In early-April 2017 the Eastern Bay of Plenty town of Edgecumbe and surrounding rural areas received a hammering from the remnants of Cyclone Debbie, with more than 180mm of rain falling in two days.
On April 6 flooding overwhelmed the area, forcing farms, orchards and rural homes under water and the Rangitaiki River to burst its banks and flow through Edgecumbe damaging more than 300 homes.
One year on, Coast and Country News has caught up with a farmer and an orchardist affected by the flooding and the man behind the rural response and recovery effort to see how people, their homes and livelihoods fare today and the lessons learned.
“There’s still two dairy farmers – one each in Edgecumbe and Taneatua – who are not back in their houses yet,” says Federated Farmers provincial president Darryl Jensen.
“They’re farming their properties and have accommodation nearby but are not back in their own homes.
“Then there’s various lifestylers who aren’t back in their properties yet either. Some have insurance issues they’re trying to sort out.”
Darryl, a dairy farmer at Paengaroa, led the rural response and recovery efforts after waking up on April 6 to find flooding at nearby Bells Rd in Papamoa.
Then a call came through saying the Rangitaiki River had breached it banks in Edgecumbe – and things escalated. There he began what would be a large-scale rural response and recovery mission.
Darryl first visited Allan Law, near Edgecumbe, who became his go-to person for local knowledge.
“When an adverse event happens the top priority during the initial response mode is human and animal welfare. So we addressed those.”
“Some farmers went into Edgecumbe to help people get on tractors and get out. Others had to look after themselves – when that breach happened a lot of farms went under water.”
The next need was helping farmers evacuate stock. The response team set up a drop-in hub at Wilson and Sandra James’ house and an 0800 number. So ‘Hotel James’ was our hub for the immediate response stage. From here they passed information onto agencies and businesses involved.
“In the first 24 hours we moved 3500 animals. During the first 48 hours almost 5500 animals were transported out of harm’s way. They went where they could – initially in the Bay of Plenty,” says Darryl.
“Originally, dairy farmers placed their stock on farms where they could still be milked thinking ‘in a fortnight’s time we’ll bring them back’ but that wasn’t feasible so the animals were dried off and sent away to winter grazing all over the North Island.”
Water on some farms took more than two weeks to recede, finally revealing dead pastures, silted rivers, flat fences, damaged yards, races, pumps, farm equipment – you name it, it was in ruin.
“It was unknown territory for us,” says Darryl, who says once floodwaters receded his team’s biggest task was getting farming materials into the area so farmers could rebuild their farming businesses.
“We called up Farmlands, Farm Source, Wrightsons etc to get as much product – most importantly grass seed and fertiliser – to the area as possible so farmers could resow grass, and also ensured helicopters, spreaders and top-dressing planes were ready to spread fertilisers.
The main route into Galatea was destroyed so they organised getting trucks in via an inland route.
“A continuing disruption was the big slip in the Waimana Gorge. To get into Waimana you had to go around Ohope and Nukuhou.”
Darryl says one of the worst affected rural areas was right next to Edgecumbe. “Then there were areas not in the media spotlight – Galatea, Taneatua, Ruatoki, Waimana – up valleys and roads and off the beaten track.
“They just boxed on as rural people do.”
Going from response mode to recovery was when it hit some farmers of what they had lost.
Darryl says a big challenge was keeping people’s mental wellbeing in check. “It’s easy to say now but in hindsight what farmers were trying to do was control the uncontrollable. Fixing the damage to their properties but it was out of their scope.
“If this event ever happens again – and I’m involved – we’ll focus on controlling what we can control. That can take the stress out of your life because you’re really pushing yourself to the limit trying to do what you can’t do.”
Those that coped well had surrounded themselves with help. “Stoic farmers who said: ‘I can look after myself’ ended up crashing and burning. That is where the Bay of Plenty Rural Support Trust came in.” A member from the team of facilitators would visit and help resolve the issues or problems at hand.
By spring – with the busy calving season approaching – some farmers were reaching breaking point from continuing working repairing their properties from April.
The BOP Rural Support Trust hired Northlander Ben Smith to relief-milk and carry out farm duties for those desperately in need of time out.
“Ben would milk the cows for a few days and give the farmer some respite to get out of the cowshed and off the farm for a few days.”
“We ran workshops, DairyNZ Rural Support Trust tried to help farmers cope. Pioneer brought ex-All Black John Kirwan to town to speak about depression. The Rural Support Trust got Doug Avery in to speak on his book and how he and his family coped farming in stressful times.”
A new normal
Today, Darryl says while most farms are back to normal – for many it is a ‘new normal’ because none will not be what they were pre-flood.
“The weather events and floodwaters have changed the dynamics. Out of rivers there is 100ha that has been lost, washed out to sea.”
For example in Galatea the whole dynamics of that river has changed, says Darryl. “Reinstating the Rangitaiki and Whirinaki rivers is a huge ongoing issue. Bay of Plenty Regional Council is trying to rectify that but as they say – there is a new normal for that river and we don’t know what it is yet.
“In some places it’s estimated up to 2m of silt has built up in riverbeds so the water level has changed between 1.5m and 2m – so it might not take so much rain now for that area to flood.”
Darryl says BOPRC had 550 work sites where work was needed on BOP rivers. By early-February 85 were completed.
“Some can be two-three days’ work while others require three weeks to a month. So they’ve prioritised jobs. Some farmers get frustrated seeing a digger working on a neighbouring farm and not theirs but when you explain the big picture, there are priority areas, and others will be fixed at a later stage.”
Darryl has also learnt people need to be aware of where they sit on the ladder of minor to major need in such an event – with response organisations such as Federated Farmers and councils having to deal with thousands of people and their welfare.
“An issue has been communication because many people don’t know where they fit on that chain [of need]. If you know you can make plans [for your recovery efforts].”
“And I think that applies to whether you live in town or on farms – because if you don’t know where you are you can’t make plans and that’s been one of the huge frustrations. And it’s been a big learning curve for all of us involved.”
In January and February minor weather events have caused ‘freshers’. “These are fresh flows of water – and because areas haven’t received any restoration work yet some farmers got flooded again, so it’s been an ongoing saga for them.
“And it is tough for them – so what we’re trying to do, along with the councils, is build resilience. So no matter what nature chucks at us we can bounce back. And get our farms going as quickly as we can.”
Darryl says the rural community is pushing for a structured Civil Defence plan too “because there is one but there isn’t so to speak of”.
“We’re trying to devise a rural Civil Defence Plan we can adopt – even iwi are taking this on board – they now have Marae Readiness Plans.
“We may have to connect with these plans because maraes are traditionally built in the safest places in communities, up high from flooding and adverse weather. Maybe that’s something we need to look at.”