Suddenly it was not practice

Devastation, drama still fresh in minds

MATHEW GROCOTT
Last updated 09:00 15/02/2014
Horizons Regional Council

The February floods of 2004 affected 70 per cent of the Horizons Region, bringing rainfall in excess of 100mm in 24 hours.

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Murray Wilson/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Manawatu river during the floods.
Stephen Christison near Longburn.
UNFORGETTABLE: This weekend marks a decade since the floods that inundated drowned Manawatu, including the home and farm of Stephen Christison near Longburn.

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Ten years on from the 2004 Manawatu floods, the devastation and drama that surged in to the region is still fresh in the minds of all who experienced it. Mathew Grocott talks to some of the people who were at the centre of one of Manawatu's worst natural disasters.

At first civil defence staff around Manawatu thought the heavy rain on the night of Sunday, February 15, 2004, would be similar to previous occasions when the heavens had opened.

But by the end of the week a once-in-a-lifetime flood had damaged some 200 homes, caused the evacuation of 500 people and washed a house into the Kiwitea Stream in images that were replayed nationwide on television.

The insurance bill would reach $112 million after eight stopbanks were breached and four rivers burst their banks, leaving communities such as Feilding, Tangimoana and Scott's Ferry under water.

"It started off as what we thought was going to be a normal Manawatu flood that would need the Moutoa Gates opened; it escalated out of all proportions," recalls Allan Cook.

Mr Cook was the initial incident controller for Horizons Regional Council's emergency management department. As information came in, he said the scale of the disaster just got "bigger and bigger and bigger".

Parts of Feilding were evacuated in the middle of the night and declarations of emergency were made in the Manawatu and Rangitikei districts.

"Initially we were in here and it was dark and it was happening that quickly," Mr Cook said. "It was a matter of prioritising and responding to the numerous requests for information and assistance."

Then Manawatu mayor Ian McKelvie was in Turangi when he received a call about midnight that he was needed in Feilding to sign the declaration.

"We got to Taihape and couldn't get any further," Mr McKelvie said.

With help from roading contractors Fulton Hogan and the fact that he had a 4WD, Mr McKelvie got through the floodwaters.

"I was in Feilding by about 7am that morning, the whole place was underwater."

The Moutoa floodgates were opened about 7.30am, the spillway would later breach by the trestle bridge, one of eight stop banks to fail during the floods.

Lorraine Vincent, one of two Manawatu District Council incident controllers that night, said the emergency declaration was prompted by the need to evacuate people at risk from rising waters.

"We knew this was going to start threatening property and have an impact on people's lives."

Now the chief executive of Manawatu District Council, Ms Vincent said the region benefited from having a team of emergency responders, including council staff, police, firefighters and St John, across the region who were well trained and knew each other well.

"You always practised for these things and you hope that they never come, you practise and practise . . . suddenly it wasn't a practice any more.

"When I reflect back 10 years, the reason we could react so quickly was the relationships that had been formed, not only between the local authorities but between the emergency management respondents like the police and the army."

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On the morning of the 16th Tangimoana was evacuated with 250 people helped out by army personnel and an air force Iroquois was used to lift people trapped at Whangaehu.

Marton Memorial Hall became an evacuation centre, housing more than 180 people driven from their homes when flooding and wind brought down trees, power lines and cut phone lines.

Scott's Ferry, near Bulls, was evacuated before water levels rose to the eaves of some houses.

"There would have been loss of life if we had not made the decision when we did," police officer and fire chief Bruce Symons said.

So what went wrong?

February 2004 was exceptionally wet with several high rainfall events in the first half of the month. The ground was already wetter and the rivers higher than normal on February 15 when the MetService issued a heavy rain warning.

On February 16, 22 of Horizons' 38 rainfall measurement sites across Manawatu/Whanganui recorded more than 100 millimetres of rain in 24 hours; three recorded more than 250mm.

Mr Cook said how that translated on the ground depended on where you were in the region.

"Whanganui only had a 10-year flood, the Whangaehu had in excess of a 200-year flood right next door."

The Oroua River had a flood in excess of a 200-year event, the Manawatu a 70-year event and the Rangitikei a 50-year flood.

It took five years and $24.8m to repair the damage to flood control schemes across the region.

Now Horizons' group manager of operations, Mr Cook has overseen the $72m investment in the region's flood protection schemes that, once completed, will be the most visible legacy of the floods.

Less clear 10 years after the event are the financial, social and psychological echoes of what happened in February 2004.

While many communities were affected, few were for as long as Kopane School. Neal Duff was relief principal at the time. The school was immediately closed and the 17 pupils stayed home.

"At the school, it was just chaos. I remember just wading through the classrooms. Funnily enough the swimming pool was under water," Mr Duff said. "Some thought this was the flooding that would close the school."

After a $200,000 rebuild the school reopened. It now has a roll of 45, with families attracted to its modern facilities.

"I've often thought the flood saved this school," Mr Duff said.

Mr Cook said that at times in the week after February 15 emergency management staff slept on the floor of the council building.

The army brought in water to Feilding and lost stock needed to be accounted for.

Contact with farmers cut off by the water took days and it was months before some people could go home.

"It took a long, long time for the water to go down," Mr Cook said. "There were new areas still flooding days after the initial event; water was finding its way down through the topography to places it had never been before."

Ms Vincent said for months, if not years, after the floods Feilding residents, including herself, suffered anxiety whenever it rained.

Rain on the roof used to be a soothing noise, she said.

"Whenever you did get significant rain or a number of days of rain, you'd hear the rain on the roof and feel uncomfortable."

Additional reporting by Zaryd Wilson

- Manawatu Standard

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