Edgecumbe needs you: NOW!

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The devastation is apparent in the streets piled high with the possessions of lives destroyed in an instant. It’s starting to rot and stink on roadside verges. What the mechanised monsters can’t pick up we will have to. If you are able to help out in the volunteer clean up teams you can make initial contact on edgecumbevolunteers@gmail.com

On the 6th April 2017 the village of Edgecumbe in the Bay of Plenty was inundated. The long-standing stop bank protecting the small rural enclave from the adjacent Rangitaiki River failed and water surged through the town. The closest homes were knocked off their foundations. Slightly further away and in the outskirts rural area, homes were flooded and lives immediately changed.

I wasn’t going to write about today but a young resident I met late in the afternoon wanted me to “tell people”. I don’t have any photos or images I felt that was too intrusive although you would have been able to see in an instant what I am talking about….

Michael Barnett’s voice on early morning National Radio is subdued almost funereal as he tells New Zealand that we need to help Edgecumbe. He was there over Easter Weekend and the town is in dire need; urgent need of practical support – people support. I’d seen images of the flooding on my laptop when I’ve been in the Greerton Library uploading ARTbop articles. There was a lot of water.

For those of you who are out of towners or overseas the “bop” in ARTbop stands for Bay of Plenty. The Bay of Plenty is the area we belong to and write about – we say that ARTbop is “the Bay of Plenty’s online creative arts magazine”. ARTbop benefits from the good times so I think I should get on down to Edgecumbe for the bad time.

I have no idea what will be needed but I pack my little car with my gardening tools – a rake, a grabber, a stiff broom, a brush, brush and pan, buckets, a flagon of industrial strength detergent, all my gardening gloves, vinyl inner gloves, flagons of water (to drink and to wash) and of course my “Red Bands” – that they have started to leak only means I empty the kitchen drawer of supermarket bags. I take two thermos flasks of teas.

I almost drive on the new toll road but veer off in time to go down the old road through Te Puke. Evidence of the weather’s recent destruction stills lies on roadsides into the Eastern Bay of Plenty – piles of earth, trees and rubble. A range of white cloud with plateau and mountains balances on the horizon ocean – the most perfect example of Aotearoa – land of the long white cloud, I’ve ever seen. I stop at Matata and buy a potato top pie. I figure eating is not going to be on my priority list when I finally hit Edgecumbe. I’m pissed off that the public toilet is being “repaired”. I check out whether there’s petrol in Edgecumbe – no – so I fill up and head on down the back road.

As I’m driving in I can see the crane, all the heavy vehicles and down a side street I get a glimpse of piles and piles of stuff – peoples’ lives out on the verge waiting -waiting to go. It’s like the biggest inorganic rubbish collection in the world. I’m overwhelmed and wonder if I’ve made a mistake thinking I can help. There’s a fire engine next to the service station pumping out a building – I leap out and ask where I’m to go. I avoid the cars parked to block the service station entry and turn right, drive under a disused bridge towards the “Memorial Hall – you won’t miss it.” I don’t.

I’m not allowed into the hall until my hands are sanitised. Only later do I realise how concerned about “germs and disease” everyone is. I fill my name in. I’ve apparently subverted the volunteer process by showing up in the middle of the morning. Fortuitously someone I know walks by and I’m told to go to a specific Regional Council tent.

I can’t find the tent but in my efforts to locate it I’ve given myself a gawper’s view of the wider devastation of the town. It’s not one or two houses – it’s streets and streets of houses and lives – wet, sodden, changed. I see the place where the stop bank gave way and the houses off their foundations. I drive through huge trucks and John Deere tractors. I ask the Policewoman and follow her instructions and eventually end up finding “the tent” which had been moved.

At the Bay of Plenty Regional Council tent I’m offered one of those white overalls – I ask the lovely young man in charge for a bigger size – I don’t want to have to come back and confess I’m fatter than I look. I’m given two pairs of gloves – really strong vinyl ones and then outer protective thick cotton ones – just like my gardening gloves. I also get a facemask – I feel no shame at all when I’m told I have it on sideways.

Kitted up like a forensic scientist I meet Reece and his teenage children from Maungatapu, Tauranga – they’ve come over via Whakatane delivering furniture and food on the way. It’s the designated lunch break for the morning shift so the only other person on our team is Murray who grew up in Edgecumbe, works in Australia and has just celebrated his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – he fills two wheelbarrow loads to my one and hauls and throws the big stuff in the skips faster than I can breathe. Taking a break he walks round the corner to check on his relative’s house. A well spoken man from Matata shows up “they helped us” he says recalling the still in memory Matata disaster. They’ve run out of overgloves so I give him one of the pairs of my gardening gloves. He asks me to help lift a heavy container he’s filled – I refuse – can’t he see I’m a little old lady! I tell him to get one of the “men” to help him. We fill two skips. They’re taken away and two more show up. I meet a woman who has come up from the Wairarapa – why? “I’ve been in a flood”.

We’ve been told to pick up the small stuff – the stuff that will fall out of the jaws of the mechanical monsters working along the street. I pick up a small black and white ballet flat, a jar of buttons, tomato stakes with the dead and rotting plants still on them. Underfelt, bedding, ruined children’s books, jigsaws and educational toys, those metallic birthday balloons, rotting fruit and a toothpaste tube that smears peppermint over the decay. Someone says to me “that’s the cot of a much-loved child” – it’s pink bedding with a long frilled skirt. It’s filled with a heater and the contents of the kitchen. I throw an Edgecumbe College garment bag into the skip and later, round on the other road, I pack a box of notes, folders and books off the street into the skip. We find a container to fill with broken glass.

Before the volunteer team returns at 1pm I’m approached to see if I’ve found any photos in front of one of the houses – only one – wet and muddy and it went in the skip. I tell them about the wheelchair I’d found on top of one of the piles. Yes that’s the house they’re looking for.

The morning team returns. Wheel barrows become in short supply. There’s Sports Bay of Plenty – lovely young people who can lift and carry containers I fill with the small stuff of ruined lives. They fill a skip with carpet. The skips are filling so fast I go back to the tent and ask they bring in two more asap. If you had seen the driver backing them in and loading and unloading in the tight spaces you’d be as gobsmacked as I was.

The man on the bicycle arrives again and tells us to get on round to another one of the houses to take out the furniture – my wheel barrow goes “it hasn’t got your name on it” she says. I stay with the street team. Someone asks me if we’re the Army team – I crack up and tell the guys from Opotiki I’m working with (who came up to help their cousin) – “Dad’s Army maybe”.

By 3.20pm I’ve had to have three cups of tea and I’m starting to slow down – there’s more bending and stretching than an aerobics class. I totter round the corner to the next job, which I can’t find. I slowly shuffle up to another command post and find I’m looking into a box with a turtle of sorts – warm, dry and with two apple halves. Ironically he, she or it is a pest and if it wasn’t for the flood one of the Regional Council “boys” would probably be plotting its execution.

We walk into another street – the owner’s not home so we wait. They make room for me on a settee frame waiting for removal on the opposite verge – they’re Edgecumbe teachers – all three of them. The teacher sharing my settee says her family have cleared out her house so now she’s helping. I forget to ask about the schools I’ve driven past. One of her colleagues says – “and they say teachers don’t do anything in their holidays”…… we all laugh.

The age range of helpers is wide. While I’ve been standing watching “the boys”- men of my age – rearrange and sort one of the skips – bringing out petrol, petrol canisters, paint – all the stuff we’ve been told not to put in but have piled up at the top of the street. I meet a mother and her two daughters – this is not their first day here – they weren’t flooded so they’re here to help.

When I’m on the settee the older daughter tells me today is “so much better, we were in mud up to here the other day” and she indicates the top of her gumboot. It’s because of Romy I’m writing this – she says I have to tell you all what it’s like – I don’t think I can really do that – I can’t write the smell, I can’t write the feel of picking up the small shoes, the toys, the bedding and the treasures and I can’t write the awful feeling of throwing it into a skip.

I’m “decontaminated” and my gumboots are washed down. I don’t go back to the marae for dinner – it will be too late when I’m driving home. But I do stop in the fish and chip shop in Matata and buy a piece of fish and a potato fritter – something I haven’t had since childhood. I sit outside with a Mt Maunganui resident who has found a young Edgecumbe family to support and her friend, a teacher from Otahuhu – she wonders if their school could send a care package to the Edgecumbe school.

No doubt in the future someone will say it all should have been done differently but I was impressed by the pleasant and calm direction of the people I met and worked alongside today. And I remember what I used to tell the kids “let’s sort it and then find out who to blame.”

I didn’t know we were asked not to take photos – I just couldn’t – it seemed an obscene intrusion. I did take one though – all of a sudden a red balloon came bouncing down the road. It wasn’t until I was driving back to Matata that my large sob fills the car.

To register as a volunteer email: edgecumbevolunteers@gmail.com

You register and fill in a volunteer information form.  There are morning and afternoon working parties. If you can make up a carload that would be great even if you can only get down for half a day. Volunteers are based at a local marae. They are given health and safety instructions. They are fed and watered and looked after and provided with protective clothing. Take your gumboots and a cap or sunhat and just in case the gloves run out – take along any strong vinyl liner gloves and heavy outer gardening gloves.

Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.E

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