The Manawatu floods of 2004 have had significant, long-lasting social consequences. This paper draws on findings from a series of detailed surveys of 39 farm households directly affected by the floods and 17 individuals directly involved in managing the flood recovery programme. The nature of the impact on rural families highlights how the ‘hollowing out’ of rural New Zealand has changed the capacity of rural communities to respond to natural hazards and increased their sense of isolation. In addition, the floods exposed the vulnerability of rural communities. This is shown to have implications for policies designed to build resilience and improve responses to adverse events, including the need to support local, community initiatives on self-reliance and mutual support. Approaches to manage better long-term flood risks should be designed within a context of ongoing rural decline that has compromised the health of both individuals and communities.