Coromandel after the storm

UNHEARD OF: Theodora Ward's is a fourth generation farmer. She hasn't heard of a such a monstrous storm.
UNHEARD OF: Theodora Ward's is a fourth generation farmer. She hasn't heard of a such a monstrous storm.

You don't get far along Port Jackson Road before the single orange cone and ROAD CLOSED sign. Beyond that, it's wild.

On a good day, the winding, gravelly trip north is an angry hustler trying to eat you up. Every corner is a swear word. Fingers thick to the steering wheel, holding breath, sweating and blinkless, till you arrive at a view that's worthy of the wrestle it took to reach it. 

The storm has changed all that. The roads are deranged with trucks and diggers and debris and you are certain of imminent death. It's sociopathic. You imagine some truck meeting your car on the trickiest corner and getting swallowed up by green hills. ''Screw it,'' you think. And on you go.  

Ryan Fergusson from Waikato Regional Council says the priority is to get streams back on their original courses.
Ryan Fergusson from Waikato Regional Council says the priority is to get streams back on their original courses.

In summer months, thousands from the cities trip to the Coromandel to pitch tents and holiday. In winter, you could head out that way and see no one at all. Now, construction workers in high vis vests, knee deep in mud, having worked six days a week since the storm hit,  will keep you company as you make your way north.  

''It's greeeeasy conditions, mate,'' says a man with an orange vest and a mullet.

''She's pretty devastating, all right. It used to be all beautiful green paddocks and blue sea - now it's all mud and logs and shit.''

The beach looks like a perfect smile with broken teeth. Logs everywhere. It's a mess. The people up these ways are head-down-get-on-with-it types, who aren't used to asking for help, but they need it now. Some say the council took its sweet time making its way to the northern parts of the Coromandel post storm. The mayor of Thames-Coromandel says he didn't know the extent of the damage when he made his early statements to the media. 

The mayor doesn't talk, he shouts.

''They are isolated up there, let's be honest,'' he shouts.

''How many times have you been north of Colville?'' he shouts.

''What happened up there was freakish! Absolutely freakish! There are no two ways about that,'' he shouts. And he goes on to shout that staff were up there within 12 hours, ''as soon as it was daylight!''

Cath Ward says they came moaning and whinging. She lives as far down Port Jackson Road as you can go. It looks like heaven might. It's the sort of place where you stop and breathe and feel silly about modern living. She lives in an old house with her husband, Zander, and their three kids, who are homeschooled out the back.

''Look!'' says the little girl, and she jumps up from her desk to show a spot on the floor that's been damaged by the flood. 

Water ran right through the schoolroom that night.

They had no warning the storm was coming, ''apart from our cat didn't want to go out at night and she usually does,'' says the little girl.    

That night they heard wind and rain, but that's common enough out those ways. Then they opened the door and saw water glinting in the moonlight where it shouldn't have been. They went to bed.

''In the morning we went to have a look and the floodwaters had come all down the main road,'' says Cath. ''We couldn't get past our letter box, water was all through the paddocks. We get our fair share of floods, but it's usually just water and this time it was rocks and logs.

''Within two hours, five generations' worth of work was gone.'' 

She stops and laughs. 

''Well, not quite, but you know. The farmers have spent months building things and they are gone in two hours and that's pretty gutting.''

The Ward family owns great stretches of land along Port Jackson Road: thousands of acres. There are several of them working different parts of it. That night a creek diverted through a cat door in one of their houses and trashed so much infrastructure it was like coming home to find your teenage kids have held the party of the year. Cath Ward's neighbour has lived in Port Jackson for 60 odd years and has never seen the like. Theodora Ward is 68 and fourth generation on the family farm and she hasn't heard of a such a monstrous storm. She's out on the farm today and has been working till dark every day since June 10. She looks deeply tired. She leans back on the Waikato Regional Council truck she's been riding in with a young male employee, surveying damage. 

The main priority, says the nice young man from Waikato Regional Council, is getting the streams back on their original courses and taking care of any major blockages and obstructions. The rest will take years to fix. 

On the night of the storm, Theodora Ward lay in bed, listening. She didn't want to get up the next day to see the damage to the land she's nurtured her whole life. She describes what happened: ''Huge trees and rocks hurtled down into the creeks, created dams, the water just backed up behind those dams and it had to go somewhere, so it bolted down and took everything in its track.'' An older man up that way was trapped in his house as it was flung around and half of it ended up on the beach. He tried to ring 111, but got beep all. 

''He was badly shaken.'' 

Now his house is strewn all over the beach and it's over 100 years old, so all the precious kauri and rimu is being hurled on to utes by opportunists with an appetite for windy roads and nothing better to do.

''People get their pleasures in different ways,'' says Theodora.

Last Friday, one of the few remaining fences was cut and a cow was stolen. And construction trucks were smashed and chains and batteries and toolboxes were taken. Residents like to refer to the thief  as The Low Life. Or Scumbag. 

''It's despicable!'' shouts the mayor. 

''It's very hard to get in there and very hard to get out, so I would be very surprised if the local people did not know who took that stuff.'' 

No one will say who they think it is, but they all seem to have a pretty good idea. ''Rumours are flying,'' says Cath Ward. Someone says if the police do nothing the community will take it into their own hands. These places have a certain code.  

Now that the shock of the storm has worn off and people are hard at work, it is what it is. They work on their farms to a soundtrack of construction workers and hearing these strangers busy on  trucks and diggers and tractors in their high vis vests, knee deep in mud, helps. They've always been living in isolation and in some ways that's never been more evident than in battling through this storm. 

''I suppose there has been so much flooding in recent times, it's just another flood to the rest of the country, isn't it?'' says Theodora. ''Until it affects people personally, I think it really is just news on the news.'' 

The mayor says half a million dollars has been pulled from the emergency fund. He wants to be left alone to get on with it.

''You can't keep going on about this,'' he shouts.

''When is a story not a story?''

But the residents want their stories told. 

''At first we felt very neglected, and therefore you feel isolated,'' says Cath Ward. ''But if people know about it, then all the people who have an affiliation with the area are more likely to come up and help. But if no one knows about it, you don't get that assistance.''

Over in Sandy Bay, it's mostly cleaned up, but houses that were once full of furniture sit empty. Lee and Raewyn Hitchens make up half the permanent population of this stretch of land and they've lived in their spot for 20 odd years. They tell the story of the storm like they've told it many times over. The phone rings again and again. They seem like an information hub. There is an album dedicated to storm photos on the computer in their dining room. Their campervan is ''haddit'' thanks to the storm. Downstairs, parts of the wall have been chopped from the bottom.

They got no sleep that night. At 3am, Raewyn made a cup of tea. Someone came over and wondered about calling Civil Defence. ''What would they have done?'' says Raewyn, and she laughs. They are used to being forgotten in Sandy Bay. Raewyn has written to the local paper about it. 

''It's bit like...I'm trying to think,'' says Lee, ''where we went for the jazz...'' 

''New Orleans,'' says Raewyn. 

''But we're still not as badly off as people in Christchurch.'' They tut. The phone rings.

Raewyn comes back to say on the night of the storm, everything stopped suddenly around 3am.

''I've told her that,'' says Lee.

He had said it a few minutes earlier.

 ''It just stopped. No wind. No rain. I looked up. The moon was out. The stars were out. It was unbelievable.'' 

Waikato Times