Tokomaru Bay: The town that keeps on flooding

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 April 2022
A section of the bridge in Tokomaru Bay has been wiped out by flood water, bisecting the town alongside State Highway 35

The State Highway 35 bridge in Tokomaru Bay was badly damaged in recent flooding Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The tiny East Coast township of Tokomaru Bay has been hit by three major floods in less than a year. As The Detail finds out, locals are getting pretty sick of the never-ending clean-up. 

On the sunny deck of the Tokomaru Bay United Sports Club, locals chat about the state of the rugby field in front of them. 

There's a big game coming up between their team, Tokomaru Bay United, and their Ngāti Porou rivals, Ruatoria City. 

They're worried about the silt that washed down the rivers nearly a month ago, covering the field, the school next door, and many other parts of the town. 

They've just met to talk about the damage to their properties from three floods in nine months - their individual stories have been recorded and will help inform policy decisions on the future of the town and the coast.   

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The diggers of Tokomaru Bay Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

On this particular day in Tokomaru Bay, the sea is sparkling blue – but look closer and there are brown patches in the water where the rivers, still muddy from the storm, run into the sea. The surrounding hills are scarred by landslides and there are piles of debris and rubble. The bridge that was washed out by the storm has been patched up and there are orange cones dotted around the town. 

But the real shock comes on the 15 minute drive to Te Puia Springs. At one point along the road, an entire lane has collapsed and gone down the cliff into the river. Elsewhere, fences are still broken, debris lies along the roadside and the riverbanks are scoured by floodwaters. 

Back at the sports club, Lillian Te Hau-Ward – the local Civil Defence coordinator – is organising a hāngī for the volunteers who helped with the flooding. 

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Lillian Te Hau-Ward Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

"State Highway [35] is always a stinker for us," she says.   

"Any weather event, at least one Ngāti Porou community is cut off from the rest of the world. Four weeks ago we had the majority of the coast cut off." 

Te Hau-Ward blames under-investment in the State Highway, something made clear to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she visited after the storm. 

The government has promised $175,000 for flood recovery efforts in Tairāwhiti. It also announced up to $500,000 will be made available under the Enhanced Taskforce Green scheme to employ jobseekers to help with the clean-up. 

But locals feel the money isn't enough - Te Hau-Ward points out that it is not just homes and roads that were wrecked. 

Waima homeowner Alby Rickard says it will be years before the kaimoana that's been wiped out by the silt at his end of the bay recovers – if ever. In some parts of town, the storm-damaged water supply still doesn't work properly.  

Cara Lee Pewhairangi-Lawton's family home in Arthur Street is red-stickered. Her whānau was waiting for the Gisborne District Council report from the first flood in June last year when the second flood hit about a month ago, followed by another bout of bad weather. 

She and other residents are now awaiting a second report from the council on the state of the land and their homes before their insurance companies decide on a settlement and they can get on with their lives. 

That means her 84-year-old mother, who has dementia, and her sister haven't been able to move back home. 

Pewhairangi-Lawton says it's not just about fixing her home. 

"It's an assurance about fixing up the catchment areas. There are now catchment areas that we wouldn't think were catchment areas, now every culvert is a stream," she says. 

Paul Kennedy is the sports club's new barman - he and 13 others lost their jobs when Te Puka Tavern at the end of the bay in Waima was red-stickered.

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Paul Kennedy Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

"There's no-one on the coast who wasn't affected by this. Not a soul," he says.

Like others, Kennedy says the coast is paying for the under-investment in infrastructure and unsuitable land use. 

But locals say this isn't a pity party. They want things to be done differently, they want to work with authorities to find solutions. 

"We know our land, we know our sea, we know our rivers, come and talk to us and we'll be party to whatever the solutions are," Te Hau-Ward says. 

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