24 Feb 2023

Victim of attempted break-in at cyclone-damaged Puketapu house pleads for more back-up

7:16 am on 24 February 2023
Damaged household items are piling up on Puketapu roads, but volunteers are removing the rubbish.

Damaged household items are piling up on Puketapu roads. Photo: RNZ/ Jimmy Ellingham

This past Wednesday afternoon, in broad daylight, Rebecca* gets a call from her husband telling her a group of people had been trying to break into their empty, flood-ravaged house in Puketapu, Hawke's Bay.

Driving past, one of their neighbours had seen the group, who "obviously didn't look like they belonged in our house," she said. When he pulled over and asked what they were doing, they told her neighbour they "were just looking to go for a swim".

"But obviously, our house has no swimming pool, it's covered in mud, not a glimpse of a pool or anywhere to swim in sight," Rebecca said. "But they managed to get a key in our back door."

The neighbour "politely asked them to leave, which obviously is a pretty common story out there".

Rebecca then rang police and a patrol car was there "relatively quickly, and the Eagle helicopter" but with a lack of details, including a number plate, there "wasn't a hell of a lot that they could do," she told RNZ.

"We've got nothing left in our house, we've got nothing left in general on our property, so I'm not too sure what they thought they were going to find, but they were giving it a good shot."

After having her family's home devastated and lives turned upside down, this was "tipping [them] over the edge," Rebecca said.

"It's not good enough anymore, someone needs to come and give us some help.

"We were already feeling really fragile. We're one of the lucky ones, but obviously, it's still quite a state to be in, all the time, remembering that you've lost your home, you can't go back there; we just finished renovating two years ago, our house was pretty much brand new."

The Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay after it burst its banks during Cyclone Gabrielle.

The Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay after it burst its banks during Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Supplied / Dawson Bliss

Even though it was sitting empty, even though they had "lost everything", she said the people found on their property were "trying to take more from us".

"You can probably hear it in my voice, I'm quite shaky, we're quite shaky all the time.

"It's just awful to know that we've done everything we can to get our house back to a clean, tidy state to start again, and these people just want to take even more."

Rebecca has a desperate plea for "someone who can actually enforce the law" to help protect the community from "gangs or whoever it may be".

"The locals can't do that. They can say, 'don't come in here', but what if they end up getting shot or hurt protecting us?"

"It needs to be the army or the police force or whoever it may be, that actually can give these guys some repercussions for their actions - because we can't do that."

She said her story of people trying to break in or steal belongings was "commonplace", and there was "certainly a lot of fear from people who had lost everything".

There were "a lot of people and a lot of cars around out there that we know for sure aren't locals, and they aren't the volunteers that are doing a great job," Rebecca said. "There are people that are out there trying to take advantage of people like us that are already devastated."

Police she had dealt with personally were "great, they were really onto it, they got out there really quickly".

"We asked what the repercussions would be and if there would be more patrols and they said 'we would like to be', but they're obviously just getting their orders from the higher powers and they weren't sure what that would entail."

Rebecca said that left them "feeling helpless and just waiting for another call from a neighbour, or to turn back up to our house and see that they have got into anything that we've got left, or to hear from a neighbour who's living near that they've been held up at gunpoint".

The locals "were terrified ... especially ones that are still there", she said. "I couldn't imagine living out there at the moment.

"There's no power, so most of them have got no lights; the communication is really intermittent so even getting through to the police, if they needed help, would potentially not happen," Rebecca said.

"So I think they feel really isolated, it's locals that are helping, there's not a lot of police presence and, as far as I'm aware, there's no army presence, no sort of defence presence out there."

She was extremely concerned about the safety of her community: "In the very near future, it will be our locals, that have been defending our areas, that are going to be held up at gunpoint during the day or at nighttime, by whatever lowlifes trying to go out there".

When questioned earlier in the week about whether police were maintaining law and order in the region, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the data did not show any spike in "dishonesty" crimes, but there had been an increase in family violence.

Chris Hipkins boards a helicopter for a flight from Napier to Wairoa after the devastation of cyclone Gabrielle. The flight had to be abandoned due to low cloud.

Chris Hipkins boards a helicopter for a flight from Napier to Wairoa on 22 February after the devastation of cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Pool / George Heard

The prime minister, too, has been downplaying any suggestion of lawlessness in any of the affected areas.

On Monday, he said police were not reporting any increase in crime over and above what they would normally expect to deal with in Hawke's Bay, but 140 extra police staff had been sent in to boost numbers.

"Any suggestion that things are out of control is just wrong, and amplifying those kind of rumours isn't helpful and it doesn't help the police to do their jobs."

Rebecca's advice to those in charge: "Feel free to go and sit in Puketapu during the day and at night, and you'll have an entirely different view on that after probably just a few hours."

"There's no help, we're not getting a lot of support; they need to be out there, on the ground," she said.

"There needs to be more presence, and there needs to be people actually, physically stopping people from going into these rural communities."

* Rebecca is not her real name, RNZ has agreed to use a pseudonym to protect her identity

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