16 Feb 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle: Stories of hope amongst ruin in Hawke's Bay

10:04 pm on 16 February 2023

Heartbreaking stories of people who have lost everything are emerging, as the devastation Cyclone Gabrielle brought upon Hawke's Bay becomes clearer.

However, there are stories of hope and community among the wreckage.

It is hard to comprehend the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle across Hawke's Bay. Thousands are displaced, and whanāu are struggling to reconnect with loved ones as power, internet, and cellphone service are still patchy for many.

On Tuesday, Natalie Morgans - along with 11 other Pakowhai residents - gathered on a roof while floodwaters rose until they were lapping at the spouting.

Morgans said farm animals and pets could not be saved.

"When the water really came up, we sat and listened to three-and-a-half hours... to sheep dying and there were cows, we could hear them drowning. The pig that everyone had been trying to catch on canoes swam past, and then he went under the water and didn't come back."

Morgans was rescued by helicopter and taken to Flaxmere Community Centre.

The evacuation centre has become a home to about 25 people - babies, grandparents, young couples, displaced whānau.

A child shyly tapped a young man on the shoulder and asked him to play a card game - and the whole table joined in. They knew each other's stories, made each other cups of tea, and helped bring in supplies when they arrived - becoming volunteers themselves.

People were in tears describing their harrowing experiences and how they got to be there - and then in tears again when they spoke of the aroha they'd received from the moment they arrived.

Boxes of shoes, clothes and more at the Flaxmere Community Centre.

Much-needed gear at the Flaxmere Community Centre. Photo: Lauren Crimp / RNZ

They arrived with nothing and nowhere to go, and Morgans said they found open arms.

"All I wanted to do was brush my teeth. I know it sounds silly. Well the next thing, this lovely person leans over me, gives me a big hug and hands me a toothbrush."

Hastings ambassador and former councillor Henare O'Keefe said the love shown by the community was just the Flaxmere way.

"It's amazing. If I could put this in a bottle and sprinkle it all over the country, our social ills would disappear overnight."

Chance Wharekawa and Melissa (last name not known).

Chance Wharekawa and Melissa. Photo: Lauren Crimp / RNZ

Chance Wharekawa was brought to the centre after he cycled for two hours in knee-deep water before helping his partner out of quickly rising floodwaters in Pakowhai.

"Even though everything was closed, I had to get to her."

As he approached Pakowhai, Wharekawa said he had to take a moment to take in the breathtaking damage before arriving at his partner's house.

"My heart dropped. I can't explain the feeling I got when I saw her house fully submerged."

He bumped into a lifeguard rescue team saving animals, who checked out the house for him and found it empty. The lifeguard lent Wharekawa his phone, and he managed to reach Melissa who was safe in Flaxmere, where they were reunited.

"Hearing her voice, the hugest feeling of relief I've ever felt."

It was nice to see people helping each other, he said.

"That's what I like about this situation, is like, the way it brings everybody together. It's really beautiful to see a community come together like this, support each other."

Wharekawa said there was no plan yet to return home, and he was taking it day by day.

'Part of the family now'

Taneshia Gill works at the Flaxmere community centre. They had been well-supplied by local people, and evacuees had became whānau in just a day or two, she said.

"They're a part of the family now. They're not allowed to leave Flaxmere at all, and one of them, when she did reunite with her family, as she was leaving she was like, 'I feel like I'm going on an overseas trip. This is my family now, I don't ever want to go.'"

Taneshia Gill with Henare O'Keefe, a former Hastings District Councillor.

Taneshia Gill with Henare O'Keefe, a former Hastings District Councillor. Photo: Lauren Crimp / RNZ

Other evacuation centres around the region have brought the community together too. The community Hall in Raukawa has opened to get supplies together for people struggling in Napier and Hastings.

Gill said they had so much, they were sorting and delivering supplies to other Civil Defence evacuation centres in Hawke's Bay.

"We've had people that we know from the community that have loads of kids, 10 kids or more, and they're coming in and donating things, and their babies are like, 'We've made parcels for other kids.'

"Just that kind of stuff, it just really warms our heart knowing the community is in it together - it won't matter how long it's gonna take."

Megan Meads was helping out at the hall.

"We've got pillows, blankets, duvets, babies' sheets and clothing there, and also sleeping bags and loads of towels and sanitary items."

They put out a call for items on Facebook, and within two hours the donations were already piled high.

Meanwhile, out on the ground people were struggling physically to get from place to place.

Earlier this week, the swollen Maraekakaho River eroded the approach to the bridge into the nearby settlement. The river has since receded, leaving behind debris, hay bales in trees and deep grooves into the road, cutting access.

But locals and contractors have pitched in, first restoring the road to one lane and now moving gravel to attempt to restore the second lane.

A tractor is used as residents in Raukawa clear a large tree branch that blocked a road towards Maraekakaho.

Local residents in Raukawa clear a large tree branch that blocked a road towards Maraekakaho. Photo: Tess Brunton

Maraekakaho volunteer fire brigade crew leader Ian Quinn has been clearing roads.

"From Wednesday, we had people out with tractors clearing slips and filling in holes, kind of working alongside the roading contractors to really free things up as quickly as possible."

The brigade rescued people and stock when the flooding hit, with one person wading through blackberry bushes and going through chest-high water to help move stock to higher ground, Quinn said.

Mattresses on the floor of the Flaxmere Community Centre.

Inside the Flaxmere Community Centre. Photo: Lauren Crimp / RNZ

One woman has been operating a make-shift internet cafe out of her caravan to connect an isolated Hawke's Bay community with their families.

Sarah Grant said after Cyclone Gabrielle took out roads, reception and power in Dartmoor, the locals were left isolated and afraid.

Her Starlink satellite internet had been a saving grace for worrying friends and family, she said. They had been connecting with everyone who lived along the isolated 20km length of country road.

"We've got 17 kids under the age of 15, including two babies under one year old, so 83 people total connected up here.

"We are going to try and push inland further where the roads are not so bad, because we know that there's people up the road with young kids who might be isolated. We can not go eastward, the slips are just too big, too dangerous."

Uncertainty over the roading network across Hawke's Bay looks likely to continue for some time, with roads and bridges being assessed for safety.

Civil Defence said there were lots of people putting their hand up to help with the recovery and it was in the process of coordinating volunteers who wanted to help.

National Emergency Management Agency advice:

  • Put safety first. Don't take any chances. Act quickly if you see rising water. Floods and flash floods can happen quickly. If you see rising water do not wait for official warnings. Head for higher ground and stay away from floodwater.
  • Do not try to walk, play, swim, or drive in floodwater: even water just 15 centimetres deep can sweep you off your feet, and half a metre of water will carry away most vehicles.
  • If you have evacuated, please stay where you are until you are given the all-clear to go home.
  • If you don't need to evacuate, support those who do by staying home, staying off roads and staying safe.
  • If you are not able to contact your whānau in the heavily affected areas go to Police 105 website and complete the inquiry form or phone 105 and remember to update if you reconnect through other means.
  • Throw away food and drinking water that has come into contact with floodwater as it is often contaminated and can make you sick.
  • If you are without power eat the food from your fridge first, then your freezer. Then eat the food in the cupboard or your emergency kit.
  • People should stay up to date with the forecasts from MetService and continue to follow the advice of civil defence and emergency services.
  • A National State of Emergency is in place for an initial period of seven days and applies to regions that have declared a local State of Emergency.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs