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Rebuilding flood-stricken Edgecumbe with the Ngāti Awa Volunteer Army

The flooding of the Rangitaiki River left devastation for residents of the small Bay of Plenty town Edgecumbe. To help with the recovery effort local iwi Ngāti Awa put out a call for volunteers. People from across the district and the country answered. Jason Renes joined them 

Your shoulders start to get tight after a couple of hours shovelling mud. Add this to the ache developing in your forearms and the stiffness in your back when you straighten up, and lifting each heaped shovel becomes a little harder. You make it happen, though, and throw the mud into a full wheelbarrow. It’s lugged away by someone dressed similarly in gumboots and white coveralls made of a thin but durable vinyl. They have the hood of their coveralls up over their head despite the fact the suit traps the heat inside. For that worker, the risk of contamination out-weighs any sweaty discomfort.

They have to push the barrow over the section of back yard you haven’t cleared yet, the half that is still smothered by muck. They slip and the heavy load almost tips to the side, but the worker regains balance and pushes on. The silt and mud you’ve been digging into is about five inches thick. Luckily the sediments have compacted, making it easier to slice a spade blade beneath the layer and lift it up off the grass. It’s the amount left to do that is striking. Sure this back yard is carpeted by silt, but so is the front yard and the drive-way. So are all the yards and drive-ways of this entire street and most of the other streets in Edgecumbe.

You take a break and open the zip of your coveralls so you can vent. The work clothes underneath are drenched with sweat. These dark patches are cool when they touch the skin. There are a handful of other workers shovelling the same yard. They are all volunteers. They don’t try to be busy while the barrow is emptied. They take a break, too. There is plenty to shovel and it isn’t a race to get it all done. The clean up will actually take months, not days and certainly not hours. Better to do it properly without burning out or hurting yourself.

The empty wheelbarrow returns. You close up the coveralls, cut the spade into the mud and scoop up another heap. Toss it into the barrow.

This is Puriri Crescent in Edgecumbe. Nine days after the Rangitaiki River flooded the town.

What remains of the Tui Adventure Playground. This tree was either pushed over by the flood or weakened by it before being toppled by Cyclone Cook a week later. Photo: Jason Renes

On the morning of April 6, after days of torrential rain, the river was swollen. In fact it was charging hard after water had been released earlier from the Matahina Dam, about 20 kilometres upstream of the township. There is a stopbank for the river, as it carves its way through the community. And running along the top of the stopbank is a wall made of concrete dividers. These contingencies were ineffectual, however. And as locals will tell you, the wall has always been no more than a futile measure. Decorative, but not functional. That was proved when it broke in the last flood back in 2004.

For this latest event, the Rangitaiki rose over the stopbank and began to seep through the wall. A flood was imminent and so the evacuation call was made. Within 15 minutes of the call the concrete wall broke and a wave of swampy brown water washed through the town. All residents of Edgecumbe, just under 1700 people, had to leave with little more than the clothes on their backs.

After the water was pumped away, the recovery began. Edgecumbe residents returned to their homes to take stock of the damage. They were left with sodden carpets and water logged chipboard floors that broke easily when stepped on. Battered furniture that had been shunted about as flood waters surged through rooms and hallways. Fences and trees had been pushed over by the same torrent. The water line was about naval height and everything, the houses, the roads the surviving shrubs and trees, was coated in a hazel dust. The residue left behind by the water. It smelled like a cow shed out on the street because plenty of sewerage had flowed with the flood. While inside houses, a pall of mildew hung over everything.

The majority of people’s possessions were unsalvageable after flood waters ran through their homes. Photo: Jason Renes

Foreseeing there would be a dire need for helpers to tackle the mess, Te Runanga o Ngāti Awa struck up a collaboration with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Whakatane District Council. They put out the call for volunteers to register and show their aroha for Edgecumbe by mucking in. People from far and wide showed up. And of course, there was a strong backbone of Rangitaiki Plains people, from Whakatane to Te Teko to Kawerau. Locals helping out locals.

They call themselves NAVA, the Ngāti Awa Volunteer Army. The initiative came about after a couple of response meetings at the emergency operations centre in Whakatane.

Wini Geddes attended those meetings. She is Ngāti Awa from Te Teko. Geddes did not suffer as many of those in Edgecumbe did. However, as far as she was concerned those who were affected were her whānau.

“Our concern was for our whānau. Then all the marae opened up, as well as different evacuation centres. Relief started coming in quite early. It was a really good response, community wise.

“But up in that room where all the decisions were made there were no Māori. No Māori presence. But the bulk of people affected were our people.”

Ngāti Awa eventually got a seat at the table but the focus was still response and no planning had yet been made for the recovery.

‘The best people to be in the recovery area is our own,” says Geddes.

“So our runanga worked out how we were going to collaborate and look after our people. I went home that night, drafted up a recovery plan. And it was going to be from our perspective, from a Māori perspective. We needed our whānau to be safe, as well as our volunteers who are also whānau and also affected. And we just worked out a flow chart of how this whole army was going to work. Then somebody said “The Ngāti Awa Volunteer Army”. So we took it – NAVA.”

Wini Geddes (standing) directs operations at the NAVA recovery centre at Ruaihona Marae, Te Teko. Photo: Jason Renes

NAVA’s base of operations is Ruaihona Marae in Te Teko. A recovery centre was set up in the wharekai where Site Managers and Team Leaders hold briefings every morning. Through their Facebook page NAVA have direct contact with affected Edgecumbe residents, and communications are also maintained with Māori Wardens and Team Leaders on the streets.

The focus of NAVA is manaakitanga: care, respect and support for those who need it most. It’s not just about hauling the garbage onto the street for the trucks to take away. The damaged yards, houses and furniture represent people’s lives. Their histories and the futures they were trying to build for themselves. They discard their possessions not because they want too, but because they are forced too.

Hinerangi Eruera-Murphy is an Edgecumbe resident and also a Site Manager for NAVA. Her two storey house is on Puriri Crescent. She wasn’t at home when the flood came but Eruera-Murphy said when it did, her neighbour, who she was in phone contact with during the event, was forced to climb onto the upper balcony of her house, along with another neighbour who had a baby. Eruera-Murphy’s balcony was their safety.

When discussing NAVA’s approach to recovery she re-iterates: “Through the whole purpose it’s about manaakitanga.

“Our kaupapa really is to check first with the owner with regard to being there. [Get] permission. It is a bit of organised chaos. But we’re fortunate to have people running on the ground as site managers who have also been affected. So what it does for our people out there is that the experience is about somebody they know coming in and saying, ‘Hey, here we are. We can help you.'”

For Eruera-Murphy it is “part of my healing, of my journey through this. Even though my whānau have been dramatically affected by the floods it’s also giving me strength and a healing process.”


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