Amy Spence was in bed when rapidly rising waters inundated her Gisborne home during Cyclone Gabrielle. She hasn’t stopped cleaning since.
“I used to have an amazing edible garden, but that’s all gone,” says Amy Spence. She’s in her car, kids can be heard chatting in the background. Spence has spent the past week assessing the damage and cleaning up her Graham Ave home in Gisborne in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. On Instagram, she’s posted photos of her home, inundated with mud and silt after the nearby Waimatā River flooded higher than ever before. “It’s crazy,” she says.
She’s missing more than just her vege garden. Spence’s cracked voice fades in and out, sometimes completely. Power’s only just been restored to parts of Gisborne, which means patchy cell service has resumed. It’s why she’s able to briefly talk to me. The kids aren’t hers – she’s looking after them on behalf of helicopter pilots running essential missions around the region. When she pulls over for better reception, it barely helps.
But there’s one thing that cuts through the dicey connection: “I’ve been here for 13 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
No one has. Along with the Far North, and Muriwai and Piha in Auckland, the East Coast is among the regions hit hardest by Cyclone Gabrielle. In the most damaged parts of Te Matau-a-Māui / Hawke’s Bay, the death toll is slowly rising and thousands of residents still remain unaccounted for, key infrastructure like roads and bridges have been decimated, and major looting has occurred.
Those able to return to their homes are finding them red stickered or needing weeks or months of cleaning before they’re likely to be habitable again. If there’s ever going to be a recovery, a sense of some kind of new normal, that’s likely years away.
When The Spinoff manages to get through, Spence has already spent days cleaning her two-storey home. She started at 7am the day after the storm hit, and sometimes it feels like it’s all the caterer is ever doing. She’s been yellow-stickered, meaning she’s allowed to cautiously return home. But only her top floor is habitable, with isolated power and occasional hot water supplied by gas. The entire bottom floor is caked in mud. The office is a tip. Her deck is covered in homeware that will probably all be thrown away.
When she bought her home and moved in 13 years ago, Spence found a mark on the wall indicating the height floodwaters reached during 1988’s devastating Cyclone Bola. She’s added her own mark to the wall now, an indication of how destructive Cyclone Gabrielle has been. “We’ve gone maybe 1.2 meters higher than Cyclone Bola,” she says.
Despite the mess, Spence considers herself one of the more fortunate Tairāwhiti residents. Her kids weren’t home – they were spending the night with their dad, meaning she didn’t have the stress of evacuating kids in the dark with rising floodwaters. Others weren’t so lucky. “It would have been a much more traumatic experience if the kids had been with me,” she says. “We’re safe. We’ve got all our family around. We’re pretty lucky … we’re super lucky.”
Through the digital haze, Spence details the hours she spent sandbagging her place, and her neighbours’, in the lead-up to Cyclone Gabrielle’s arrival. “The news said it was [likely to be] more [dangerous] in Tolaga Bay,” she says. Any warning she was given was inadequate. By 9pm, she’d showered and was tucked up in bed. “I thought I was pretty safe,” she says. “We anticipated the water might get up ankle deep at the most.”
It quickly got worse than that. “All of a sudden the trees started groaning,” she says. Within 10 minutes the water had broken over the river’s banks. Forty minutes later it was lapping at her front door. River levels rose faster than she’d ever thought possible. “This was really fast and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I was knee deep through my downstairs pretty quick.”
Spence checked on her flatmate, then her elderly neighbour. Nearby residents formed a squad and began working “as a big unit” to keep everyone safe. Just after midnight, water levels got too high – “way past knee-deep” – and they evacuated. By 7am, Spence was returning home to assess the damage. “It was still well over a metre high through the interior of my house,” she says.
That’s when the clean-up began. Neighbours rallied around, helping each other out to clear the mud and silt. For days now, they’ve been shovelling mountains of mud out of their homes, scraping it off their walls, their floors, their decks, their furniture, their carpet and chairs. At night, they wash it off their hands, legs and faces.
Spence’s once-blue swimming pool is now dirt brown. So is everything around it. No one’s going to be swimming in it for a very long time. “It’s gonna be months and months of just puttering along cleaning up,” she says.
Over the past few days, Spence has had a chance to start thinking, to begin asking questions. A week on from Cyclone Gabrielle, she wants to know why officials are yet to visit her property, to offer her and her neighbours advice, to tell her what to do. How does someone move forward from any of this?
So far, she doesn’t know the answer. “We haven’t seen anyone from Civil Defence, anyone from Council,” she says. “No one has been down to see any of our properties. There’s been no officials. What do we do? There’s been no clear process. There’s been no communications from anyone.”
Instead, in the absence of any kind of official plan, she and the rest of her flooded neighbours have rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They’re doing it themselves, figuring out a way to move forward, to try and rebuild and return to the lives they once had.
“You’re left to your own devices,” says Spence. “No one really knew that was the deal, that’s what you had to do [in an emergency].”
There’s another, bigger question. Should Spence stay put, or start making plans to leave? She pins the blame for the flooding squarely on forestry causing slash – the leftover waste from treefelling – for wreaking havoc along riverbeds. “Council never cleared all the slash from bridges,” she says. “If they’d cleared all the slash that was backed up, the water would have flowed and it wouldn’t have been quite the experience we had.”
For the short-term, Spence is hellbent on cleaning up. There’s no other option. “As a community, we’ve all banded together,” she says. “Guys are rolling up their sleeves to get the job done.” Every day she ends caked in mud, but a little closer to the home she once knew.
Long term? That’s a question that might have to wait. For Spence, it depends on what happens to the river, the one she used to drag kayaks down to for a casual paddle. “Is there going to be slash in the river and on our beaches?” she asks. “If that’s the case, we can’t go back … it’s just not possible.
“If they’re not going to do anything about it, I feel like we’re all a bit doomed.”