Watching as your life washes away

Elizabeth Gerrard was hanging out the washing just hours before the floods came.

She was well aware of flooding elsewhere in Invercargill but after all that rain, January 27 had turned out to be a bright sunny day. Life went on. Her husband Bevan was at work and she, a stay-at-home mum with a 16-month-old baby, had plenty of washing to catch up on.

Then the Waihopai burst through, sending water teeming towards their Tanner St home. Word came to evacuate.

In that moment, though, she realised she wasn't exactly sure what evacuating entailed: Just high-tail it, or was there time to grab one or two things?

"I put things on the couch and Alice's toys inside her cot."

Then they were out the door, taking nothing with them. As she closed the door on the family's modest-enough first home, Elizabeth's concerns were real but not all that dramatic.

"I thought the water would come up to the door and might even come in the doorway. The floor might get wet."

Mother and child headed to the evacuation centre at Collingwood School. A former workmate at Sacred Heart school kindly offered to put the family up.

The emergency accommodation was high, dry and also on Tanner St. The evacuees spent that night on the same street as their now-traumatised home. So near and yet so far.

The very next day they took Alice to live with Bevan's grandparents in Winton. For the next month Elizabeth and Bevan slept on a mattress on their host's lounge floor.

The week after the flood, on a Thursday, the people of the neighbourhood were allowed back en masse to clean up a house inundated up to the windows. They watched part of their lives disappear down the street.

`You dumped everything outside in front and big trucks came along came and carted it away."

At least they didn't feel unsupported. "All these people just turned up to help. We didn't ask them. They just came."

The challenges were different. Cleaning out the freezer was unpleasant for one reason; ditching Alice's toys for another. Out went a doll Elizabeth had handed down to her daughter; a gift from her own mother.

The couple lugged their piano out the front door, though in its waterlogged and not entirely borer-free state when they set it down outside with a whump it imploded like a dropped 3D jigsaw.

"I didn't realise," says Elizabeth, "that a piano was made up of quite so many little pieces. Hundreds of them. Little, little pieces."

Their reaction? It could have gone either way, but they laughed.

The carnage in their garage included materials for doing up the bathroom. That was going to be their next household project, having finished the kitchen.

Projects change. Sometimes they expand. But though the Gerrards were up for confronting the new challenge, their willingness to take on the job was paralysed by an officialdom that they came to regard as "They".

"Once you cleared out all the junk you couldn't do anything until They said."

Elizabeth would go down to the house even though there wasn't much she could do.

"I did whatever I could. I remember pulling nails out of the walls."

Little uplifts arrived, from time to time. Their wedding album had been sandwiched, tightly, between other items in the drawer of their china cabinet. Turns out it was wedged tight enough, compact enough to provide some protection, even though it was under the water line. It was handed back to them unspoilt after a friend had quietly taken it away and laid each page to dry out on a woolshed floor.

So they stayed with their hosts at the high end of their street; their gratitude mixed with an ache to have their lives restored.

"I remember lying there once, crying, and thinking: `I want my hooome'."

After about four weeks Elizabeth had her wee family back together again, at their own place.

Well, beside it anyway, in a converted old bus. The Gerrards were allowed to live on-site once the ravaged house was able to provide toilet facilities and running water.

If you wanted to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, you had to be intrepid, and their new bathroom door was a sheet of plastic. High demand had made new doors hard to come by.

On the plus side, it was all good exercise.

"Everything you did seemed to mean stepping up and down the steps of the bus."

The so-near-and-yet-so-far feeling was particularly acute living next to their home, but at least with Alice returned "we were back to being our wee family again".

Even in their cramped environs, they decided to get a caged bird. After a moment's thought Elizabeth recalls: "I think it must have been for Alice."

Easy it wasn't not for anyone.

But the toddler coped well with her new confinement and the Gerrards did what work they could, themselves.

Their insurance was OK, and community support did matter. Plenty of it was from friends, or friends of friends, or strangers.

"People just came and left things.

"Someone left a bag of toys for Alice at the door."

Another time, after a nationwide appeal, they were called down to "a warehouse full of toys you could get whatever you wanted from these masses and masses of toys. "Each one had been somebody's loved toy."

And Invercargill had developed elves. Inscrutably, items would vanish and reappear, nicely fixed up or tidied up.

Their television was among the more unexpected survivors.

It was second-hand, but colour, and a good enough set for its day too good to write off unnecessarily.

"Bevan's father took it away, hosed it out and left it to dry. It went for another couple of years. And then it didn't go.

"We took it to the shop and they said: `it's full of rust'."

In what was the first of several visits, a man with a moisture detector came and stuck his pointy probe into their wood.

Still too damp, he'd say.

But eventually the home was ready for repair and in June 1984 the Gerrards made the short but fabulous migration from their bus to their restored home. Not just restored. Improved.

A television crew had earlier filmed the Tanner St bus family, and just before the documentary was scheduled to air a staffer called for an update.

Elizabeth was still luxuriating. "There's the carpet ... new bathroom ... actual rooms ... It's wonderful," she told them.

"It's like living in a hotel or motel,"

Actually it was better. It was like living in a home. Turns out that's no small thing.

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