22 Feb 2018

'Overwhelming' storm recovery begins in Riwaka

9:13 pm on 22 February 2018

Riwaka, the rural enclave in the shadow of the Takaka Hill near two large rivers, is used to flooding.

Frank Hickmott.

Frank Hickmott. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

But the severity of this week's deluge wrought by Cyclone Gita caught residents by surprise. Many just had time to grab their children and pets before fleeing to safety.

Those who were within reach of the rescue and welfare teams are now returning to the cost of the damage to houses and crops - and to start the long process of cleaning up.

At the same time it's all hands to the pump at the Civil Defence incident control point in Riwaka, where leader Jen Chaddock said many people remained distraught.

She said the area had been hit hard by flooding and landslides, and teams of Red Cross and Civil Defence workers from throughout the region - including from Marlborough - were now focused on going door to door.

"We've got building inspectors as well and we're doing priorty assessments today, to make sure we're working from house to house.

"We're prioritised areas that were the most damaged and then working through to those less damaged, but everyone's quite important as we work our way through the region."

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Jen Chaddock and Kyle Mulinder. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Over the hill in Marahau, which remains cut off by slips, things sound bad.

Kyle Mulinder was at the the control centre in Riwaka, trying to get help for his friends - Christchurch quake refugees who have tried making a new life here.

He said forestry logs had gone through their home, and lifestyle block. He said they were safe, as luckily they were outside at the time.

"Their animals are okay - we're one rabbit hutch down.

"But if anyone had been there inside...there are logs everywhere. It's just horrific."

Riwaka vegetable grower Frank Hickmott's family have farmed the area for a century.

He said flooding was part of working with the land here. The area's location below a mountain and near a large river make it flood-prone.

"In our case it's just the catchment here."

But cyclone Gita was different, he said.

"It was very quick this time, and very dirty with a lot of local slipping and sediment coming from that. Through our packing shed it was the depth of about a pallet."

Mr Hickmott said it was heartbreaking for apple growers about to harvest. Many had suffered worse damage than he had.

The flooding in the region as a whole, which grows a quarter of the country's apples, has been described as a big set back by industry group Apples and Pears Incorporated.

Down the road Katie and Pete Ferguson are busy sweeping a thick layer of mud from their yard. They have just returned home and said it was the worst flood in the eight years they have lived in Riwaka.

Katie and Pete Ferguson.

Katie and Pete Ferguson. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Mrs Ferguson said they did not have time to grab much before they were evacuated.

"It was really overwhelming to come home to this, and sad to see our property like this."

She said the community had rallied to help one another.

"It's so heart-warming, just even strangers popping in and dropping off morning teas or turning up with wheelbarrows. It was so beautiful."

The Fergusons left with their two kids and a dog, plus their neighbours' family - and their dog.

Mr Ferguson said the evacuation centre was not quite prepared for the number of animals that turned up.

Garry Alan.

Garry Alan. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Garry Alan, who was busy today pumping out his flooded home and yard, did not hesitate when he was told to leave.

"It happened really fast. There was just steady rain until about 4 o'clock and then it just poured out of the sky.

"By about half-past-five or six o'clock we were told to get out. We were happy to go as we could see it rising really fast, and the police were out the front telling us to go."

While people on ground in Riwaka work around the clock to clean up their properties, the sky above them is also busy - with aircraft heading to and from flood damaged Golden Bay.

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