This is what it looks like

Lawrence Patchett writes about a different kind of courage

My first flood scared me. The Hook River burst its banks, ripped tar seal off the road, and oozed over the paddocks. I was eight.

My brother, typically, did not seem frightened. He was the adventurous type. He was keen to go out with Dad, to walk across the railway bridge. That meant I had to cross it too, just to show I could. I got there by watching my gumboots, by not looking at the torrent underneath, the dead cattle that were rolling coastward, their dead legs sticking up.

But this time in Raumati, I must admit, I felt some of that excitement. I wanted to see it. The Wharemauku frothing over its concrete banks. The old stream’s vengeance. Take that, shopping mall; take that, car park.

And what did you expect?

We should have known to expect it. It’s been predicted for years. Drier summers, wetter winters, and more intense 'rainfall events'. That’s what our new climate in Kāpiti will look like, according to the Ministry for the Environment.

And that seems to be how it’s working out. This January in Kāpiti was the driest ever recorded, according to the Dominion Post. It was also the driest in 12 other places in New Zealand. We got 4mm of rainfall in the whole month.

But warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture, so you get more intense rainfall. In a couple of days in Raumati we got enough rain for two months, all at once. At one point 117mm fell in 24 hours. To call that rain ‘intense' strikes me as a bit of a joke. ‘Ferocious’ is a better term for what pounded our roof all night.

We woke to sirens and news of houses being evacuated. Just after breakfast my neighbour told me twelve homes had already been flooded out. Through the day it got worse. Raumati made the news. On TV there was the usual mixture of people standing forlorn in sopping homes, and cheery, ‘make the best of it’ types waving from kayaks in the streets. The Dominion Post and the Insurance Council—hardly a radical bunch—were among those who brought up the changing climate. The council pointed to the 'vast body of literature’ predicting wetter outcomes on this coast.

At one point I saw the cycle path I often take back from work. Brown water swept right over the top of it. It was an appalling thrill, looking at that. It was like seeing an accident on your street—that could have been me, with my leg-bone poking out. In the future when it floods, I’ll be up to my waist in this.

On being an unnatural parent

So far we've warmed up the world by 0.86 percent. Two percent is what people are trying to limit it to. If things go well for humans, if our responses are drastic, we might just achieve that. If nothing is done, figures like eight percent are possible. And what would that world look like? Well, 'unthinkable' is how one expert described it, down at the Kāpiti Community Centre the other night.

But here’s the thing—for me, the idea of two percent is frightening enough. We're on less than half of that right now, and already people are linking the increased power of the new 'super-storms' like Pam and Haiyan to that amount of warming up. And recent droughts. And our flood. It makes you hate to imagine what two percent looks like.

That’s what makes it so frightening, I guess. Knowing that it will get worse, but not knowing how worse. Knowing that you can’t tell your kids not to worry about it, and that they'll be all right—like my Dad did, when my courage failed back in 1986. A different kind of courage is needed, it seems, and not the kind I learnt in that first flood, when I could shut my eyes to it.