Sunday, April 14, 2024

“The News Stories Were Horrific Enough… They Weren’t Nearly as Sickening as the Messages From Friends” – Heroics, Hope & Heartbreak in Hawke’s Bay

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We’ve seen the videos, read the news reports and opened our wallets to help Hawke’s Bay in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. But one week on, what is happening in the devastated region now? Hawke’s Bay writer Fiona Fraser shares what’s its truly been like for the last seven days – both the stories of loss and heartbreak, and the moving tales of hope, happiness and heroics that are now emerging.

On Saturday, my husband trudged through the door in his high vis and hard hat and clocked me crumpled in a heap on the couch. “You look a bit… paralysed” he ventured.

And that was exactly what I was. Paralysed with shock, engulfed in nervous exhaustion and numbed by an unrelenting stream of images and stories about Cyclone Gabrielle swamping my news feeds, each one more disturbing than the last.

So, while Scott was out in the heat, joining small crews of our neighbours as they took chainsaws to the innumerable trees blocking roads, driveways, and threatening homes, I was weeping and watching Married at First Sight.

Rewind to the early hours of Tuesday morning, when I woke with a jolt in my Hawke’s Bay home to a flash of white light and the sound of a transformer exploding. As rain and wind lashed the windows, we burrowed further under the blankets and hoped for the best.

In the morning, we rose to – nothingness. No power, no mobile reception, so no contact with the outside world. Just an eerie silence and so much water. It filled our paddocks, our sheep perched gingerly on the approximately five square metres of land spared from what was now a raging stream. Trees crushed our fences. There was a tonne of mud, but huge relief that the worst was over. How could we be so wrong?

It seems incredibly bizarre to recall this now, but the following 48 hours were kind of a good time. Our teen couldn’t use his screen, so he was on clean-up duties with Scott. Sometimes he even voluntarily engaged us in conversation.

I found some matches, lit the gas hob and made pasta sauce. My cousin – a sommelier staying from Sydney for a few days (more days that she had planned on, as it turned out) – mixed Negronis and perused our wine collection, choosing a couple of bottles for later.

“But Cyclone Gabrielle was still to reveal to us her true violence… with the swift influx of WiFi came a dose of reality we simply never saw coming,” says Fiona Fraser.

The following day – Wednesday – was even more fun. The floodwater had started to subside at our place so I drove carefully over to see some friends. Scott had thrown a rather rapidly defrosting leg of lamb in the wood-fired pizza oven so we invited them to come over and share it with us later that day. By 2pm, there were 12 of us enjoying an impromptu late lunch under our wisteria, silently congratulating ourselves on our resourcefulness in the face of SUCH ADVERSITY.

But Cyclone Gabrielle was still to reveal to us her true violence. Just as we were about to work out how to spark up the generator we’d suddenly remembered we had, the power flicked on. And with the swift influx of WiFi came a dose of reality we simply never saw coming.

I don’t need to describe it to you. Because you saw it too. You saw it first.

The news stories were horrific enough, but they weren’t nearly as sickening as some of the messages we were getting from friends. Houses trashed, families hungry, people missing – some already found dead. We saw a video of a local man (a passionate animal lover who spends many hours training our infuriating dogs to be better behaved) who had only barely escaped with his life, clinging to a rooftop while watching his neighbours’ horses drown and knowing his own three treasured dogs had already suffered the same fate. Then, we knew it was time to peel ourselves away from the laptop and act.

My memories of my civil defence training in 2017 are foggy but I reckon it’s like riding a bike. By that evening, I was doing a night shift as one of the emergency response PIMs, or Public Information Managers. A lot of the role is responding to the hundreds – thousands – of pleas coming in from the small proportion of residents who DO have reception or access to Facebook. Want to know what messages people send you in the dark of night, not knowing if anyone is on their way to save them?

“My wife’s oxygen tank will run out tonight.”

“We can’t find our son.”

“My elderly parents don’t have a way to keep their insulin cold.”

“My mokopuna are missing.”

“We have no food and our babies are crying – please come.”

Amongst all the worry, there was the amazing news that Waka Kotahi had reopened the only passable road between Napier and Hastings – supplies could be moved, families reunited. But we knew things were going to get worse before they got better.

The following day – Friday – was for getting my cousin to the airport, now that this was possible. Actually, I didn’t drive her. Scott did. I knew I didn’t want to see what was just a few kilometres from our gate. I was, for all intents and purposes, burying my head in the silt.

Sure enough, he returned with stories of apocalyptic scenes – our thriving horticulture sector savaged, with onions uprooted and blown into apple trees. Slips as far as the eye could see, bloated stock carcasses piling up on the side of the roads, cars flipped by the voracity of the water and homes covered in so much mud that the only thing still visible was the tip of the chimney.

I founded and still run a community Facebook page in our town of Havelock North. Overnight, our numbers had ballooned to 12,000 members. But through that channel, some welcome comfort. Our little village was pulling together in the most extraordinary way, gifting supplies, mobilising workforces to clean up homes, offering hot showers, charging station, trucks, trailers, EVEN A HELICOPTER to get to the isolated.

Where there is loss there is warmth, and where there is good there is also bad. Myself and my co-admins Kate and Tony were also dealing with reports of looting, young mums needing emergency locksmiths to help secure their properties, and with the home detention ankle bracelets all but useless without the tech to track them, some very vulnerable and worried people.

Which brings me to Saturday. Incapacitated – but just for a day. My friends caught up in this disaster have reported the same thing happening – the survivors’ guilt of being relatively unscathed by the destructive force of Cyclone Gabrielle. Journalist turned counsellor Tommy Livingstone, in a piece he wrote for NZ Herald, helped me a lot though. “It is simply not your fault that your neighbour’s house was ruined, and yours wasn’t,” he shared. “Or that you survived, and someone you know did not. It may sound silly, but it’s worth reminding yourself that you did not cause these events – and you are not responsible for the uneven or unfair spread of consequences.”

And there is light in the dark. So much light. Would you like to hear some of Gabrielle’s good news? Here’s also what’s been going on in this neck of the woods.

A woman swam through floodwaters to reach her elderly parents who would have otherwise almost certainly drowned.

A couple who were supposed to be married at one of our beautiful local heritage homes instead pulled their workboots on with a smile and helped clear the property they can no longer wed at.

People are turning up daily at our makeshift animal evacuation centre to walk the dogs who are waiting patiently to be reunited with their owners.

And The Environment Centre Hawke’s Bay mobilised within hours of Cyclone Gabrielle, ditching business as usual and coordinating a response that has blown the region away. Right now, they are organising and delivering 3000 plus cooked meals daily, along with bedding, clothing and toiletries and getting them trucked and choppered by selfless individuals to those in need. You can help fund their amazing kaupapa here.

A final thought. When we’re ready, and you are too, please come visit us in Hawke’s Bay. We need your support. We’d love your company. We won’t be paralysed for long.

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