West Auckland is still cleaning up from the devastating floods that hit two weeks ago. Television star Aidee Walker and fiance Talor Wikohika tell Kim Knight about the terrifying escape from the storm that left their house red-stickered.
Nothing is where it should be. Cars in the trees. Trees in the house. Mud and rocks where once there was lawn and lake.
"You can't even recognise our property," says Aidee Walker. "There's nothing there. It looks like the set of Mad Max."
She's speaking to the Weekend Herald via a video call. It's Father's Day in lockdown level 4 and her fiance and the father of 3-year-old daughter Te Awaroa sits beside her. Talor Wikohika has received a sleep-in, new shoes and a card with Super Dad on the front.
"Because he literally saved all our lives," says Walker.
For three nights after the rain, Wikohika didn't sleep. He kept hearing the rush of floodwaters; he kept thinking, "I could have lost my whole family".
Two Monday nights ago, a ferocious weather system stalled over Auckland. The Met Service described it as "a band of rain with embedded thunderstorms". Out West, gauges recorded between 150mm and 260mm of rain in just 24 hours. At the 1pm Tuesday briefing when the country was updated on Covid-19 community case numbers, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a fresh set of statistics: 370 fire and emergency service call-outs.
Kumeū, Huapai, Rānui, Piha and Henderson Valley emerged as the worst hit. This week, the results of Auckland Council rapid building assessments were released. In the aftermath of the storm, 106 properties were found to be safe to re-enter and another 74 were approved for limited entry. Four were labelled completely off-limits and issued with red placards: "Significant structural compromise and unsafe to enter."
Walker and Wikohika's home was one those red-stickered. The house is insured, but their belonging were not. They are self-employed freelancers in the precarious world of film and television who made five offers on their house in the bush in the Waitākere foothills. Each time they were rejected, they'd go away and earn a little more deposit until, eventually, they think they simply convinced the seller they were the best people for this dream home on a piece of the land once known as Dreamlands Estate.
You might recognise Walker. For years, she played Draska Doslic on television's Outrageous Fortune. Her directing credits include Westside, Brokenwood Mysteries and Mystic. More recently, she's been seen on screen in Vegas, Catching the Black Widow and One Lane Bridge. Wikohika was the latter's art director. His production credits include the first of The Hobbit films, Pork Pie and television's Head High.
On the night of the flood, Wikohika was renovating the couple's kitchen. Their house sits back from an artificial lake created decades ago. A small creek runs down one side, and there's a sleep-out, a little whare with cushions on the floor and photographs of tīpuna on the walls. That Monday, Wikohika was working late with power tools and so his daughter Awa and mum Sue, who lives with the family, were in the sleep-out.
The rain was heavy. Walker had been outside earlier to clear drains; sometimes they'd get a bit of water downstairs in the garage that's next to a spare room and office, laundry and general storage space. Wikohika thinks it was about an hour later when he put down his tools, looked out and saw water flowing over the grass and towards the sleep-out.
He called for Walker and began trying to move things from the garage. Outside, Walker had stepped into knee-deep water. She grabbed Awa who was half asleep and screaming. Sue didn't have her hearing aids in and communication was difficult. By now, the water was mid-thigh and "coming at quite a pace".
Wikohika: "I literally dragged my mother from the sleep-out and got her upstairs."
Walker: "We were both downstairs trying to save s**t. You're like 'what do you save - what's more important than something else?' and meanwhile, our smaller things are just flowing out the side of the house."
They watched shoes float off and then Walker's voice recording booth toppled over. She was grabbing for a Buddhist Gohonzon scroll "when our house caved in".
Wikohika: "A landslide from upstream had come down, and smashed through our wall, along with all the logs and debris."
Walker: "It broke the second wall to the office where we were, and then Talor grabbed me . . . "
Wikohika: " . . . And then it washed us out."
Walker was pushed off her feet. The noise of trees and mud and rocks slamming into the house was so loud they didn't know if the top storey had gone too. They struggled outside and around the corner to a small area the water had not reached.
"I think that's when Talor just stood on a barbecue - our top floor is really high and we've only got the one [now flooded] internal staircase up - and he monkeyed up top. He realised his mum and Awa were okay, and he pulled me up with one arm. I remember thinking there was only a certain amount he could do and then I had to get my feet up to the balcony. I remember thinking 'don't f*** this up - you can't miss your footing because you'll fall to the ground'."
In the 1930s, when the air was fresh and Aucklanders were energetic, they used to take train trips out west for "mystery hikes". Newspapers of the day describe the extended trek to the area once known as Dreamlands: "A beautiful walk among kauri, rimu and rātā trees". Another report describes the land "sleeping in the heat of the midday sun" with "purple shadows lying in protective covering in the deep gullies at the roadside".
Dreamlands was a place that inspired poetry and prose. Historic photographs show crowds picnicking. When Walker turned 40, a tech friend did the lighting "and it looked like Splore". The couple have lived there since July 2020. Tall nīkau, a hammock in the sun, a heavy cast-iron outdoor bath that the flood smashed so hard into a tree, a section was chipped off.
"That went caning in front of us," said Walker. "I think that was the moment when I went 'this is bigger than us, we just need to get out of here'. And then, at that point, we see all our cars just going past . . . "
Walker had just one bar of service showing on her phone. She couldn't make calls, but was able to text her mother in Hamilton.
"I said 'mum, you've got to call the fire engine', but I think she thought it was another hot water cylinder leak or the water tanks, or all of those things you can live with. I kept texting and saying 'we need to evacuate'."
A tree had smashed through the upstairs bathroom window. There was glass everywhere and it was still raining. Suitcases and shoes had been lost to the mud and water flowing downstairs; they grabbed cloth supermarket bags and Awa's Frozen-themed backpack and stuffed them with essentials.
"Baby was up for the adventure," says Walker. "She thought a fire truck was coming so I think she was a little excited . . . She was secretly packing the most ridiculous toys. She put in a keyboard toy. When we escaped, I could hear the little keyboard playing."
They were unaware of the drama unfolding throughout West Auckland. Slips, washed-out roads, flooded homes, and hundreds without electricity. In daylight, there would be reports that people had been evacuated by jetski, that small horses had been coaxed inside and upstairs to safety. Emergency services couldn't get through to the family trapped on the top floor of the house, which Walker says had "a waterfall" flowing underneath.
Eventually, she says, it became clear nobody was coming to rescue them. Wikohika went downstairs and used a hammer to smash the front door open, but he could see a support beam was askew. He didn't want to risk taking his family through the damaged section. He remembered he had a ladder upstairs where he had been working in the kitchen. The couple used pieces of clothing to tie it securely and the entire family made their way down to the same untouched corner Wikohika and Walker had shimmied up earlier. They walked up their driveway until they got reception. Emergency services told them to go to a neighbours. At 1am, they knocked on a door. Walker's had pounamu engagement ring had snapped as she left the house. Wikohika was barefoot, the Father's Day shoes are now the only pair he owns.
"It's been a bit hard in level 4," says Walker. "We can't hug anybody at a time when you feel like you need a cuddle."
The film community has rallied, setting up a portaloo and rigging water and electricity to the devastated site. A Givealittle page has already raised more than $50,000. Wikohika says he's cried just once. At the crack of dawn, on the morning of their escape, he walked back to the property and saw hundreds of trees had come down. The entire area was flat, the lake now full of debris. The whare where his mother and daughter were sleeping had been shunted at least 50m.
"I was just thankful my family was safe. The only thing that matters is that everyone was safe."
Ask the couple "what next" and they're uncertain. Last Wednesday's heavy rain soaked the site back to mud; on Thursday, they were still waiting for a more extensive structural inspection. They've retrieved their smashed cars, fearing that petrol could leak into waterways. They don't know whether the house can be saved.
Wikohika: "You can start from scratch, but we're past that point . . ."
They want to honour the property's history, to restore its beauty. Walker says right now "it's a little overwhelming" but also "we're really good at together going 'cool, let's do that!' I mean, I can't drive a digger, but . . . "
Wikohika: "I can't either, but I will learn."
They've taken Awa back for just one visit.
"She just talked about her broken house," says Wikohika. "Her broken trampoline and her broken whare. And the next morning, she said to me 'Papa, my house is broken, but you'll fix it Papa, and Awa will help you'."
The Givealittle page: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/help-needed-for-west-auckland-family-after-flood