9 Feb 2024

A year after Gabrielle, "a little bit of a miracle"

From Country Life, 7:19 pm on 9 February 2024

It’s very close to a year since a brown swirling mass of logs punched through stop banks, bowling down many of the Wilson family’s apple trees, leaving their Hawkes Bay orchard smothered in stinking mud.

As well as cleaning up, it’s been a year of wading through paperwork and plans, of swirling among zoning decisions and loan schemes.

Can we replant and rebuild, how and when?

Despite the tumult Cyclone Gabrielle brought to her and her family, Lesley Wilson always seemed serene and matter-of-fact when Country Life checked in on her progress every few months, giving a snapshot of life in repair-mode after the worst weather event to hit the area in living memory.

Tree debris piled high on the Wilson family orchard after Cyclone Gabrielle. It bowled over apple trees.

Tree debris piled high on the Wilson family orchard after Cyclone Gabrielle. It bowled over apple trees. Photo: Lesley Wilson

"It's a bit exhausting but we're getting there,” she told us a week after losing more than a quarter of their orchard, their home and their offspring's, the vehicles and all the machinery in the massive February 14 storm. Not to mention having to deal with all that mud and slash.

But she had a toothbrush and a hairbrush and a change of clothes, enough for the time-being.

Three months later uncertainty hung in the air and the clean-up, on top of a meaningless harvest was gruelling.

Apples on the top half of trees sitting in silt had to go in the bin.

Silt drying and cracking at Lesley Wilson's orchard on Swamp Road in Hawkes Bay after Cyclone Gabrielle

Silt metres deep had to be cleared, and the orchard floor levelled Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

She sounded frustrated. They needed clear direction from the government.

"We need to be able to make decisions about whether we can live where we want to live or not, whether we can rebuild or not. 

They had fixed up a cabin on the property and were preparing for winter without the normal comforts. But she was also optimistic.

“I'm still pretty positive really, I have my bad moments but as long as the sun keeps shining it's good."

Gabrielle, if anything, had brought the community closer, she said. They had made new friends and Mary Danielson of the local Puketapu pub had looked after the locals.

"It keeps your head on straight and gives you a few laughs and you can carry on."

Mary Danielson says she's anxious about reopening, but looking forward to seeing the regulars again.

Mary Danielson of the Puketapu Hotel Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

In August she was surprised at how far they had come. They were 18 months ahead of where they thought they might be. Logs had been cleared and composted, silt was being removed. But had the surviving trees suffered under the load?

They would have to wait a few more months till blossom time, she said, do some leaf analysis, wait and see.

The community was coping but only just, she told us.

The house on the orchard, where their adult children lived, had to be demolished, authorities had decreed. Their own home could be rebuilt.

“Whether we will or not, we’re going around in circles, but we can’t do a thing until the insurance company gives us some money.”

Living in the cabin over the wet winter was “not ideal”.

Puketapu bridge in Hawke's Bay - swept away in Cyclone Gabrielle

The Puketapu Bridge was wiped out in the cyclone Photo: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

There would be no grants from the government for rehabilitation of the land, but a loan scheme instead which was providing a measure of certainty.

“At least we know where we’re at.”

“I think for a lot of people, tears might be just below the surface but they’re getting on and doing what they need to do and understanding what they’re feeling is completely normal.”

“There is help out there for people and the community keeps an eye on each other.”

The local Puketapu pub continued to be a hub for the community split in two after the bridge went.

It was a place to gather and share the load.

Picking has begun at the Wilson family orchard in Hawkes Bay a year after Cyclone Gabrielle caused huge damage

A year after Gabrielle, the fruit is being picked and looking amazing Photo: Supplied

Then this week, just a few days before the anniversary of Gabrielle, apple picking began and Lesley took my call from the orchard as the harvest got underway.

“The fruit is looking amazing!” she said. It was a “vintage” crop right around Hawkes Bay.

Incredible, considering this time last year the trees were under several metres of water and then silt.

It was due to “a little bit of a miracle” on top of a great growing season – hot summer days and rain at the right time, she said.

Now the task was to get the crop in so they had cash flow for the coming year.

They were looking forward to replanting the 12 hectares they lost in the storm but were still working through the process of securing loans for the job which could cost up to $200,000 a hectare.

“The exciting thing with that is it will be put into new and exciting varieties and the new intensive growing system.”

They had started rebuilding their home after insurance came through.

“We got there in the end, but it was a bit of a fight.”

“We’re certainly not as bad off as some people who are still in caravans. At least we’ve got four solid walls.

I asked Lesley if she had any plans to commemorate the day when things turned upside down.

She said she and others just wanted to ignore the day, but the Puketapu pub was putting on a community dinner.

“I actually can’t think of a place I’d rather be on that day, so I think we’ll go down there and kick this last year into touch.”