bay of Plenty's largest – burst through a stopbank and flooded the township.

Flood waters were 6.19 metres high before the breach.

Walker lives on College Rd, less than 75m from the floodwall, so watched as it bulged, buckled and cracked before a gush of water poured out.

He rushed to warn his family and neighbours, before getting into the school van, which was parked on his front lawn, and helping evacuate a nearby retirement village, a neighbour who looks after pre-school children, and another neighbour, Joan Newdick, "who didn't want to leave her cats".

He then watched a torrent of water flood his school field as more than a dozen of them headed out of town, only stopping when they reached Awakeri, 7km away.

The group, like the rest of the town's 1600 residents, fled for higher ground in the surrounding towns and didn't return to Edgecumbe and their homes for days.

"It was unreal. It was unbelievable. We just had to keep going because that water was coming fast."

Advertisement
Edgecumbe at the height of the flood. Photo / Andrew Warner
Edgecumbe at the height of the flood. Photo / Andrew Warner

Walker still loses sleep over the flood. Parts of his own property were destroyed.

The school lost its playground and fields were out of service for months. It was reopened three weeks later.

The roll dropped as affected students and families gradually moved out of town. It has largely bounced back to near to what it was and currently sits at 215, despite more students leaving this year when special buses servicing outlying areas were cancelled by the Ministry of Education.

At one point during our conversation, Walker stops to compose himself.

"I had parents come into my office crying," he says.

Edgecumbe, nestled between Whakatāne to the east and Maketū to the west, has one supermarket, which has not reopened since the flood.

Most people now travel to Whakatāne, about 20km away, to do their food shopping.

But, as more than one person points out, the town has a high elderly population, many who can't or don't drive and some don't always have the financial means or ability to travel.

The local butcher has started offering fresh fruit and veges and the dairies have also increased their range.

The town also only has one medical centre, which was closed for 10 months after the flood.

Its practice manager, Storm Hale, only moved back into her house on Rata Ave six months ago.

She uses the words "traumatic" and "lonely" to describe the past two years. While it is "fantastic" to finally be back home, the widow says things feel different now.

"The house feels the same as before, the street doesn't. Because as I look out my kitchen window I see all these empty sections."

She moved into the house when she was about 3.

"So when I look out my window now, I see a park with all these people that I grew up with ... gone – literally a whole community that I'd known as a child."

More than 250 homes were severely damaged in the flood, more than a dozen were destroyed. Twelve houses directly across from the breach were rendered permanently uninhabitable.

Part of the old floodwall that failed, causing a wall of water to tear through the town, sitting in a green space where there used to be houses. Photo / Alan Gibson
Part of the old floodwall that failed, causing a wall of water to tear through the town, sitting in a green space where there used to be houses. Photo / Alan Gibson

The number of residents who have left the town for good will become clearer when the Census is released this year.

The Whakatāne District Council says 98 per cent of flood-damaged homes have been repaired and reoccupied.

Two years on, as you drive through the quiet streets, empty plots of land where houses once stood are evident. Some homes still appear abandoned.

Chat to the locals, and almost everyone has a story to tell. People talk of loneliness and trauma. Others prefer to talk of progress and renewal.

At the top of the new stopbank on College Rd is a gravel path, where you can stand and look over the river.

Today, the Rangitāiki is calm. Grass is still growing on the newly-built stopbank.

General view of the new stopbank, overlooking the Rangitāiki River in Edgecumbe. Photo / Alan Gibson
General view of the new stopbank, overlooking the Rangitāiki River in Edgecumbe. Photo / Alan Gibson

The repairs carried out in the College Rd area had a budget of $5 million, which included purchasing and removing buildings from the 12 properties opposite the breach site ($1.7m).

The cost of the stopbank construction, which included installation of services and road reconstruction, came in under its $3.3m budget.

The bank now slopes down to a brand new road – the markings yet to be painted onto the tarseal – and across that road is a new footpath and new street lights.

Where there once were houses there is now an empty grass field.

A piece of the old Edgecumbe painted floodwall sits in that park. All that remains of the mural are a few smiling fish and an eel.

Walker's neighbour Joan Newdick's garden was destroyed in the flood, covered in mud and debris.

The garage was a mess with many items inside lost. But the house she has lived in for 60 years was fine.

Now the 84-year-old's front garden is a colourful, fragrant image of regeneration. The smell of blooming flowers hangs in the air as you approach her front door.

Newdick has lived in Edgecumbe for 65 years and has lived through more than one major flood, as well as a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in 1987.

Joan Newdick pictured in the mud in the backyard of her Edgecumbe house after the flood, and in the same spot this month (below). Photos / Alan Gibson
Joan Newdick pictured in the mud in the backyard of her Edgecumbe house after the flood, and in the same spot this month (below). Photos / Alan Gibson

She remembers walking out of the gate on the morning of April 6, 2017 and seeing water pouring down the street.

Her biggest worry was leaving her two cats behind.

"The earthquake was terrible but I think I would rather have an earthquake than that flood."

Newdick says she doesn't know a lot of people in Edgecumbe any more. Many have moved away.

She wonders if the town will ever experience another natural disaster of that scale.

"Surely not. Surely it can't."

At Edgecumbe College, which is next to the primary school, three damaged buildings still sit empty and dark.

The college was also closed on the day of the flood.

Its old music centre has been condemned and so has an agriculture and horticulture sciences classroom. Both need to be demolished.

The library, which lost a third of its books in the flood, is also still vacant, but principal Louw Olivier believes it can be restored, maybe as a workshop for building construction students.

Louw Olivier, Edgecumbe College Principal, pictured inside one of the buildings that remains off-limits after the flood. Photo / Alan Gibson
Louw Olivier, Edgecumbe College Principal, pictured inside one of the buildings that remains off-limits after the flood. Photo / Alan Gibson

The school's paddocks are still no good (its livestock was sold off) and the sports fields, which were out of action for more than a year and a half, have just started being used again.

The college roll this year is 246, down from 284 before the flood. It, too, was hit by the cancelled buses.

Olivier says one silver lining has been the generosity shown to the school by different organisations and companies, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations.

The ministry, which worked quickly to help the schools in the immediate aftermath of the flood, is now investing more than $9m in the redevelopment of the college, which will address weather tightness and seismic resilience issues.

Construction is expected to get underway next year.

Kahu Walker (left), Principal of Edgecumbe Primary School, and Louw Olivier, Principal of Edgecumbe College. Both schools were closed on the day of the flood. Photo / Alan Gibson
Kahu Walker (left), Principal of Edgecumbe Primary School, and Louw Olivier, Principal of Edgecumbe College. Both schools were closed on the day of the flood. Photo / Alan Gibson

The ministry says the short-term emergency bus routes were set up to help displaced students get to school from their temporary locations in the region.

"However, a number of families have not returned to Edgecumbe. We stopped the temporary bus services at the end of 2018, giving plenty of notice to the affected schools."

Down the road at Super Value, owner Don Gorrie has been out of business longer than he has been in it.

He took over the store in February 2016, had 14 months of trading, and then the flood happened.

"Who would ever imagine this?" he says.

About half a metre of water rushed through the store. It destroyed all the motors in the refrigeration units, got into the plant room and meant about $250,000 worth of stock had to be thrown away.

Now, a roughly $1 million fit-out is almost complete.

The tiles have all been lifted, the concrete floor polished, new refrigerators line the walls, and there are new lights hanging overhead.

Gorrie is regularly asked when the store will open again. He wanted to open on April 7 as a symbolic gesture – after a day of reflection on the flood's anniversary.

Don Gorrie, owner of the Super Value supermarket in Edgecumbe, is aiming to open again at the end of April. Photo / Alan Gibson
Don Gorrie, owner of the Super Value supermarket in Edgecumbe, is aiming to open again at the end of April. Photo / Alan Gibson

Now he is aiming for April 30. It's not the first time the date has moved, as new problems surface.

There were issues with insurance and major difficulties and disagreements with his landlord, the owner of Riverslea Mall where the supermarket is based.

To the point that it went to arbitration – a long-winded, drawn-out process, Gorrie says.

The landlord did not want to comment when approached for this story.

Gorrie says all 18 of his former staff members gradually left after the flood, some moved out of town. He will have to rehire from scratch.

He says it is unclear how quickly the business will build back up, but he knows the people of Edgecumbe will be happy to have their only supermarket back.

It's a community hub, Gorrie says.

"Sometimes people stand in the aisles and talk for over half an hour."

Arlene Watters has lived in her house on College Rd all her life.

The 46-year-old has history with the Rangitāiki River.

She is a C5, C6 tetraplegic as a result of an accident on the river bank when she was a teenager.

She did a flip but it wasn't turning out right, so she turned it into a dive, and the back of her neck hit the water.

"Bang, that was it," she says.

Watters now uses a wheelchair to get around and on the morning of the flood in 2017, she was watching TV in bed when her carers came running in.

Arlene Watters pictured in the kitchen of her Edgecumbe home, which she had to evacuate in a hurry almost two years ago. Photo / Alan Gibson
Arlene Watters pictured in the kitchen of her Edgecumbe home, which she had to evacuate in a hurry almost two years ago. Photo / Alan Gibson

She heard people outside say "Is Arlene out of the house yet?" but didn't think much of it.

"Nothing fazes me," she says with a smile.

After a speedy evacuation, and some uncertain days spent out of town, she returned to find there was no damage inside her home, but plenty outside.

The water came up to her top step.

Watters' father had died in February the previous year and she likes to think he was watching over her.

"Everyone says 'who was looking after your house?' I said 'my Dad, he didn't want to get a wet ass.' And it was true. No water came in the house at all."

She says many of her old neighbours left after the flood. Neighbours who used to wave and shout out to her. She misses their familiar faces.

But Watters says the town is slowing getting back to normal.

"Edgecumbe's always come together in emergencies. Floods, earthquakes, we've always banded as a little town."

At Graeme Bourk's home on Puriri Crescent, where he lived for 45 years before the flood, there are no floors, no walls and part of the ceiling is falling down.

Bright green ferns growing up into the house, are just about the only bit of colour in this bleak, dark space.

The 71-year-old plumber and his wife Gail moved to Kawerau, about 20km south east of Edgecumbe, after the flood.

They have been paid out by insurance for the contents and will soon be paid out for the house.

He plans to rebuild the home and sell it as he doesn't want to live in Edgecumbe any more.

Graeme Bourk pictured in the remains of his Edgecumbe house. Photo / Alan Gibson
Graeme Bourk pictured in the remains of his Edgecumbe house. Photo / Alan Gibson

Bourk is one of the most vocal critics of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council when it comes to the flood, and is a member of the Rangitāiki Community Board.

He says he has started a class action lawsuit and 272 residents have signed on.

Bourk says it will seek compensation from the regional council to cover losses over and above insurance, as well as force the council to rectify the problems.

No charges have been filed in court yet and the council says it has not been made aware of any legal action.

The main claim, Bourk says, is that the stopbank failure could have been prevented.

He says residents also feel they did not get value for money under the Consumer Guarantees Act – the section of their rates for maintenance and upkeep by the regional council didn't correspond to appropriate measures that could have prevented or reduced the effect of the flood.

When asked about the class action and its claims, a regional council spokesman said: "Council's operation of the Rangitāiki River Scheme assets, including design, engineering, maintenance and management was included in the terms of reference of the independent review chaired by Sir Michael Cullen."

Cullen's review found the causes of the breach were complex, as water seeped into material under the wall and weakened it from below.

Blame for this happening could stretch as far back as 1973 when the wall's foundations were laid, and could also be partly due to damage from the 1987 Edgecumbe earthquake.

Water flows into Edgecumbe through a breach in the College Rd floodwall during the 2017 flood. Photo / Whakatane Beacon
Water flows into Edgecumbe through a breach in the College Rd floodwall during the 2017 flood. Photo / Whakatane Beacon

A concrete pad laid in 2012 next to the wall also added to the pressure on the wall which contributed to the eventual breach.

Some blamed the release of water at Matahina Dam for the breach downstream. But the review found no conclusive evidence that earlier reduction of lake levels at Matahina Dam would have stopped the breach, though it could have delayed the peak of the flood.

However, it did find that if work on Reid's Spillway and the Rangitāiki Floodway had been completed, water levels would have been almost half a metre lower and the failure may never have happened.

Chris Ingle, the regional council's general manager of integrated catchments, says the rebuild of the stopbank was the council's highest priority following the flood.

The council has actioned all of the recommendations in Cullen's report and the majority of the recommended work has either been completed or is underway.

"Our focus over the last year on enacting the independent review's recommendations has greatly improved the safety and resilience of the communities that live alongside the Rangitāiki River. It has also raised community awareness of the risks of river flood events."

Edgecumbe homes sit askew after flood waters ravaged the town in April 2017. Photo / John Borren
Edgecumbe homes sit askew after flood waters ravaged the town in April 2017. Photo / John Borren

The council has reviewed its catchment monitoring systems and added three new monitoring sites. It has also improved its working relationship with Trustpower and refined the Lake Matahina Flood Management Plan and protocols around safely lowering lake water levels in response to heavy rainfall.

Ingle says the commonly referred to "Reid's Canal Spillway" is part of the wider Rangitāiki Floodway Project. The spillway is a structure that moves the water into the floodway in times of high river flow.

He says the council is preparing a detailed design for the spillway and construction is scheduled to start in 2020/21.

The multi-stage Rangitāiki Floodway upgrade project is progressing as quickly as possible, he says, and work on the channel at Thornton has begun.

Charelle Stevenson is the owner of Peppers Building Supplies, one of the larger businesses in Edgecumbe, and is also the chair of the Rangitāiki Community Board.

Her house was damaged in the flood, her brother's house was destroyed and her father's property was badly flooded.

She says many members of the community are pleased with how things are going, and she wants to challenge people who still have negative feelings about the town to get involved in what's happening.

She lists the various initiatives, projects and groups that have formed since the flood, including the Edgecumbe Collective, a co-operative of 10 representatives from community service groups operating in the town.

Other people we meet during our day in Edgecumbe also want to talk about some of these exciting new community developments. Like the new fruit and vege stand outside the library.

Or the crowd-funded book being written by three locals, as a commemoration of the resilience of the Edgecumbe community following the 2017 flood, and a keepsake of their experiences during and after.

Charelle Stevenson, owner of Peppers Building Supplies and chair of the Rangitāiki Community Board. Photo / Alan Gibson
Charelle Stevenson, owner of Peppers Building Supplies and chair of the Rangitāiki Community Board. Photo / Alan Gibson

Stevenson believes there has been a lot of progress, and she says she is not alone in that belief.

"The community is leading the recovery in terms of how they would like to see things happen.

"We're leading the way, we're saying we are going to be part of this, we want to be heard and we want to know what's going on."

She says the town is in a good place and that gives other communities hope.

Meanwhile, Joan Newdick tries to spend time in her garden every day.

After our interview, we walk out into the backyard and are joined by her two cats. All the grass has regrown.

She says she had visitors from out of town yesterday.

"They've been to see me just after the flood and they couldn't believe the mess, and yet yesterday they couldn't believe how lovely the place looked."

Newdick stops to point out a clump of mud she found while digging around in the garden the day before.

"It's from the flood," she says.

In some places, she has just planted over what was left behind.

Like others in Edgecumbe, she is beginning to move on.