After the flood, still high and dry
Edgecumbe residents are unlikely to be back home for Christmas, six months on from the stopbank failure and devastating flood.
The goal of having all residents back by Christmas now looks unreachable.
A wall of water from the Rangitāiki River on 6 April damaged more than 300 homes and the town’s 1600 residents were forced to flee.
So far 35 families have been able to move back in, making up just over 10 per cent of those forced out.
The 15 homes left uninhabitable on College Road and Rata Ave still lie broken, waiting for demolition.
For Matipo Place resident Kristy Lowe, things remain surreal.
"It’s surprising and unexpected when some things come up like I found our little boy’s onesie in the garden that was all rotten. Looking back at photos when he was actually wearing it and all the things in the picture we don’t have any more like the furniture, the wallpaper, or the walls."
She’s still wearing other people’s clothes, using other people’s furniture and living in a rental property while they wait until February when her home is repaired.
"I still lie awake at night sometimes thinking about treasures or things I used to have and wondering what happened to them.
"Everything is gone except for us really."
Photo: RNZ Sharon Brettkelly.
Despite the roads being full of builders’ utes and painters vans, the town of Edgecumbe is strangely quiet.
The majority of residents are yet to return or are staying in caravans or temporary cabins on their yards waiting for repairs to finish.
Like so many others Kristy’s house on Matipo Place is just a shell with naked frames inside.
In the meantime, alongside her neighbours, she’s working on the garden.
"It’s incredible what you find in the garden, I wasn’t expecting to find so many undies, and they’re not even ours. They’re just from other people’s washing lines or clothes rakes."
While her town might not be there, there’s still a community.
"We’ve met so many more people around now that there’s no fences. We’re meeting people on the streets behind and around and keeping each other updated and in contact. The community will obviously change but I think it will be stronger, there’s more community, there’s more awareness of looking out for each other."
Over on Puriri Crescent, resident Denise has been able to return home.
"It’s all right. The mail’s being delivered, go shopping in Whakatane ... During the week there’s all these vehicles and everything going on so yeah there’s a lot of activity."
The local supermarket is still out of action so a corner dairy has expanded its wares to help compensate.
Out of town tradies are helping keep business up at local shops and some tenants have moved back into Riverslea Mall as the rebuild progresses.
Amongst the shops the local Māori wardens and Ngati Awa Volunteer Army (NAVA) have set up a drop-in centre for people to come for help or just a place to vent.
Its operations coordinator Alex Walker says people were feeling more positive.
"Things have been heart straining for most of the community but they’re getting there. It’s still a slow, slow going thing.
"I think the biggest downfall for them is they’re still finding it a hard to process seeing the homes that are condemned. Having to see them still sitting there."
She says there are still some homes where the repairs had not started, with insurance the main reason behind the delays.
"I think the building process is going to take longer than expected. The Council have got by December to have this all done, it’s not going to happen. I can see February, March next year."
Alex is from nearby Kawerau but has never lived in Edgecumbe. She dropped everything when she heard of the flooding that fateful Thursday and has been helping ever since.
"My partner and I gave up our home for a family here in Edgecumbe so we let them take that. It was a cheap rental so we let them have that, signed all the papers over and now we’re over in Te Teko at his sisters and living in a caravan."
NAVA and the Māori wardens were instrumental in the mammoth volunteer effort immediately after the floods. Now, as well as support, they provide property protection for those who can no longer be there.
"We’ve had some break-ins, homes being vandalized, last night we had someone attempt to break into the mall which is really sad.
"It’s starting to become a big problem and that’s part of the reason why we’re still here."
Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne initially set the goal of everyone back by Christmas but now expects around half the town will be back.
"’I’m trying to keep to that goal but we’ve had a lot of rain, there’s been a huge amount of rain this winter ... so every day it rains it slows the drying out of the house and that’s where our main problems have been."
He says overall he believes things have gone "really well compared to other disasters" the country had faced.
"It’s never fast enough for those victims but we are getting there.
"Where we’re having some holdups unfortunately is the insurance companies. Some insurance companies have been fantastic to the people and others have been dragging the chain a little bit."
He would like to see a review of insurance companies and how they handle disasters - particularly with Christchurch residents still not settled seven years on.
"Maybe we need to talk to central government and the Insurance Council and see if we can get some sort of legislation when there’s a disaster that they’ve got a maximum time to settle."