The day it never stopped raining

Last updated 09:00 15/02/2014
This picture of the washed out Saddle Rd bridge

WASHOUT: This picture of the washed out Saddle Rd bridge was taken by Standard photographer Murray Wilson, who was sent up in a helicopter to capture the unfolding disaster on film.

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When the region awoke to an unfolding disaster on the morning of February 16, 2004, it marked the beginning of a dramatic day at the Manawatu Standard. Editor at the time Clive Lind recounts the race to cover one of the biggest news events in Manawatu history.

For the next few months, the Standard, with grand support from participating readers, covered little else but flooding and its aftermath - the damage, the heartbreak, including lost animals, the cost, tales of miracles, humour amidst tragedy and, in time, stories of bouncing back and recovery.

Even 10 years later, I can still recall the dull roar of rain falling all through that Sunday night and Monday morning on our Park Rd house in Palmerston North.

Sleep was fitful. A dramatic event was unfolding above. Daylight, and heading to work was like being let off a leash. Those torrents meant a big day was ahead. And we had all of two hours until our first deadline.

A few people had reached the Standard to prepare that day's newspaper, but some staff had already advised they were stranded.

News editor Jo Myers had made it in from Feilding having been forewarned by an early starting chief sub-editor Deb Sloan - the trip home with closed roads would take far longer.

A little later, chief reporter Jonathan MacKenzie lost the debate with his wife, Lorraine, over who would have the four-wheel-drive and set off from Feilding in the family Mini. He turned back to claim the larger vehicle when he saw the extent of the water in his path.

My first call as dawn broke was to an obliging helicopter company. Much has changed in the decade since, including the need for editors to fill out purchase orders and seek approvals for the likes of hiring helicopters. There was neither the need nor the inclination that morning.

Jonathan Cameron, the chief photographer, was heading to Marton where he was about to become stranded. Thus, my second call was to wake photographer Murray Wilson and get him to the airport.

Experience had told me years before that the best flood pictures came from helicopters and Murray struck the jackpot immediately when the chopper pilot flew him to the Saddle Rd near Ashhurst where we had heard a bridge was down.

Indeed, it was and, to illustrate the chaos nicely, a large truck was surrounded by surging brown water on an island of road just before a gap where there once had been a bridge.

One of the first acts of mercy in those devastating floods occurred when the stranded truck driver emerged from his cab to seek a lift back to Palmerston North courtesy of the Manawatu Standard.

Time was our enemy. Murray and the chopper flew back to the airport where I waited, collected an electronic card of pictures, and photographer and pilot flew on to Feilding.

Back in the office, where a helpful advertising production staffer retrieved our pictures from the card because no-one else knew how to, staff were collecting a mass of information of the damage unfolding and the prospects of worse to come.

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My next call was to our press crew in Petone. Our first edition deadline was 8.15am, the second about 9.30. It took two hours to get the paper from Petone to Palmerston North by road and some parts of that road were likely to be affected by flooding.

Bob Anderson was the patient head of the Petone printing plant and renowned for his ability to solve complex problems. He uttered not one word as, for several minutes, I machine-gunned him with details of what had happened, what the Standard would be doing, the great pictures and stories we were gathering and how we could achieve a magnificent outcome.

His response: "That's great, Clive, but we're going under too."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it's raining here too and we're going under."

Like Palmerston North and much of the lower North Island, it had been raining all night in Petone. Bob had five pumps working to get water out of the building but the dockwell was already unusable for loading trucks. And it was still raining.

We reached a stalemate of sorts. We'd keep working; they'd keeping working. We'd consult again as the first edition deadline neared.

What a comparatively small number of Standard journalists achieved in those few crammed hours before deadline remains my proudest achievement in journalism. The pictures, stories, headings, the thought behind the layout, and the volume of detail were outstanding.

But would what we saw on screen make it to print?

"I've got good news and bad news," the laconic Bob Anderson said when I called him back as our last page was ready to go. "What do you want first?"

"What's the bad news?"

"We've stopped pumping. We're surrounded by water so we're just pumping out water into water."

"What's the good news?"

"It's stopped raining."

Floodwaters around the plant never reached the point where the press was affected but that day's edition of the Standard was loaded on to trucks in the car park by forklift. They arrived back in Palmerston North just 20 minutes late and casual sales were up by 1100 copies.

For the next few months, the Standard, with grand support from participating readers, covered little else but flooding and its aftermath - the damage, the heartbreak, including lost animals, the cost, tales of miracles, humour amidst tragedy and, in time, stories of bouncing back and recovery.

Today we'd cover such an event similarly but differently. There'd be the same concentrated journalistic effort. But we'd shoot video, details would be online instantly, readers would be encouraged to send us their pictures or preferably video and the whole world could participate.

But the newspaper remains what remains in the hand, the tactile reminder and record of what happened, a snapshot of a day when something really important happened.

And, purchase order or no purchase order, approval or otherwise, we'd still get a helicopter if we wanted to cover it well.

Clive Lind was editor of the Manawatu Standard 2002-04.

- Manawatu Standard

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