Westport writer Becky Manawatu on how her community has been dealing with the aftermath of last weekend’s floods on the West Coast.
Alice* says to her partner: “Don’t forget me, will you?”
He’s helped her out of the car now. He’s got his hand on her waist. The rain’s coming down. I’m adjusting my jacket over her, pulling up the hood. She’s shuffling her feet forward, pushing a walker through the puddles.
Apart from my jacket now, she’s wearing a navy-blue wool hat, green and white striped fingerless gloves, grey tracksuit pants, a red thermal and blue sweatshirt. Her eyes are wide when she looks to her darling, asking for reassurance.
He laughs lightly. “Of course I won’t bloody forget you, you ning nong.”
She giggles, ‘cause she knows he won’t forget her, even as she worries he might.
The rain falls on us, pattering on the jacket, until we get ourselves inside Westport’s NBS Theatre on Palmerston Street.
The NBS Theatre is home to a community hub, set up as a one-stop post-flood shop. Services represented include Poutini Waiora, Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, Age Concern, Buller Reap and Homebuilders, Ministry of Social Development, Kāīnga Ora and animal welfare. Staff from the Buller District Library are there too, providing invaluable help.
Alice’s partner needed to leave her at the community hub while he and volunteers cleared their flooded home of wrecked carpet and stuffed furniture, and I got to sit with her.
The place was full with people seeking help, getting advice, accessing some dosh to help them through the upheaval of the biggest natural disaster since Buller was hit by the 1968 Inangahua Earthquake.
These are the facts as stated in the first sentence in the Westport News lead story printed on Monday afternoon. The story written by chief reporter Lee Scanlon said two days of torrential rain pushed the Buller River to a record flood level of 12.7m at Te Kuha on Saturday, smashing the previous record of 11.8m.
The paper boasted a whopping five pages of local news as well as a two-page pictorial documenting the flooding and the incredible volunteer response.
I bought the paper direct from the News’ office on Monday afternoon. On Friday, we’d escaped Westport and headed 15 kilometres north to Waimangaroa after the mayor, Jamie Cleine, announced a state of emergency.
We took Chinese takeaways to my dad’s place. We watched movies, ate junk, played cards, and later I read my book by the fire. The rain was loud all night.
We returned to town in the morning, for more junk food, another bottle of wine. We left Fresh Choice and made it back over the Orowaiti River minutes before the bridge was closed.
It was an unsettling crossing. We were driving on the road — but in the river. Looking into the rearview mirror, I thought of the town — an island between the Orowaiti and the Buller. You had a sense of a place about to be softened, like the flesh of a peach being pressed and pressed. Monday’s headline summed it up in red: Disaster.
The flood strengthens Te Hā o Kawatiri’s case for a Kawatiri-based marae. Te Hā o Kawatiri is a for-Māori, and Māori-led service. It has a thriving maara kai, and is doing amazing things in the community.
The closest marae to Westport is Arahura near Hokitika. There are the obvious reasons a marae would be a blessing in the wake of a natural disaster. It’s a place displaced and distressed people can go. A place to bring and care for kaumātua and tamariki, but also: a place us fit and willing Māori can get a purpose-hookup.
Gotta love a purpose-hookup, especially when it comes to people.
It occurred to me as we drove around Westport that you might feel private about flood damage. We looked at the piles of rubbish, carpet, toys and clothing and we said we would hate to have strangers looking at our sodden mess. Our undies and soaked diaries, overdue bills; maybe our empties floating in yuck water.
Husband opted to send out messages rather than just turn up places. Message after message he sent: “Can I help? Need a hand? Want some lunch?” Gist of the messages back: “We’re all good, thanks!”
He said: “I wish there was a marae here, then I’d know what to do, where to help.”
It is well known that adversity brings communities together. Westport is a great example of exactly that. The flood has brought the best out of many people — the number of stories of selflessness and care are astounding.
I sat next to Tim O at Westport’s community hub. His own house has serious flood damage, but he’s spent heaps of time helping others. He didn’t tell me that, though, no. I found that out from someone else.
We talked about other things. I stupidly asked him if he’d been surfing lately. Tim loves getting in the surf. He hardly goes a day without at least checking the waves at the tip. He hasn’t even seen the sea in eight days. He wasn’t complaining, but the sea is good for him — eases his mind, he said.
A group of rugby players — the moist movers — have been helping get rid of people’s stuffed carpet: no easy feat, and they’ve done a celebrated job of it.
Jack C came in two days in a row to the community hub, and both days he mentioned Toni Croft. The first day he said: “Do you know Toni Croft? She’s been helping me.” The next day he said: “Toni Croft! She’s been helping me — she’s washed and bleached all my kitchenware.”
Yes, adversity brings people together. There’s opportunity to be found in disaster. Disaster simulates a collective rock bottom — in the case of a flood, I guess it’s got a sludge layer, silt, shit; there’s stagnancies’ funk.
On the flipside, adversity can make people feel profoundly inept, submerged to a state of unresponsiveness which holds a strange friction. It’s an unresponsiveness agitated by urgency.
Feeling helpless in the aftermath of a natural disaster is, well, perfectly natural. It comes with the flood, the quake, but feels like quicksand.
And we all know that you should try not to get agitated in quicksand. You shouldn’t thrash about, or get frantic. Lean back, spread your weight evenly, and wait until you float back up to the surface.
Instead of floating, we walked, and with no marae to walk to, we walked to the NBS Theatre and there we spoke to Richelle Schaper, the Tū Pono connector for Te Hā o Kawatiri.
Later that night, she messaged us with some volunteer jobs. I was grateful to Richelle. I think she recognised helplessness in our eyes.
Sometimes giving someone a job to do is your koha to them. It says “Tēnā koe”.
My job was to come to the theatre the next day and provide some manaaki at the community hub. The social workers and the reps from the Ministry of Social Development, Animal Welfare, Age Concern, Red Cross etc etc were flat tack ensuring people’s needs were going to get met.
Richelle asked if I could make sure people got a cup of tea, give an ear if they needed to talk while they waited for their needs to be assessed. I could run messages between admin and the people in the theatre where appointments were being held. Mostly I was on hot drinks and restocking the club sandwiches, scones and bickies.
It was a perfect job for my flightiness, my Gemini charm and fascination for people, love of hot drink magic, as well as the comfort I find in not being expected to stay still.
I was also charged with ensuring people sanitised their hands which was awkward, but I renamed myself a fairy and thanked people enthusiastically and affectionately for not minding the distrust my request insinuated about the cleanliness of their hands. I tried to make it cute.
I dunno, but at least some of us laughed about it.
Each morning, the community hub coordinator (and one of my favourite humans in the world) Maegan Bird spoke to the group about the day before and the day ahead. It was important everyone got all the help they needed. It was critical the community hub staff got exactly how many people were in a dire housing situation.
Finding them accommodation was (and will continue to be) an absolute bitch of a job. Not her words. I’m distilling, summarising, possibly even minimising Westport’s housing crisis.
My family went out to have pizza and beer gin wine etc with Maegan, her partner Stephen and brother Reuben. They had some other friends visiting, including Matai*.
Matai is seven years old, and his house is fucked. He was sad his teddy bears were gone, and his house smells bad now. We played board games with Matai and his mum.
He seemed to have a fat old time eating pizza, playing games, chilling out. He’s got banter. When his mum had to name three museums for a quiz question, he said: “Say our house, ‘cause its full of crap now.” I thought this was brilliant, such quick wit. I laughed until I almost peed my pants.
He started to list what he’d lost at the house, and he decided instead to state it simply: “We’re gonna need a whole new everything.”
A whole new everything.
Matai’s whole new everything line has stuck with me throughout this week as I’ve been privy to watching the astounding effort from the people working within the NBS theatre. I have been privy to people’s vulnerability, their stories, and their self-consciousness as they wait in the foyer of the NBS Theatre, shy about needing help.
Matai’s one-liner came to me as I sat in from the rain with Alice. I made her a Milo, two sugars, ‘cause she reckons she’s not sweet enough. Her partner was going to be gone a few hours, so we decided to get to know each other. I showed her pictures of getting my tattoos done. She had no tattoos, she said. Should she get one? the 80-something-year-old asked.
Her speech was slow and words well-enunciated. She was mostly relaxed but occasionally fretful. When I said I was going to get her a scone, she said: “You won’t forget to come back will you?” She was worried about being a nuisance and kept saying sorry for holding me up.
It’s raining outside, I said. I got nowhere to be. If I go home now, I’ll have to help cook tea. If I’m home in an hour, it’ll all be done, I joked.
We went for a short walk, so she didn’t seize up. We sat back down and asked each other all sorts of silly questions: “What’s your favourite food?” She liked pumpkin soup. “How often do you eat vegetables?” Three times a week, but sometimes it’s chips, she said, cheekily.
She told me — in a confessional way, like she needed to get it off her chest — her carers can come to shower her on a Monday and a Thursday. Just two days a week. She said: “I would like to have a shower every day.”
It’s a basic human luxury, a need, a right, isn’t it? Like a daily shower is all those things: a luxury, a need, and a right, all balled into one. It’s what brings back noa, refreshes you to your soul — a simple rushing of clean water over your body. If I had to go two days at home without a shower, I’d feel like I once did during a bad hangover: like I was a ghost haunting my own house.
I looked at her face, then her hands in her fingerless gloves, shaking slightly under the weight of the paper cup with its warm Milo inside it. I didn’t know what to say, but seven-year-old Matai came to mind, I thought: “Yeah Alice, we’re gonna need a whole new everything.”
We’re gonna need a whole new everything, and put a Kawatiri-based marae on the list, put a few more showers for Alice on the list, put Matai’s teddy bears on that list, put a million things on that list, some serious, some silly, some that have nothing to do with the flood, and some that have everything to do with it.
Put our entire imaginations on that whole new everything list, then make it all happen for us. For 80-something-year-old Alice and seven-year-old Matai. If we make sure the tamariki and the kaumātua are sorted first, we’ll all be all goods.
(*Name changed to protect privacy.)
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