Anger and questions over Edgecumbe Flood as talk turns to legal action
With nothing but the clothes on their backs and heads full of questions, Edgecumbe are evacuees sit waiting for answers - and they are angry.
Some question why the stopbank wall collapsed, why water was not released from the Matahina Dam earlier and why did all the systems designed to protect their homes fail? Others wonder when their insurance will pay out. They are the lucky ones. Many didn't have insurance.
But all are asking who is responsible and who is liable.
Whakatane Council community board member Graeme Bourk planned to organise a community gathering to bring a class action lawsuit against whoever is found to be responsible.
"There are a lot of angry people here wanting answers," he said. "I'm glad they are on my side. I wouldn't want to go up against them."
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* Watch: a kayak across flooded Edgecumbe farmland
Bourk said if a class action were to go ahead, it would be done to help those without insurance to recover some of their belongings and rebuild their lives.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said. "There are people here who have lost everything. We're going to hold everyone to account."
By everyone, he means Trustpower, which owns the Matahina Dam, Pioneer Energy, which owns the Aniwhenua Dam, and the Whakatane Regional Council, which manages the stopbanks.
Bourk was at ground zero when the College St stopbank collapsed on Thursday. He believed a chain of errors built up.
"I was about 50 feet away when it [the stopbank collapse] happened," he said.
"Water was coming through the wall and underneath it. Its foundations had gone.
"A [regional council contractor] digger and a truck were there putting metal up against the foundations to bolster it. As soon as the digger moved the load up to the wall, the whole thing collapsed and two metres of water came flying in.
"They were just doing their job. But they [regional council] should have engineers there. It was an extreme situation to be in."
He felt the council failed to assess the seriousness of the situation and sought to put a Band-Aid solution on too-large a problem. Furthermore, cracks had been appearing in the stopbank wall for years and he believed it needed to be reinforced earlier.
Bourk said the last-minute effort to bolster the wall was just one part of a long chain of errors by council and the power company. If any one of those errors had not been made, the stopbank might not have collapsed, he said.
"Trustpower is saying there was nothing more than could be done, but that's nonsense," he said.
"The Aniwhenua Dam [another dam on the Rangitaiki River] was empty at the time of the flood. Why wasn't water put in there?"
The Aniwhenua Dam is operated by Pioneer Energy Ltd. CEO Fraser Jonker said the dam was undergoing maintenance at the time of the flood but operated under its flood management procedure once the weather worsened.
Jonker said the dam has very little storage facility.
"Even if we changed our flood procedure, which you should never do, at the time, I do not think it would have made a difference," he said.
"At this stage, as CEO, I am confident my people did the right thing."
Bourk adds that dam water should have been let flow out of Matahina Dam earlier, knowing the storm was coming, to help alleviate the pressure on the river and, failing that, intentionally breaching the stopbanks elsewhere, which might have saved the town. Also, regional council should have opened Reid's Canal, a floodwater system installed after the flood of 2004, earlier, to relieve pressure on the stopbank wall.
Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne said what happened in Edgecumbe was a "design failure" and the root causes of the flood will be investigated.
Bonne was able to answer some of the questions put by Bourk.
He said he was aware the Aniwhenua Dam was empty and he, too, questioned that when he was given a flyover of the flood zones. The answer was that it wouldn't have stopped the flood.
"It can't store much water," he said. "It's a very small dam."
When asked if the digger action could have contributed to the collapse of the stopbank wall, he only replied: "My understanding is they were reinforcing the wall."
Regarding Bourk's questions about the Matahina Dam, he said it was letting water out of the spill gates leading up to the flood, which lessened the impact of the flood. For more technical questions, he deferred to Bay of Plenty Regional Council flood manager Roger Waugh.
"The stopbank wall fell over quick and we still do not know why," Waugh said.
"The wall had been there for decades and went through the 2004 event. It was a foundation failure. We had seepage in parts underneath the wall. We do not know why this occurred."
Waugh said Trustpower and regional council, the controllers of the dam, had released the Matahina Dam to its lowest level leading up to the flood and said in doing so, reduced the impact of the flood by 100 cubic metres.
In a statement from Trustpower chief executive Vince Hawksworth, "As stated by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, the Matahina Dam was emptied in advance of the flood to provide as much storage capacity available.
"The storage available in the Matahina Dam, during a major flood event, is only a fraction of the total volume of water contained within the flood. Therefore, it is not possible to stop any significant flood event; rather, it is matter of using what storage is available to reduce downstream flows during the peak of the flood event – and this is what was achieved.
"The available storage was then utilised through the event to reduce peak outflows, reduce risk downstream particularly during hours of darkness, and to assist the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in their effort to manage the impacts of the event.
"This was an unprecedented weather event. Ex-cyclone Debbie rainfall levels were very high – on the Rangitāiki, sites logged between 200-300mm in 48 hours.
"If the storage in Matahina Dam had not been used, 20 per cent more water would have flowed down the river at the peak of the flood.
Waugh said the river was currently flowing at 400 cubic metres per second. At the peak of the event, it was 750 to 830 cubic metres per second.
"If we hadn't used the dam, we would have had over 900 cubic metres coming through," he said.
When the breach occurred, he estimates 100,000 litres a second were pouring into the town.
"We were here thinking of our plan to stop it," the council's regional works engineer Tony Dunlop said.
He sent the contractor out to organise it, went half a minute down the road, when he got the call it was breached.
The police had already begun asking people to self-evacuate. "They had minutes," Bonne said.
"It's the old story - if it had happened during the night, there would have been deaths."
Many of the evacuees, however, swap stories of the 2004 flooding and what was different about this flood and now. Fred Mansell said it was blind luck that saved the town in 2004, as a natural stopbank breached, which eased pressure off the town wall as water spilled into farmland. He, too, has questions.
"The river was about the same height, but then the wall held," he said. "They should have breached the river somewhere else to save the town."
Mansell said he was not aware of any upgrades to the wall since the 2004 event.
"The wall was seeping through but it held. The didn't do anything to fix it. They should have made it thicker or stronger somehow."
Waugh countered that by saying an intentional breach in the stopbank would not be good practice.
"If we were to do that, the flood would become uncontrollable," he said.
With public meetings being held with evacuees over the next few days, the residents hope they will be able to get some more concrete answers to their questions and hopefully identify anyone liable to bring the class action suit against.
For now, their immediate thoughts are getting back into their homes to discover how much damage the flood has caused.
"No one died," Bourk said. "But people are really affected and have lost pets. I think when people go back in and see what has happened, this town will start to boil over. It will be very emotional and people will want to know who is liable."