The November flood wreaked havoc in Napier, as locals and emergency services struggled to cope with widespread damage, power outages and landslides caused by one of the wettest days on record. Four months on, we speak to affected families still trying to put their lives back together and find out what’s being done to safeguard our neighbourhoods for the future.

Record rainfall

Around 4.30 pm on November 9, 2020, heavy rain began. Without warning, what started as an everyday event, quickly turned into a deluge of water that caused chaos across Napier. Residents were about to experience a volume of rainfall so rare, it was a one-in-120-year event. 

In Marewa, Amanda Patu was heading home from her job from a central city daycare, as the centre had closed early due to flooding. What followed was the single wettest hour on record for Napier, when 54mm of rain fell between 5 and 6pm. 

By the time Patu made it to her house in Barker Road, the water was already up to her knees. Her husband had also managed to get home and together with their three children, the couple watched in shock as flood waters entered their home, which backs onto Whitmore Park. 

“We were watching it rise against the glass bi-folding doors on the front of our house, and then it started to seep through… All of a sudden there was water everywhere,” says Patu. When she entered the house the rooms were flooded, and several low-down items were already too sodden with water to be saved. Every time a car went past the water would gush into the house in waves – some of the passengers were residents, but many were rubberneckers wanting to get a look at one of the worst-hit streets. 

Patu waded through her home, throwing things on the bed to keep them out of the water and started grabbing items to salvage while her children and dog took refuge on a couch in the living room. She made a beeline for her wedding dress, and then filled three large plastic boxes with special toys and clothes for the kids, and the family’s laptops.

Outside she heard an alarm sounding that indicated their sewage system had overflowed, so she knew the waist-high flood water around them was contaminated. Eleven weeks pregnant, Patu was concerned about the safety of her baby. “I thought right, we’ve got to get out of here”. 

Patu’s brother arrived in his four-wheel-drive to rescue her family, pets and her parents who live in the house in front of them. As their home was built on piles it wasn’t as badly affected, but the rain was still teeming down and Patu wanted to ensure they were moved somewhere safer. 

Kirsten Wise. Photo: Karl Wairama

A state of emergency

Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management (HBCDEM) was instrumental in coordinating the response to the flood – an event that took them by surprise, says group controller Ian Macdonald.

“It was something that was fairly random because the forecast wasn’t for that level of rain in Napier. You could say that’s climate change in action. It’s definitely become more common around the country that you get more of these very localised, sudden onset events, which no system is ever designed to cope with,” he says. 

Initially, the focus for Civil Defence was around situational awareness – working out what was happening and communicating with emergency services, so they could make fast, informed decisions. As the picture of the event grew clearer and emergency services reported receiving a high volume of weather-related callouts, Civil Defence activated their coordination centre in Hastings and called council staff in to help manage the response. They continued to receive intelligence from engineers and to monitor the weather forecast and how systems were coping. 

As the rain continued to hammer the city, Civil Defence urged people to stay at home and avoid driving where possible, advising people to self-evacuate to family and friends if they felt unsafe at home. 

By 5.30pm fire and emergency services didn’t have enough resources to deal with the number of calls coming in. Flooding was sweeping through many Napier streets, causing slips, power outages and damage to properties. 

Landslides on the hill were closely monitored, with teams working through the night to assess properties and assist with evacuations. More than 3,300 homes faced a night without power after safety concerns forced electricity company workers to stop repairs. 

A number of roads and early learning centres and schools were closed due to flooding. One of the worst hit, Henry Hill School in Onekawa, was flooded with waist-high water in six of its 12 classrooms. 

Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise declared a state of emergency in the city. 

Another home and lives destroyed

Across the city in Jervoistown, superannuitants Vanessa Moon and Bruce Staples’ semi-rural home suffered serious damage in the flood. Built in 1952 on a low concrete pad, theirs was the only house in the suburb that flooded, with water seeping in from underneath and contaminating everything it touched. 

The couple were out of town at the time, so learnt about the extent of the damage when they received a phone call from a neighbour. They arrived home the following day to a devastating sight. The water had affected floor coverings, skirtings and some internal walls, which had to be cut, leaving the house uninhabitable. Thankfully, they didn’t lose a lot of their contents. 

Following the flood, they self-evacuated to a neighbour’s caravan for two months and are now staying in a house nearby. Although hugely grateful their insurers acted quickly to fund their temporary accommodation, for rates relief from the council, and the ongoing support of their community, it has been extremely difficult. “This sort of experience is traumatic. It’s your home, it’s your sanctuary, it’s your safe place,” says Moon. 

The couple has been told they’ll have to wait until March, or later, for repairs to be carried out due to the level of demand on construction companies. 

Picking up the pieces

Patu and her family initially stayed in her brother’s lounge, before moving to a two-bedroom unit at council-owned accommodation, Kennedy Park Resort. Their insurance company is covering the accommodation cost. They are one of 46 families who remain displaced by the floods. 

It took a team of five people to empty Patu’s house – everything that had been touched by water had to be thrown away because of contamination. In total they have lost 95% of their belongings, along with two vehicles. Losing the vintage furniture belonging to her daughter, custom-made children’s clothing, and all of her children’s baby books was particularly painful, says Patu. She built the house with her brother 11 years ago and struggles with the reality it has been ripped away. “So much was taken away in one night.”

She and her husband have met with a rebuild team, who told them they would be lucky to be able to move back into their house by the end of April. Her baby is due soon after, at the beginning of May. 

The experience has changed their outlook, says Patu. “We’re just going to live minimally now and try to not have so much stuff. At the end of the day we’re all safe.”

For Moon and Staples, the past few months have been emotionally draining and hugely disruptive. The flood has particularly impacted Moon, who lives with chronic illness and anxiety, shaking her sense of security and safety. As the only house seriously affected in the suburb, the couple have also felt isolated in their experience. 

A lack of council management and maintenance to local water infrastructure contributed to the impact of the heavy rainfall, they say. Open ditches along the roadside in the area have been designed to act as a holding capacity for heavy rainfall. However, they haven’t been maintained for many years, says Staples. On top of this, many of the ditches have been filled in, leaving no drainage for rain, and leaving residents in a precarious position. 

“For Jervoistown they actually need to manage the water. They’ve failed to manage the stormwater here through a number of years of neglect,” says Staples. 

The couple want to see the council work more collaboratively with residents and communicate transparently about plans for the city’s water infrastructure. They’d like to see a full and open review of the floods that includes those personally affected and be informed of the council’s plans regarding maintenance. 

“What I need is the sense that the council is going to take climate change seriously, and especially in terms of these serious weather events”, adds Moon. 

Fixing our water supply

It’s difficult to prepare for an event like this, where you have no warning and particularly when it happens so fast, says Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise. 

Early on key staff were able to remotely watch pump stations around the city and monitor how they were coping with the volume of water. They could quickly see which ones were under pressure, including Marewa and Maraenui, and put plans in place to mitigate the pressure, such as using additional pumps, she says. 

The floods have reinforced the council’s plans, says Wise. “What it has highlighted for us is that the areas on our water network that we had already planned to do upgrades on, were the areas that were worst impacted,” she said. “It gave us confidence that what we’ve got planned with our infrastructure upgrades over the next ten years are definitely focusing on the right areas.”

The city’s most significant water issues in recent years have been around dirty water and chlorine being added to the water supply. Water quality and supply remain a top priority for council, says Wise. “That for me when I was elected, was a number one priority and staff have had very clear direction since I was elected that this is one of the areas that absolutely needs to be fixed as soon as it possibly can.” 

“Planning over the past year has focused on the whole water network to identify the areas that we need to focus on to deal with things like the rainfall event,” says Wise. However, she stresses no infrastructure could cope with a one-in-120-year event as the cost would be prohibitive. Under regulations the city is required to have infrastructure that can cope with between a one-in-10-year and a one-in-50-year-event, depending on the part of the water network. Our water network meets this standard, and on a day-to-day basis, it is delivering safe water and coping as it should, says Wise. 

Locals in low-lying areas that were badly affected by the flood can have confidence any future events wouldn’t have the same impact, after upgrade works are completed, says Wise. “That’s always our goal – to just continuously improve what we have.”

Looking to the future

A total of 242mm of rain fell in Napier in 24 hours to early 10 November – four times the amount usually seen in November – making it the second wettest day on record for the city. 

Emergency services reported receiving 350 weather related callouts. More than 130 homes were declared uninhabitable, and many businesses were also forced to evacuate from their premises. Incredibly, there were no significant injuries. 

More than forty families remain unable to return to their homes, waiting for construction work to be carried out. Given the industry is already stretched to capacity, it’s expected that many will be waiting at least six months. “It’s the perfect storm unfortunately,” says Wise. “We’ve tried to put in as much support as we possibly can, along with all the other government agencies, but it’s still not the same as being in your own home.”

Council’s priority remains helping affected individuals and families to get back to normal, and to their homes as quickly as possible, says Wise. “However, we do not have enough houses outside of the flooding area to do this. We must utilise all of our available housing, especially now as Napier is experiencing a significant housing shortfall.”

Flood mitigation is a “key consideration” of the District Plan, she says. Among the considerations are a requirement for all new developments and re-developments to incorporate stormwater management measures. “We are working on identifying the main ways water flows during rain events and ways to manage these flowpaths in future. We are also proposing to rezone the Lagoon Farm area to allow for stormwater storage in a flooding event.” 

The final cost of the floods is still being established, but it will be in the region of several million dollars, says Wise. The government gave $100,000 to the Mayoral Relief Fund to help people get back on their feet.

Henry Hill School was expected to stay closed for the rest of the term due to the extent of the damage, but thanks to huge support from the community and wider public, the school was able to reopen to students less than a week after the flood. 

Emergency services are currently going through a debrief of the event, and while there is always room for improvement, they were as well prepared as they could be for an event like this, says Macdonald. 

Dealing with the impact of the flood has been particularly difficult for the most vulnerable in our community and will continue to have an impact on society as a whole, says Macdonald. “The uncertainty that was generated around the event just created a lot of social and psychological issues.” 

Ensuring everybody has their basic needs for food, accommodation and housing met during normal times is key, says Macdonald. This increases resilience and improves people’s ability to cope when a disaster like this happens. 

Dr Kathleen Kozyniak

The rainfall that caused the November floods was initially believed to be a one-in-250-year-event, but it now looks closer to a one-in-120-year-event, says Hawke’s Bay Regional Council principal scientist air, Dr Kathleen Kozyniak. 

This is because scientists have since had time to confirm and analyse the measured rainfall, rather than just rely on records prior to the event. However, there is still uncertainty over “return periods”, as most of the rainfall took place within 12 hours and we don’t have the detailed hourly information for some historic events to provide context, says Kozyniak.

Defining the flood as a one-in-120-year-event is related to the “return period”. This is the estimated time interval between events of a similar size. Rather, this provides the probability of an event of that size occurring in any one year. For example, an event with a return period of 100 years has a 1% chance of occurring in any one year, or in the case of a return period of 120 years, it has a 0.8% chance of happening in any one year.

Global warming is undoubtedly having an effect on the frequency of sudden, extreme weather events like the recent deluge, says Kozyniak. “The return periods for events like the November storm are expected to shorten with the impacts of climate change. If we end up facing a rise in temperature of about 3°C then the return period of that sized storm could roughly halve to 50-60 years.”

Adding to the problem is the large number of low-lying areas in Hawke’s Bay, making the region susceptible to flooding, says Regional Council team leader engineering, Craig Goodier. Many areas of the Heretaunga Plains are barely above sea level, particularly in Napier where the bottom of drains are often below sea level and require pumping to remove water, says Goodier. “The pumps have been designed to cope with a certain amount of inflow. Due to flat ground and low sloping waterways, the water can only get to the pump stations as fast as gravity causes it to flow.”

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