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Manawatū floods: Woman remembers the cow that swam her to safety

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Keith and Kim Riley were awoken early on the morning of February 16, 2004. Kim soon found herself in floodwater. Photo / RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

By Jimmy Ellingham of RNZ

A woman clung to a cow that swam her to safety as floodwaters rapidly rose.

The story of Cow 569 became an enduring tale of survival from the lower North Island floods of February 2004.

There was record rain and destruction, but the storm was also the catalyst to do better.

An unseasonal southerly blast heralded a sodden week. Those who lived through it will never forget it, including Kim and Keith Riley.

As the swollen Manawatū River began to swallow the dairy farm where they were equity partners next to the entrance to the Manawatū Gorge, on the Woodville side, the pair sprang out of bed into the dark to move stock.

They’d had a call from the Horizons Regional Council telling them the flooding was getting serious, and decided to split up, with Kim Riley initially heading out with a farm worker.

But, they separated, and moving stock to higher ground became hard when a tractor submerged and the cows scared themselves as they splashed through the water.

Kim Riley remembers how fast it rose on the morning of February 16 2004.

“It was nearly like running a bathtub. That sounds really ridiculous, but you could stand there and actually see it creeping, creeping, creeping up a fence post.

“Next thing we’re all floating together and we floated over fences and it was like: Wow, this is a little bit serious.”

It was more than that as many parts of the Manawatū and Rangitīkei regions bore the brunt of the most devastating floods in 100 years.

They ultimately caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, including to more than 1000 farms.

About 5000 sheep were lost and more than 500 cows, although only a few on the Ballance land the Riley farm perished.

About 1500 people were forced out of their homes, and 200 houses were damaged. Towns, such as Feilding, were cut off as bridges were destroyed or rendered impassable.

And the rain kept falling – up to 300 millimetres in some places.

As all this unfolded in the breaking dawn, Kim Riley knew she had to get to safety and out of the warm but dirty floodwater.

“I guess I was in the water for something like 40-odd minutes trying to swim across the current to get back to the motocross area [next to the farm].

“I didn’t have the strength to do that, so I thought I actually need to find somewhere I can grab a hold of either a log or a bit of flotsam, and this cow just happened to come past pretty close.

“I grabbed her. It was luck of the draw.”

Cow 569, a black and white friesian, was a strong swimmer.

“Cows swim really well,” Riley said.

“They kind of blow themselves up and roll on their sides a little bit. It’s a bit grotesque, but when they decide they’re going somewhere they sort of roll back and start doggy paddling – very slow methodical strokes.”

Read more farming and rural stories on The Country.

The cow swam to a dry bank, where it and an uninjured Kim Riley made it to safety.

“When I first landed on the bank next to 569 I sat there for a few seconds, then thought: Gosh, this is dramatic.

“I went to stand up and I couldn’t. I thought I’d broken my leg, but I realised it must have been shock, or adrenaline. My body just went to jelly.”

A concerned Keith Riley eventually found his wife.

“I found Kim along a ridge, which was a relief,” he said.

“It was dramatic because the cattle had scratched themselves going over fences. There was blood in the water.

“It looked like they were significantly hurt, but they recovered well,” he said.

“Kim was distressed. She plays it down a bit, but she wasn’t in a good shape.

“She had been trying to get the cattle that were stuck on fences out with her bare hands, so we quickly got some fencing gear and sorted that out.

“Kim was a bit distressed by the whole situation.”

The water on the farm peaked about 6pm that Monday – about four hours earlier volunteers had realised their efforts to prevent a cow shed being inundated were futile.

The winter was a wet one and Keith Riley said that and the silt left by the floodwater made the recovery a hard slog.

The pair, who now live in Northland, farmed there until about 2011.

Manawatū mayoral dash

Then-Manawatū mayor Ian McKelvie made a dash to Feilding from Tūrangi as the 2004 disaster unfolded. Photo / RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham
Then-Manawatū mayor Ian McKelvie made a dash to Feilding from Tūrangi as the 2004 disaster unfolded. Photo / RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

About 15,000 people were without power, wind gusts of 230kmh were recorded on the Tararua Range and four rivers burst their banks.

Then-Manawatū mayor Ian McKelvie got an early-morning call from his council’s chief executive warning him of what was to come and saying he had to return to declare a state of emergency.

As it turned out, one could be declared his absence, but McKelvie spent five hours on a treacherous four-wheel-drive journey from Tūrangi to Feilding. It’s usually a two-hour trip.

“There was water everywhere. South of Waiouru was the first of it we really saw, and through Mangaweka was terrible. So we knew what to expect,” he said.

“I don’t think you could imagine how bad it would be, and the thing I couldn’t imagine was the damage done by the stopbanks bursting.

“That hadn’t happened before.

The Manawatū District Council building was surrounded by water so an emergency centre was set up at the Feilding fire station.

“The lower Manawatū was slowly going underwater. It didn’t just go under instantly. After the stopbanks burst, from then on it just kept on filling up and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

“It got worse and worse for three or four days, and it wasn’t until about the fourth day of the flood that Rangiotu [southwest of Palmerston North], that area went under water.”

McKelvie remembers a full-on week and credits the Labour-led government at the time for a swift response.

He also remembers the energy of volunteers and rescue workers who hardly had a break.

“You can still see some impacts from ‘04 if you know what you’re looking for.

“In fact I have watched a house go for nearly 20 years and it’s almost repaired. It’s taken a long, long time.”

McKelvie said another effect was on uninsured people.

While the insurance bill was about $112 million, it’s estimated uninsured people suffered a further $200m of damage.

Lessons learned from the 2004 Manawatū floods

The Manawatū plains, near Feilding, flooded by the Oroua River on Monday, February 16, 2004. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Manawatū plains, near Feilding, flooded by the Oroua River on Monday, February 16, 2004. Photo / Mark Mitchell

No one died in the Manawatū floods – two people drowned in seawater off Wellington’s coast and another was missing presumed drowned in the Marlborough Sounds in bad weather hitting the lower North Island – and their legacy is better protection for if it happens again.

Obvious are the enlarged stopbanks along the Manawatū River through Palmerston North, where RNZ met Horizons group manager catchment operations Dr Jon Roygard.

On the river, next to a popular recreational path, work is taking place to strengthen and divert the water’s path.

Two decades on, Roygard remembers how 2004 unfolded. At the time, he was new to the regional council.

“Originally we thought it was a pretty standard event, and pretty quickly people realised how fast and how far this one was going.

“We started to lose some of the flow recorders, so we weren’t getting information in from some places, and the call was made to open the floodgates.

“We did that and then we did that for days on end.”

Those gates are the Moutoa floodgates in Horowhenua where unprecedented volumes of Manawatū river water were channelled to the sodden floodplain.

Roygard remembers seeing a shipping container float past such was the force of the water.

He said, however, that the agencies tasked with responding to the emergency came together like a “well-oiled machine”, and valuable lessons were learned.

Then, the long recovery started.

“There were some big conscious decisions about what’s the level of protection we want to provide? How do we provide more confidence in that?

“We’ve seen places like Palmerston North rise to that 500-year level of protection. The areas outside Palmerston North are at that 100-year level of protection, and there are long-term programmes to achieve that.

“We’re still working on some of that.”

As well as stopbanks, floodgates at Feilding and better warning systems relying on solid forecasts three days ahead are now in place.

Cow 569′s global fame

Keith Riley recalls getting calls from the likes of the BBC and Channel Nine in Australia to cover Cow 569′s heroism.

TV crews wanted to be there when she gave birth to a calf and even years later Cow 569′s death made the news.

Kim Riley’s cow ride to safety lived on in print – she wrote two children’s books stemming from her experience.

She was approached by a publisher and wasn’t initially keen on becoming an author, but changed her mind when a friend told her writing down details about her ordeal could help her. It did.

“I was called the Cow Lady for quite a few years after the book was published, but now it’s like there’s not many people that seem to remember it.

“It’s 20 years ago after all. There’s a bit of water under the bridge.”


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