Living through a terrible storm: a personal account

We have just lived the most terrible storm in memory, but it was localised to only a few of the Eastern Bays on Banks Peninsula, it didn’t even touch Akaroa. This is what it was like:

Many of you are probably wondering what it was like to live though such a terrible storm flash flood – rain storm event – just over the hill from Akaroa, that caused such ultimate destruction, while in Akaroa it was hardly raining at all.

Read more about the disaster here.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula our drive way and road
Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula our drive way and road

We knew we were going to have three days of rain; we knew at some point it would be heavy, but there was no warning for what happened. 270 mm of rain in 15 hours. Persistent heavy rain after weeks of drizzle, some 450mm in three weeks.

It sounded like being inside a full glass of water.

It poured down on our roof, down on the ground. At 8am there were already puddles forming on the ground, so that I thought I had left the hose on in the garden overnight.

It kept raining. At 2pm we went out to check on the culverts on the driveway, to see if they were clear and flowing. And I was shocked to see that already there was brown water running down the driveway in rivers that was gauging out the shingle and over the top of our gumboots. The stream of water was already putting pressure on the fences.

We tried again to clear the top culvert that was overflowing, only to find that the culvert gutter was filled chest high with shingle from the road. At this point we parked our car on the main road, expecting our driveway to go at some point.

The heaviest rain was forecast for midnight.

The chickens with their little chicks were soaking, the ducklings and their mums were huddled under our old truck Marvin. Wet to the skin, but able at least to get out of the rain.

We had just installed a new drain pipe around the back of the house and it was working nicely. Last year we re-roofed our 110-year-old farmhouse. We were warm and dry and had our dinner.

We live in a remote spot and we expected the power to go out and the phone, they always do in a storm.

We were not surprised when we saw the first slip go on the main road, that happens sometimes, it’s a wet spring area that has slipped before.

We were shocked when we saw the first slip go through the regenerating native bush that is directly in our view. And we went out into the conservatory to have a look.

And then we looked at each other and said “what’s that roaring?” And we looked out all of the windows searching for a source of the noise, was it an earthquake? That would be all we need!

“Look!” And the earth gave way, a constant thundering noise as the dry stream from the road down through the neighbours and into our back paddock gave way, in a rushing roaring brown slide. We were in disbelief; never have I witnessed or heard such a thing in all my life of living here.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula view from home more conservation damage
Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula the view we had from home

The noise was immense, and it just didn’t stop. It was like a major earthquake that just would not stop.

We wished it would stop. We wished now that the rain would ease because suddenly it did not feel safe.

I came back inside and sat down at my computer to write an email of what had just happened, having lost our phone long ago, and out of the corner of my eye the land moved and the earth roared and grieved and groaned.

The whole hillside gave way. The whole hillside.

What was a tiny slip from the road became a crumple of earth and a chasm and a waterfall. The fences were under mud. The powerpoles had just disappeared from the earth. Of course our power was out.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula my beautiful forest reserve gon
Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula my beautiful forest reserve gone – the whole hillside gave way

My partner yelled at me from the conservatory “come and look at this” and I thought surely he can’t see from there? My heart was racing, my mind was panicked, I tried to film the slip still moving but you just couldn’t see the immensity of what had just happened.

Forever changed

My whole world had changed, in an incomprehensible way. The road was gone, completely gone, into a crevasse in the earth. How this place had been all my life, every tiny wrinkle felt changed.

I said “come and look at this” but he would not come. I went out to see he was looking at another slip, a small one, again in an expected place that had slid before. I was in shock, “no, you must come and see this”.

Then the worst happened, it grew. The teeths edge of the slip feel like dominos back up the road, eating away at the land above our house. It moved so that it was perched above us. Threatening first to swallow our water tank and then to come down and take our house.

Protecting my baby from the terrible storm

This is when Mum instinct kicked in. While inside my chest was screaming and my mind racing around bumping into all the walls and hollows, I took my little two-year-old to bed to read stories about Heidi and Old Yella.

I read, and the dog sat on the bed looking at the roaring storm that was happening out every window. The front paddock and our drive were busy being ripped from the earth. With a chasm of water from the summit hurtling over itself to the sea.

A long straight gash formed. While I read Heidi.

And then another roar, and a deeper gash was gouged. My mouth spoke the words and my mind was elsewhere. “Heidi needs doll” my two-year-old said.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula cutting through conservation work
Our road, drive and conservation work all gone. We are isolated.

Once she was in bed, almost asleep in the nightmare, I went into emergency mode. Filling the bath with water. Filling spare containers. Packing our bags and putting everything we might need by the door.

Gumboots, raingear, sleeping bags, food for a child, doll and teddy. Knowing that if we had to leave no one was going to be able to come and save us. That the only dry and warm thing, our car, was as far away as the moon.

And then we sat. We let the fire go out in case the slip hit, the last thing we wanted for the house to go up in smoke. I shut the curtains so that if the glass broke it would not shatter all over the floor.

It was strangely calm, but the roaring was still there. Not the anguish of slips, but the sound of a hydroslide.

We did not want to say that it felt like the worst was over, it was 9pm and the heaviest rain was forecast for midnight. But it felt like the worst was over. The rain had eased.

We calmly sat and talked, in the candle light. We had a shower each while we had hot water just in case it was the last.

At 11pm the rain had not got heavier, it was just consistent rain, not torrential anymore.

We went to bed. I went to bed fully clothed. With our girl in the middle, just in case. With our dogs on the bed, just in case.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula all of our streams were fenced
All of our streams were fenced, we were proactive sensitive landowners doing the best we could for biodiversity.

I did not sleep. I listened. I heard the rain; I heard the sound of the roaring rushing water move down the valley. At first it was still above us. But over the night the sound subsided, first around us, like we were on an island, and then down valley so that in the darkest hours I knew it was down by the neighbours on the flat, I feared for their lives.

Then in the early hours the sound had moved to sea, far away where I wanted it to be. Please let the sea keep it, please don’t start to rain again.

Eventually I dozed, perhaps for an hour before “MUM” and I was struck by the gut churning need for it to have all been a bad dream, because if it wasn’t what were we to do?

I did NOT want to get up, or to open the curtains to look up above us and see the churning waterfall from the road, or the stream that now headed down our hill, threatening to cut off the whole face.

I did not want to see the extent of the damage. We made coffee and breakfast like we always do, only on the gas camper and not on the stove. We changed our girl. We enjoyed our morning coffee.

Thankfully the mist was low enough that we could not see. Only five major slips down the road, and the chasm, and only four major slips up the road. Only seven cuttings into the hillside.

Still, it rained.

Terrible Storm damage on Banks Peninsula conservation work gone
More conservation work washed away along with our boundary and stream fence.

Slowly we started our day. We counted our chickens, a miracle they had all survived. We called for Dee-dee, our pet sheep “baah” oh thank God! And we looked for Spotty the pet lamb, but he was busy eating.

In gumboots and full rain gear we went out to look for the calves, around in the back paddock past the new gorge. We could only see three, one of those had jumped a fence in panic, but it was my house cow’s calf Little Dancer and my heart lept with joy, at least not her.

We still don’t know where two calves are. We can’t get there, we hope, but we’ve had three major slips in that paddock, and they could be anywhere. The mud is too thick and there’s no one to help if we get stuck, not when we’ve got a two-year-old to carry everywhere.

Mid-morning, with almost everyone accounted for, we have a go at the bloody generator that has not worked in months. We pull and pull. We poke and push and pray. Eventually I have a go and I muster all of my Mum in me and will the damn thing to go.

We are completely isolated. Stuck. We know that there is no way in or out, no way to the neighbours, we don’t even know if they are alive. It is still raining. This is our only hope and link to the outside world, this generator.

We have no power, no phone, no internet, no cell coverage, no hope of a search helicopter in this rain. I MUST make it work. And we do, me pulling my partner priming the fuel line and choke.

With pure joy I scoop up a thrilled little girl and twirl in circles and she says “more!”

We rush, grab the wi-fi router, we don’t know when this damn thing will stop. I grab my ipad and start to type before we’re even connected, in hope.

“We need help, please call the council” “please call my Mum”, “please check on the neighbours”. And we are saved, by the miracle of modern technology the internet is working, the generator does not stop, Facebooks beloved messenger works and keeps working.  

I can talk to Mum, and Fulton Hogan are working on our road, we are being dug out. The Masefields were on the radio, that means surely that Lyndon and Sandie are alive, and their girls. Oh, how lucky we are!

Then we see the digger coming around the Garden Corner and into our view. We relish watching them work, slowly, slowly getting down towards us.

When the mist lifts the damage is far worse than we imagined

It takes them another day, to cut away to our chasm where all works stops for the foreseeable future. What to do about a drop 100m long and 30m deep that then sweeps down the hill 6-700m, through our drive and through all of our new conservation fencing.

Nothing will be done about the multiple slips below that on the road, so we still can’t get to our neighbours. So that our car is laughably stuck at the end of the drive, what was meant to save us has become a beacon of despair. It can’t come in our drive, and it can’t go more than 60m either way down the road, it is totally useless, perhaps for months, who knows.

Day two after the storm the neighbours come and it is with such relief that we hear their news, that they are safe, their stock is safe. That’s enough. Because their fences are gone, their water troughs, the stream has changed path, is covered in debris, in rocks and trees. Nothing is as any of us have known it.

The rain stops! Oh, the rain has stopped. It is only drizzle now, and only at times. The waterfall off the road has fallen away to a trickle.

The helicopter comes and I am filled with tears, the feeling that we have been saved is strong, that there is contact finally with the outside world. They look at the damage and the helicopter pilot says that it’s all too often now that he is being called out to 1/100 year events.

A new future – a strong lesson – conservation work gone

I have that feeling too and it is strong, we cannot go back to how it was. I don’t ever want this to happen again, to me or generations after us. Because it is the human structure that is out of place, it is the fences and the tracks, the road that acts as a river that exacerbates the damage. The hillsides denuded of trees.

The kowhai and the kanuka have held strong, not everywhere but mostly where they are the soil remains. The dig deep and don’t let go.

I am inspired to change, that this can be the lesson, because we have lost so much grazing on steep hills that were already difficult to manage. The fences are a tangled mess caught up in mud and debris and everywhere, almost every fenceline has gaping holes in it.

Most painfully for me it is the conservation fences that are gone, new and only a year old, we had fenced almost all of the bush and waterways on our land and it felt so good, it looked so beautiful most especially at the end of winter when whole hillsides turned yellow and tui called ‘kowhai’ ‘kowhai’. It’s all gone, totally ripped away, both from the land and from my heart, replaced with long brown wide stripes of mud with no features, nothing beautiful remains.

You can help us rebuild and replant on our givealittle page and when it’s time join us on a working bee or planting bee.

Sunshine after the rain

Yet on that first morning after the storm, despite the rain, the birds were singing like nothing had happened. The swallows were cheeping on the powerlines, the chickens going about their day. Exactly like after the Canterbury earthquakes, where it also struck me that it is only human systems that fail.

On the second day, the sun came out and it was almost with a sense of euphoria that we went out and gathered our dinner from the garden, potatoes, salad, fresh peas and abundance of ripe strawberries ready to eat. With beef from our freezer cooked inside on the BBQ. We felt resilient.

I dug out the summer table and chairs and we had a picnic dinner in the sun with our new water feature; the most incredible waterfall slide that will eventually grow back over with bush and will become a most cherished new manifestation in our landscape.

Because from this I have learned that landscapes change, all that which we know and love is ephemeral even the very rock upon which we anchor ourselves.

It was a terrible storm.

The view from our home after the Banks Peninsula storm December 2021
There is always a silver lining. Here is our new water feature, we hope that it will have a permanently flowing waterfall that we can enjoy from our conservatory and garden. That’s something we didn’t have before.

Here’s my blog post from yesterday about the ‘Devastating Banks Peninsula Storm‘ with more photos and links. I’ll be sending out more soon about this terrible storm, because I don’t feel like the world is listening!

Marie Haley

I am your guide, Marie Haley, I was born and raised on Banks Peninsula. The seventh generation direct decedent of Akaroa’s very first French settler. I grew up on the family farm following in the footsteps of my Grandfather, and his Grandfather before.