Faces of the flood

Last updated 09:00 15/02/2014
Kim Riley

COW 569: The black and white friesian that saved Kim Riley’s life is now memorialised in her picture books.

Bill Herlihy
CLIFF'S EDGE: Bill Herlihy stands on the site of his old Mahua Rd house, which was washed away by a raging Kiwitea Stream

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There was the house captured on camera as it was swept away by a raging stream. There was the stranded 13-year-old girl who clung desperately  to a tree as floodwaters enveloped her. There was the heroic cow who swam a farmer to safety and inspired a picture book. Chris Hyde takes a dip down memory lane with the reluctant headline makers of the 2004 Manawatu floods.

Bill Herlihy has lived by the Kiwitea Stream all his life but he doesn't call it the Kiwitea Stream. To do so would be underestimating what it is capable of. It's "the river" to him.

Bill looks down at it and slowly turns away from the flow, his deliberate movements wisened with age.

He is close to 50 metres back from today's trickle, standing on the imaginary line where the raging waters knifed though his land on the afternoon of February 16, 2004.

It is also the spot where his grandfather Patrick bought a house in the late 1920s.

As Bill and his brother Pat were ordered out of that same wooden house the last thing Bill did was lock the door. It couldn't keep the water out.

When it was finished the water had left a 20-foot-deep cliff where the house had been. Everything else was in a brown-water grave.

The only thing the brothers had reluctantly moved from the house was some important paper work.

All of Bill's tools, his memories, even his 120-year-old Bible went with the torrent.

In a story filled with symbolism, the Bible was found weeks later parked against a fence post about 15 kilometres downstream by the husband of Bill's second cousin.

"People always ask me why I didn't take the Bible," he says. "They forget that it was bloody wet outside. I would've taken plenty of things but I didn't want them to get damp."

To this day the Herlihy brothers' house can lay claim to being the image of the floods. Bill now laughs every time he sees its fall into the river replayed on the news.

With land now infilled, trees replanted and fences re-erected, there's hardly a sign that anything of magnitude ever happened.

A tiny remnant of a concrete path that led to the house pokes out beneath the summer grass. It's the trees on green-fingered Bill's land that are the best indication.

A cabbage tree which hung on to the cliff face is now thriving. Nectarine and pear trees that were on the edge are again producing sweet fruit. And a golden totara stands as a proud survivor. It and Bill have the same posture.

"I'm the last man standing," the 74-year-old says, beginning to walk back to his new, vegetation-surrounded kitset house that has been built an extra 50m back from the stream.

"This is the last piece of land we have in the family name. The last piece. And it just happens to be the roughest of everything we had."

On the night the house went into the river the Herlihys were in an evacuation centre in Feilding crowding around a single television to watch the news.

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There were so many people watching that Bill could not see the house fall into the river through the bodies. Gasps and groans. It was how everyone reacted.

When word spread, the help came thick and fast. Beds, linen, clothes.

But it took roughly six months to get even basic infrastructure back to the area. Opportunists took advantage of the lack of fences and dumped rubbish on Bill and Pat's land.

Slowly but surely everything fell together.

A new driveway in was metalled, a garage slowly built. By June 2009, the last boundary fence had been put up, the final tree had been planted, the last addition to the house made.

Eighteen months later Pat died, aged 78.

"He wanted to get back on the land so desperately that he worked until he was exhausted," Bill says. "One day everything was finished. There was nothing more for him to do."

Bill, too, will live and die by the river he loves. There's two things no-one can stop. Time and water. He's comfortable with that.

"We will get washed out again at some point whether we like it or not.

"You can't tell nature what to do.

"It might only be a little stream now but it looked like the Rangitikei River that day.

"There was never any question about returning, but I tell you what, you never get bored when it rains."

"Lucky"

Nicole Chapman's 13-year-old foot was stuck in the stirrup of her swept-away horse, her head bouncing around underwater as she fought to release herself.

Nicole's story is one heck of a tale, even if she is slightly reluctant to share it.

It starts on February 15, 2004, when the rains began to take hold and her family's Fitzherbert East Rd farm began to be swamped by the fast-moving Manawatu River.

The next afternoon, Nicole went out horse riding on the farm with an older woman.

They decided to attempt to make it across the floodwaters, to the other side of the farm.

If they could do it on horseback, they could prove their currently-stranded cows could also do it, Nicole thought.

In hindsight, it was not a smart decision.

Almost immediately she and her horse Sandy were upended by the current.

Nicole was dragged under with her, not knowing if she would ever reach the surface again.

The safety clip set her free.

"Lucky."

As her head breached the surface she found a branch in the way and clawed onto it. The branch had a stable tree attached to it.

"Lucky."

The other woman, who had gone in ahead of Nicole, was also swept onto the tree and they clung there together.

"I was laughing and joking, not realising the severity of what was happening," Nicole says.

Nicole's mother and father did.

Rachelle Chapman woke from her sleep. She heard the two of them calling out.

Chest-deep in water, she tried to get to them but felt herself being dragged off balance by the current.

Nicole's father, Mike Chapman, also tried to reach them on a tractor, but the water was too deep.

A fireman swimming out to her with a rope attached was eventually Nicole's saviour. She was brought onto dry ground and flown by helicopter to Palmerston North Hospital to check for hypothermia and shock.

"Lucky."

Ten years on Nicole says she learnt a lesson that day. Respect the water. Respect the power of nature.

Nicole stayed the night at her grandparents because there was no way back across the river.

Lying in bed, she struggled to sleep. There was a bizarre feeling she could not shake.

"It felt like I was still floating in the water all night."

Lucky.

Cow 569 is dead

She lies in an unmarked grave in a paddock at Kim Riley's Woodville lifestyle block.

A black and white friesian with a massive stomach and an even bigger heart, her swimming prowess continues to wow children the world over.

In November 2012, after a life spent producing 12 calves, thousands of litres of milk and one cracking good story, she took ill.

Cow 569 was 17.

"All good things come to an end," Kim says suppressing a tear.

Kim had spent close to an hour in the bloody, muddy backwaters of a heavily swollen Manawatu River in the early morning of February 16 when 569 performed her heroics.

"We had floated on the current down to where the Woodville motocross was held at the time and there were cows on the land. I thought I would try to get there.

"That was when 569 turned and I could see she was thinking the same thing.

"I put my arm over her neck and I could feel her heart absolutely pounding."

Cows are fantastic swimmers. They blow their stomach up to float, Kim says. And they have serious power in the doggy paddle.

Even so, as Kim's feet touched ground she couldn't believe it had worked.

"You know how you get so full of adrenaline that you just can't stand up. I turned to jelly."

Kim had only found herself in the flow in the first place because it was dark. She'd gone to check on the cows at 4am and found water where it had never been before.

"This area is a bit of a basin for Norsewood to the north, to Eketahuna in the south, and the way it rose around here, it poured out of the hills just like someone was running a bath."

The cows became spooked and began to run. Kim, concerned for their safety, followed them, trying to head them off.

"Then I realised I was floating. It was just suddenly that the ground was not there any more."

The group of cows surrounded her in the water, banging into her in their search for dry land. Her feet touched barbed wire fences below.

"It was really spooky being amongst them because I knew they wouldn't care about what happened to me."

Two picture books that she subsequently created in a deal with Random House turned 569 into an overnight hero.

But Kim doubts there was a lot of compassion in her actions. "She wasn't happy to see me. I was the last thing she needed."

Ten years later the Rileys are on the cusp of moving. A house in Top Grass Rd, closer to the farm, awaits them.

It means leaving 569 to the ages - swimming on only in print and memory.

"She was always number 569 to us, we never considered giving her another name, but she was more than a number. She was special."

Flood fame

Nicole Chapman, Bill Herlihy and Kim Riley. All three have reacted in different ways to the spotlight their flood stories have given them.

Nicole, now 23 and working at Sincere Pet Care, chooses to stay out of it.

Kim says she has been blessed by it - the opportunities it has given her and the good friends she's made as a result.

And then there's 74-year-old Bill who guffaws when asked about the attention, his whole face lighting up. "Everyone is a part of history whether they want to be or not.

"I've just gone with the flow of it. The neighbours, they probably think I'm a bloody skite.

"They'll be waking up and reading this and thinking, not him again - the bloody skite."

- Manawatu Standard

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