Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Finding yourself downstream of a dam-burst

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With the water rising fast, it was time for Chris Ward’s house guest to remember how to swim.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

When Chris Ward saw that the heifer trapped in the hallway blocking their escape was now desperately thrashing around as it drowned, he decided it was time he and his house guest, Julie, got out of the house. 

They were crouching on the supertub in the laundry with water up to their necks and only a foot of headroom to the ceiling. Chris broke the window, the dog bolted out and was swept away with the current, then Julie and Chris followed.

Chris’s house is on Dartmoor Road beside the Tutaekuri River, two minutes’ drive from the iconic Puketapu Hotel in Hawke’s Bay.

He had retired from sheep and beef farming to this idyllic horticultural and lifestyle community 20 minutes from Napier.

Cyclone Gabrielle had brought heavy rain all night into the early hours of February 14 2023.

Chris was woken by the unusual sound of the toilet bubbling, and he looked out in the dark to see that there was water around the house.

He went out to get his hunterway Bucko from his kennel and by the time he got to him, the water was up to the dog’s neck.

He put the dog onto a couch on the deck and went back inside to wake Julie, then started putting items onto tables and benches.

He saw the couch floating off the deck with the dog and went back into the water while it was still dark and retrieved him.

The water was coming up very quickly and Chris realised that the river must have breached. 

He went back outside and was able to throw the two fox terriers and cat up onto the roof.

Back in the house he procrastinated for several minutes as he knew that during Bola water hadn’t flowed through the house.

He was waiting to see if it would begin to drop. 

There was so much silt in the water that the doors in the house became impossible to open or shut.

The water was pouring in through the cat flap. The pressure finally broke the ranchslider when it was halfway up and the level inside the house began rising rapidly.

Suddenly it was at chest height, and not long later at neck height.

It was still only 30 minutes since he had woken.

Dawn was breaking and they saw cattle being swept past the house in the flood.

One managed to find its footing on the raised gardens and climbed the house steps and came through the back door into the hallway, which Chris and Julie had already eyed as their escape route.

The 300kg heifer jammed in the hallway then began panicking as the water level rose.

They could hear Julie’s horses drowning in the nearby shed.

Chris was able to reach a meat cleaver in a cupboard and smashed the window.

Bucko swam straight out and was carried off. He turned up the following day “clean as a whistle”.

Chris yelled to Julie to ask if she could swim.

“Not for years,” she said.

“You’d better remember quick,” he told her.

 They now had to go under the water to get out the window. They both got mouthfuls of water – “It was like a spoonful of sand,” said Chris.

Outside he got her to climb onto his shoulders and onto the roof.

By the time it was his turn to get on the roof, the water had risen so rapidly, he was floating at gutter height and just slid onto it.

So there they were with two fox terriers and a cat on the ridgeline surrounded by a large, fast-flowing river. Chris noticed the cockroaches pouring out from under the garage roofing iron to take their chances in the current.

The water started moving up the roof and large trees were being swept past.

Then just as fast as it came up it started to go down.

He was to learn later that a dam had burst further upstream in the Mangaone River above the Puketitiri Bridge, which, like the Puketapu Bridge below them, was swept away in the deluge.

Chris got off the roof when the water was back to chest height and managed to find a ladder. He helped Julie and the animals off the roof.

They had to stay on the platform of the house because the mud and silt was like quicksand and impossible to get through without getting stuck.

Helicopters went over them throughout the day but without landing. Chris discovered the header tank in the ceiling still had some clean water in it and that evening was able to find uncontaminated sealed food in the water-filled deep freeze, which he heated over the resurrected BBQ with one burner still operating.

It was a surreal experience as they ate their dinner of bacon and eggs while gazing at the destruction around them.

That night was a grim experience as they attempted to sleep on wet couches with wet bedding. They were cold, filthy, and plagued by mosquitoes, along with headaches from lack of fluids.

Early next morning a helicopter from Dunedin signalled for them to move to an area where it could land but they both got stuck in the process.

Chris finally managed to extract himself by making like a starfish on the surface of the mud but the rescuer from the helicopter also became stuck when he got to Julie.

The helicopter hovered above those two and lowered a cable and eventually all three of them were extracted and delivered to Scott and Jenny Wedd’s home on a hill. They had no electricity or water and a lot of people to care for. 

Some hours later another chopper came for six of them and evacuated them, along with several dogs, to Hastings.

A few days later Chris met up with good Samaritan Vance Mackie, who dug his way with his digger to the house and with great difficulty extracted the dead heifer from the hallway.

Chris for now lives in a caravan park in Hastings and travels to his property as he puts it and his life back together.

The house is a write-off.

In Focus podcast | 9 February

This month marks one year since Cyclone Gabrielle ripped through the eastern North island. Farmers, growers and communities faced a massive recovery as they worked to rebuild infrastructure, supply chains and get the land back into productive shape.

For this week’s show, Bryan sits down with Rod Vowles, who farms just east of Waipawa a few kilometres from the Tukituki River. His story of survival is astonishing.

Then, Karen Morrish from Apples and Pears NZ to see how Hawke’s Bay growers are faring as the harvest gets under way.

And, Federated Farmers national board member Sandra Faulkner shares how Tairāwhiti farmers are getting on up the coast.

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