Havelock North water contamination: My diary of our stink week in Havelock North
A week in Havelock North.
It started the Thursday before last with a phone call from my husband. “I’m really sick,” he moaned.
I wasn’t overly concerned. I dished out some verbal sympathy and then told him, essentially, to harden up. But 24 hours later he still couldn’t keep food down and was running to the toilet like an athlete training for the Olympic sprints. Then, just after 10am the next day, I got an email from my son’s school. Kids were dropping like flies. Shortly after, I noticed Facebook was being inundated with comments from parents from different schools in Havelock North with tales of mass absentees — some in their hundreds.
Something was up. It wasn’t long before someone wrote: “they suspect it’s something in the water”. Surely not. I think back to my son Enzo saying he had a sore tummy two days ago. I let him stay home from school, thinking I was too soft and he’d pulled one over me.
Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. That has been the story of Robyn McLean’s week.
“You can only stay home if you drink lots of water and don’t eat any junk food.” Deal, he said. Now, six days later, his ribs are protruding and he’s spent hours crying, vomiting and pooing blood-laced liquid. The guilt is almost unbearable — the mantra of “drink plenty of water” recited by parents throughout Havelock since their kids started feeling unwell is coming back to haunt us. The horrific reality is, we’ve been poisoning them. Campylobacter was in our water supply. What? How could this be? How could this happen in 100% Pure New Zealand?
I’ve never encountered anything like what has happened in Havelock over the past week. The streets are empty, shops are empty – the feeling as I get my morning coffee is so eerie, you almost expect to see tumbleweed rolling through the town centre. A week after the outbreak started, the politicians roll into town to make the most of the media opportunities. They tell us what we already know. “This is not acceptable,” they say. “This can never happen again,” they trumpet. You can almost smell the hand sanitiser on their mitts as they reach out to shake hands.
However, the community spirit has been humbling — like when I told the lady at the chemist my son hadn’t eaten for two days and was still vomiting thanks to a reinfection, and she hands me a box of electrolyte ice-blocks for free. Tears.
Robyn McLean filled up the family’s water bottles at a water tank – until she discovered that water, too, was contaminated.
I get a text from my husband, a lawyer, who has flown up to Auckland for a court case. Halfway through proceedings he had to ask the judge for an immediate adjournment. “I’ve been drinking Havelock North water, Your Honour,” he explains. “Right away,” the judge replies. “I don’t want you making a scene in my court.” It’s a hideous situation for him, but it does make me laugh out loud.
Unlike his insides, his sense of humour is intact. He later posts that, “Hastings District Council are responsible for a massive spike in New Zealand’s carbon emissions” and labels the fiasco “Watergate II”. I see hashtags appearing #gastrogate #gastrogedden. They do say laughter is the best medicine, but the grim reality is this issue has been far from a joke.
The Hastings District Council were too slow off the mark. Their communication in the first 24 hours was beyond dismal. The timelines will be debated and examined over the coming weeks, without doubt, but as someone who works in public relations, there’s no denying our council let its people down in those vital first hours. I wanted regular updates on Facebook — to be told what to do. They posted an advisory to boil water on Friday at 7.30pm. Their next post, just before midday on Saturday was a photo of kids playing hockey promoting the local council-owned stadium. What they didn’t mention was that most games had actually been cancelled because an unprecedented illness had incapacitated entire teams — thanks to the water coming from our taps.
Robyn McLean fills up the family’s water bottles.
Rather than wait for authorities to help us, many of us turned to social media. It is an amazing tool in a crisis. Recipes for settling upset tummies were shared, strangers offered for people to come and take water from their spring systems, people offered to pick up groceries and medicines for those who were incapacitated.
In the thick of it, I was doing six loads of washing a day as a result of my son being too sick to move out of bed as the nausea hit yet again. The cost of buying water, sanitisers, toilet paper, electrolytes and washing powder is mounting. With schools forced to close, the impact on working parents is huge. With no customers, restaurants close their doors – again the impact is huge.
After pleas from residents, water tankers finally arrive in the village on Monday night. Finally we can fill the plastic bottles which have been mounting up. They’re not the only thing mounting up, however – anger is, too. And a few days later when we are told one of the tankers has returned a positive e-coli test, that anger is at an all-time high.
Havelock North mum Robyn McLean has gone through a lot of toilet paper and cleaning products in the week-long gastro outbreak.
We need answers and reassurances this will never happen again. I hope it will start a wider discussion about how we look after our water resources in general. But at the end of the day, I know I need to find a positive from this – and I have. I feel luckier than ever to live in a town that, over the past week, has demonstrated what a community is. It’s a place where people care about each other, where business open after-hours to care for the sick and supply them with medicine.
Where restaurants close their doors so they can go out and deliver food to those who can’t leave their homes. Where people who sell water as part of their livelihood provide it for free at a time when they could literally be milking it. The motto for Havelock North is “Love the Village”. After this, I love it even more.
– Sunday Star Times
Next Health story:
Hastings water will be chlorinated as long as fears remain – council boss