Still no home sweet home

Shirley Reti in her flood-damaged home in Waikare Valley, east of Kawakawa. Photo / Peter de Graaf

More than 11 weeks after the July flood swept through their property, Joe and Shirley Reti still can’t go home, and they have no idea when they’ll be able to.

Every day they travel from a backpackers’ hostel to their flood-damaged Waikare Valley home, east of Kawakawa, to feed their animals and continue the clean-up. Then, before evening falls, they head back to their temporary accommodation.

Shirley, 63, says she’s reached the end of her tether.

”We’re over it. In the last week I hit rock bottom. Everything hinges on the process. We’ve just got to be patient.”

Their drama began on July 15, in the first bout of heavy rain to hit Northland. Floodwater rushing down the Waikare River filled their garage and outbuildings to a metre deep, but stopped just short of entering the house.

Their son had just finished waterblasting the silt away when, on July 18, water was lapping at their top step again.

Joe, 67, was moving a tractor to higher ground across the Waikare Valley Rd bridge when he heard a mighty roar in the distance.

”It was like a tsunami of water, trees, debris, rubbish, whatever it picked up along the way. It came over our stopbank. I told Angel (a neighbour’s daughter), ‘Get your gumboots on, the water’s coming in the house’.”

The Retis had already lifted their appliances in the shed and washhouse, but the water rose higher. Inside the house floodwater soaked the beds, wrecked the fridge and freezer, warped furniture, blew up the TV and cut the phone line.

Once the water dropped Joe spent three days cutting out the carpet, while good Samaritan Andy Murdoch brought his tractor from Kerikeri to clear debris and fill holes in the driveway.

The Retis also had visits from Civil Defence, regional and district councils, the Earthquake Commission and an insurance assessor, who told them the house wasn’t liveable. Since then they’ve been staying down the valley in temporary digs.

”It’s a nice place but we need to come home,” Shirley said.

Builders have removed water-damaged internal walls, and for six days commercial cleaners packed up their remaining belongings. Now they’re waiting for the insurance report to be finalised before repair work can go out to tender.

Access is one of the problems holding up the Retis’ return.

Usually they reach their home by driving across a ford, but until a week ago the river was still too high. The only other access is via a rickety bridge over a stream.

The builders have been using it, carefully, but heavy vehicles can’t, so the property’s septic tanks still haven’t been pumped out.

The bridge is used by another five households when the river is too high to ford.

The bridge is on private property, so it’s not the Far North District Council’s responsibility; a quote from a bridge-building firm to fix it was $190,000, far more than the Retis can afford.

The ford, which had shifted and deepened in the flood, is also outside the district council’s jurisdiction, while a regional council staffer told Shirley they didn’t have machinery or money to fix it.

”It’s paradise here normally,” Shirley said.

”We just don’t want to go through these 500-year events too often.”

Similar issues are playing out at other homes along the valley.

Just upstream, Karen Herbert’s mokopuna used to get to kohanga reo by crossing a sturdy swingbridge when the ford was too deep, but it was smashed to kindling by a monster log. Only in the past fortnight has the river dropped enough so the Herberts can drive across.

Next door, Phillipa Reti and husband Dean were luckier. Their home was raised 2.5m on stilts after devastating floods in 2007 and 2009, with help from Habitat for Humanity and various agencies. Even so the water rose to within a metre of the floorboards.

Phillipa was rescued by a neighbour with a tractor after getting stuck down the valley. She moved two cars to higher ground, but they were still flooded. Their home escaped unscathed, but the property was buried deep in logs and debris. A sleepout and an outside kitchen were flooded, and their pig was last seen swimming down the Waikare River.

With help from Civil Defence and Andy Murdoch, and a lot of effort on her part, the property is almost back to its normal meticulous state.

”She was a mess, but we’re slowly getting there.”

Far North District councillor Kelly Stratford, who has visited the affected properties, said some residents had been able to make use of a Civil Defence emergency fund.

”Unfortunately, in cases where a washed-out access way is on private property, there’s nothing the council can do,” she said however.

Instead, she was advocating to other agencies on the residents’ behalf and raising awareness of the issue.

With climate change expected to make floods more frequent, Shirley and Joe Reti have been advised to raise their stopbank and their house. Insurance will cover the cost of repairs but not raising the house.