Almost all of Edgecumbe's 1600 residents spent a night away from their homes after the Rangitāiki River burst its banks.
The floodwaters were so deep yesterday that boats were the only way around affected areas.
Almost the entire Bay of Plenty town was evacuated yesterday after a "wall of water" hit. Residents described seeing an explosion of water as the river poured into the streets. Some feared they might have lost everything.
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Civil Defence spokesman Ross Boreham said a cordon went up around the town overnight to stop people returning.
About 50 people stayed at an evacuation centre in Whakatāne and another 20 in Kawerau.
About 10 households in Thornton, further down the Rangitāiki River from Edgecumbe, were evacuated last night as a precaution. The regional council was concerned a floodwall, which was being reinforced with rock, would fail.
Whakatāne Mayor Tony Bonne told Checkpoint with John Campbell yesterday that the riverbanks remained fragile.
The water was through between a third and a half of Edgecumbe. The other half was dry, but was at risk. The final few people there had been asked to leave.
"If the bank doesn't hold, then they will be in immediate danger."
Mr Bonne said the situation changed incredibly quickly. The water did not flood over top of the stopbank - "basically the bank collapsed", he said.
One policeman saw the bank was ready to go and ran and warned people. Another man woke after a night shift to find water in his bedroom. Another saw the wall of water hit his home in his rear view mirror as he drove away.
Rural people stranded, others airlifted out
Many other small and remote Bay of Plenty communities, going up into the Ureweras, were isolated because of flooding and slips.
Ruatahuna, Minginui and Te Whaiti were cut off by slips over the road. Waimana, Ruatoki and Taneatua were cut off after the river crossed the road into town.
Eighteen people reported to be stranded in Minginui would spend the night at the local school.
A rescue team was sent to help about 30 people stuck in their vehicles between Murupara and Ruatahuna, however they were able to drive out themselves.
"There's been so many slips, and communication has been so hard. It just shows it was a major weather bomb," Mr Bonne said.
Mr Boreham said the towns were relatively self-sufficient, but helicopters delivered supplies to some.
Three hours of heavy rain to blame
MetService said about 182mm of rain fell in two days - the third highest volume for a two-day period since records began.
It said the key problem was the 100mm that fell in three hours on Wednesday night onto ground that was already saturated from the wettest March on record.
The Rangitāiki River was expected to remain at its current high levels for at least 18 hours.
The Whakatāne District Council said most other rivers in the area, including the Whakatāne, had started to recede.
The Whakatāne River earlier reached its highest-ever level - 8.3m.
A state of emergency was declared in the district earlier yesterday.
Lifeguards check homes in rescue boats
Lifeguards went from house to house in inflatable rescue boats when river levels peaked to check everyone got out.
Even New Zealand Army Unimogs - all-wheel drives that can handle deep water - were unable to drive through it.
Earlier, jetboats, helicopters, tractors and the Unimog took people out.
Mr Bonne earlier told RNZ a "wall of water" surged through the town after the river broke through its stopbanks.
The region was experiencing a one-in-500-year event, he said. Edgecumbe also flooded in 2004.
Residents grabbed items and ran
Senior firefighter Steve Morrisey described rescuing people and pets as water flooded into the town, turning the streets into rivers.
He said the conditions were horrendous and many houses would be ruined.
Mr Morrisey said the water was already waist deep by the time firefighters started rescuing people.
Lisa Massey, who lives with her family on College Road, evacuated early yesterday morning with a few bags in tow.
She said her firefighter husband called her with orders to evacuate. She said the process was scary and stressful, especially as she had children.
Naumai Tutua said she left for Rotorua early yesterday morning, before her husband and two of her children were asked to leave.
Ms Tutua said her family grabbed important papers and got out. The local school bus helped with evacuations instead of doing its usual school run, she said.
"We got up on our roof and had a look at the river and it was pretty high, probably less than a metre to the top of the [stopbank] which is huge width and height."
Kim Rameka's home was 150m behind the riverbank, so if it breached her home of nine years would flood and she would lose everything.
She piled her pig dogs and pets into her truck and left.
"We really need to get out of here before [it] breaches."
Ms Rameka said the river was level with its banks. It looked and sounded violent.
Residents could be out for days
Mr Bonne said yesterday residents would not be able to return to their homes for 24 to 48 hours - longer if their homes were flooded.
He said the evacuation was under control but it had been "devastating" for the community.
"Where the breach has taken place it is just like a massive river straight into the community and into people's homes."
Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett said there was still the potential for loss of life in Edgecumbe and residents should not try to return home.
The government had offered help, but local authorites felt they had the situation in hand, she said.
Minister of Civil Defence Gerry Brownlee said the mayor told him they would no doubt need financial help in the coming days and weeks.