In the autumn of 2017, a succession of record-breaking weather systems tore up and down New Zealand. Each seemed to be heralded as a once-in-a-century event. The Bay of Plenty was hit hard, battered by one freakish storm after another. Long-time residents of the small town of Edgecumbe, 15km west of Whakatane, said they’d never seen the Rangitaiki River running so high. The tight-knit riverside community had already weathered its fair share of natural disasters, including the 6.5 magnitude earthquake of 1987 that dropped parts of the town and surrounding rural land by up to two metres – making the plain more vulnerable to flooding. Early on April 6, news shot around that the wall holding back the flood-swollen river was about to breach. Just an hour later, the town was submerged.
Eight months on, the waiting game for Edgecumbe residents continues. In a state of limbo between the disaster and a new beginning, many are still in rental houses, if they were lucky enough to find one, making do with a mishmash of borrowed furniture, clothing and donated household items. Some talk about sleeping in their clothes, just in case they have to leave in a hurry again. Emergency water supplies and non-perishables line car boots – just in case. Only a handful of those whose properties were damaged have been able to move back in. For the rest, “going home” fades into an uncertain future.