‘A lot of people need help in our village at this time’

Saturday August 08, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
Mama Marie wades through knee-deep water along a flooded path to get some food from Pandanus Petrol Station on Thursday. RASHNEEL KUMAR 20080733 Mama Marie wades through knee-deep water along a flooded path to get some food from Pandanus Petrol Station on Thursday. RASHNEEL KUMAR 20080733

Infrastructure Cook Islands has poured energy and resources into fixing up roads, bridges and culverts this year, to protect homes and businesses from regular and devastating floods. This week’s one-in-four-years record downpour was the big test. 

Mama Marie wades through knee-deep water along a flooded path as she makes her way across to Pandanus Petrol Station in Avatiu to get some food.

It’s after lunch and the sun is out, following a heavy downpour in the early hours of Thursday that caused flooding in the low-lying areas around the village and around Rarotonga.

Mama Marie is taking no chances. With an umbrella tucked under her arm, the 74-year-old assesses the damage as she trudges along the slippery pavement.

At the petrol station – which was also flooded – two staff members are finishing the cleanup and have reopened for business.

They greet Mama Marie, one of their regulars, with a bright smile.

She explains: “We know our road well but you have to be careful especially when you can’t see anything. If you take a wrong step, you will slip into the mud.

“I just came to get some bread and something to eat and then I will walk back through the water.”

Mama Marie hasn’t slept since 3 o’clock that morning when the floodwater started seeping into her house.

For her and her family, it’s almost routine. When the weather office issues flash flooding warnings, they start moving their valuables to higher grounds.

And then they wait for the flood – every time hoping it’s less severe than the previous one.

“I have lost count of the number of times we have been in this situation. It’s absolutely ridiculous, you lose energy, temper and everything. There is nothing you can do about it,” she says.

“In the last few years, it is getting worse. When it starts raining, we have to put everything high otherwise it will go to waste. In the last flood, our mower was in the shed and has gone to waste. We don’t have the money to keep buying these things.”

Avatiu is one of the island’s most flood-prone areas. For years, people have blamed the narrow Avatiu bridge for the problem. The new Avatiu bridge which is under construction. RASHNEEL KUMAR 20080738

Reconstruction on the bridge, which include widening to allow better water flow, started this year. The construction project valued over $3 million is underway.

But Mama Marie says the bridge was never the major problem of the flooding in the area.

“They say the bridge is the problem, it’s not the bridge, it’s the river. When they held a meeting in the village, I told them the riverbed is too high, maybe two or three metres too high.

“They need to dig it up and build a proper retaining wall like the one near the Banana Court and they have to do that from the bridge at the backroad all the way to the new bridge.”

Albert Nicholas, the MP for Avatiu-Ruatonga-Palmerston, says the issue of flooding in his constituency is a two-pronged challenge. Albert Nicholas, the MP for Avatiu-Ruatonga-Palmerston, clearing a blocked drain up the valley. RASHNEEL KUMAR 20080735/20080736

Nicholas says the enlargement and raising of the bridge is one aspect. The other, he adds, is raising the bank areas and widening the streams.

“When the water from the stream broke late at night, I was on the bridge and I could tell that once these two mechanisms are put in place it should solve our problem,” says Nicholas.

He is taking a quick breather from clearing debris and blocked drains up in the valley.

“We did get flooded but not to the extent like in the past and it was apparent the bridge had a lot to do with that but again the embankment and widening of the stream should address this issue.”

Daniel Ahau, of CIPS Electronics Jay Cars situated near the bridge, agrees.

His shop has been flooded “couple of times” in the past two years. He reckons the new bridge played a major part in keeping the water away from getting into the shop.

“To be honest, I couldn’t sleep well. I think I was at my shop two or three times on Wednesday night,” says Ahau.

“I got a call from one of my friends who lives down at the back, at 4am saying ‘hey mate you better come down to your shop. I think it’s about to flood’.

“Luckily enough when I got here the water only reached the first step. Within 10 minutes it was all over again and I think this bridge has helped a lot. We were also lucky enough that it was low tide, I can’t really imagine what would have happened if it was high tide.”

Ahau says past experiences have taught them to be proactive in such situations. CIPS Electronic Jay Cars’ senior sales assistant Maria Avatea gives a thumbs up after her shop managed to escape flood. RASHNEEL KUMAR 20080739

His staff have put their high-value products on double pallets and they have sand bags on standby to stop the water from seeping through the entrance.

It’s not just Avatiu. All around Rarotonga, residents have pinned their hopes on rebuilt infrastructure to avert regular flooding of low-lying homes and businesses.

When it rained this week, big stones and other debris washed down the streams and driveways at the north end of Muri, covering the main road with obstacles.

A kilometre further south, houses and businesses like Muri Outlet II were surrounded by water, that washed in through the doors when cars went by too fast.

Around in Akapuao, Aunty Turua Peter was counting her blessings as she swept the remaining water off her verandah, but with the inside of her low-lying home still mostly dry.

Workers had cleared the stream, further up, she says, so the flood hadn’t encroached far into her home this time – unlike downpours in previous years. Then, high tides combined with over-full streams to flood the whole area.

“I was singing and praising God at the time and I didn't know the water was inside the house, until I stepped down. One time, a small table from Little Poly washed up the hill to my home. So I kept it!”

Local MP Selina Napa and other locals had come by to help her clean up – but she pleads with government to finish the job of clearing out the streams, so the rainwaters can make their way out to the lagoon.

Diane Charlie-Puna, the secretary of Infrastructure Cook Islands, says they have identified all the flood prone areas and are working on projects to mitigate risk factors – projects like placing double or triple sized culverts, and clearing trees and other debris in the streams to ensure the water flows through and out.

Infrastructure Cook Islands has a tender going for the Aroko Muri area, which she says should address the flooding that they have been experiencing.

And they have another tender for the embankment work on the Avatiu stream, which will address how shallow and narrow it is in places. Once that project is finished, Charlie-Puna hopes flooding in the area will be a thing of the past.

“The area that was flooded was not actually where the bridge is, it’s the bank area which is part of the embankment project of Avatiu stream that’s in tender at the moment. This project will address the water coming from upstream.”

Charlie-Puna says the island experienced one of the heaviest rainfalls in recent times – 180 millimetres in eight hours on Wednesday-Thursday.

“It’s the biggest reading we have had for a long time and it’s even more compared to the last time we had flooding in Avatiu and other areas around the island.

“We know there were a lot of homes affected by this flooding but we want to assure public that we have identified the flood prone areas and are working on projects around the island to address the issues that are causing the problem.”

Replacement of culverts to double or triple size the original is being carried along the backroad in Atupa and will be extended to other parts of the islands, she adds.

Infrastructure also mobilised inhouse and outsourced diggers to clear the debris in the flooded areas on Thursday.

Albert Nicholas says the culvert work carried out by Civil Contractors helped ease the water flow in Atupa area. He also hails the company and Infrastructure for helping out clear the drains and debris.

Nicholas, who also resides in the flood prone Avatiu area, sustained damage to his properties.

“Someone went past my house and said it looks like a mess. I just said look I will deal with myself once I have addressed all these other things.

“The fact of the matter is a lot of people need help in our village especially at this time, and I’m too happy to get out there and do whatever I can before I address my own issues.”

But Mama Marie says they have suffered enough and she hopes the stakeholders look into some longterm fix to their flood problems soon.

“I just hope they do that river, quick as.”

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