With just rooftops poking out of the floodwaters, locals jumped into action and rushed to the rescue as floodwaters caught authorities off guard.
In the pitch-black early hours of February 14 2023, Corporal Storm Harrison of the NZDF reserves was desperately trying to rescue his neighbours in Esk Valley.
“The river was like a freight train, with brown rapids and tanks, containers floating past. I could hear people yelling for help”, he said.
But the water was too deep and he couldn’t reach them until a couple of hours later when the waters started receding so he and others could get a Unimog in.
“There was mum and two kids on the roof of their house, I jumped out, waded our way through the water and the silt and pulled the kids off the roof,” he told Newshub.
But there were people he couldn’t save.
“There was a couple, but I think what hurts my heart the most and plays on my mind the most is I wish I was there a bit earlier. Things might be different,” he said.
To check that people weren’t in flooded houses he jumped in the river with a rope around his waist.
“It pushed me down to the houses, I could feel things hitting me in the water,” he said.
“You don’t think about your own life until afterwards, you think ‘oh I could have died there’.”