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A day in Napier (Photos: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Tina Tiller)
A day in Napier (Photos: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 24, 2023

Ten days on from Gabrielle, Napier is still picking up the pieces 

A day in Napier (Photos: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Tina Tiller)
A day in Napier (Photos: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Tina Tiller)

The cleanup continues in cyclone-stricken Hawke’s Bay. Stewart Sowman-Lund visits Napier as the rain returns. 

Another day of rain in Hawke’s Bay is enough to further dampen both spirits and the already sodden ground. But not even an orange rain warning can hamper the ongoing cleanup effort after Cyclone Gabrielle.

It’s been about 10 days now since the devastating storm crashed through the North Island, cutting off communities, racking up potentially $1 billion in damage, and leaving at least 11 families grieving. In Napier, the impacts of the unprecedented weather are apparent even from the air. You do not need to look far to spot vast stretches of what were once lush paddocks and farmlands now looking more like expansive lakes. The eastern coastline isn’t its usual sandy shade of grey, but instead vibrant orange – littered with woody debris, turning beaches into forestry graveyards.

Scattered debris as far as the eye can see (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

On the ground, there’s a smell that hits you as soon as you walk outside. It’s the stench of mud, stagnant water, and whatever else hides beneath the flood. In the city centre of Napier, that’s the only tangible reminder of what the region has faced – aside from a pair of camouflage-garbed soldiers sitting outside a cafe. The power is on again, internet connectivity is back up and running, and things in the city feel oddly normal.

But you only need to head a few kilometres away from the central city and any sense of normality quickly evaporates. Following a procession of army vehicles down the coastline, I pass by kilometre after kilometre of beachfront coated in logs and rubbish. In Whirinaki, a small coastal settlement outside Napier, a sea of logs lie among washed up clothing, household items and piles of other indistinguishable rubbish. A nearby bin is more than just overflowing – it’s encircled by flood waste.

The coastal road ends before you can make it too far out of town. The direct route to Wairoa remains blocked off and officials have said it could be some time before it reopens. The small township of Eskdale was one of the worst hit areas in Hawke’s Bay. While the water may have receded, footpaths resemble mud tracks and the sound of buzzing generators is all around. There’s a wartime feel, in the sense that the community is rallying together and chipping in. A cafe, for example, displays a makeshift medical banner, while the nearby hall has been transformed into a Civil Defence zone. Among the essentials hooked up to a whirring generator: a coffee cart advertising “free coffee for volunteers”. 

Driving inland, I pass what at first glance appears to be a lake but is actually a still-submerged paddock. It’s hard to believe that before Gabrielle, this sprawling body of water did not exist. If you squint at the below photo you’ll see that the water is almost to the top of fence, even after 10 days.

A submerged paddock in the Esk Valley (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Further inland, the small community of Puketapu feels a world away from Napier’s city centre. Mobile signal is limited and internet coverage is still down. In effect, the community remains cut off. For those able to stay in their homes, generators are keeping food cold and people warm.

Farmer Terry is outside surveying damage to his land. He’s unexpectedly chipper considering the circumstances. Like many in the area, his house was hit by floodwaters during the initial downpour. But unlike his neighbours, the water only made it up to ankle height. That seems lucky, I say, before Terry tells me his house is raised up on pylons and still managed to flood. His son’s house wasn’t so lucky: “It’s been destroyed.” 

Up the street, Terry points out road signs and fences ripped clean out of the ground. It looks more like the aftermath of an earthquake, with piles of silt and mud lining the street. As the nearby stream burst its banks, it pulled nearby plants, including sprawling blackberry vines, into the barbed wire fences, tangling them together and tearing them straight out of the earth. 

Mangled road signs in Puketapu, near Napier (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

On the motorway heading south to Hastings, similar disaster scenes show the devastating impact of forestry slash. The state highway remains on a stop-go system in some parts due to road damage, and a train bridge running parallel dangles freely into the water, the rails warped out of shape as they plunge below.

It’s sights like this that have prompted the government to take action. An inquiry, chaired by former National education minister Hekia Parata, will investigate past and current land-use practices and the impact of woody debris including forestry slash and sediment on communities, livestock, buildings and the environment. “Things have to change because slash on beaches, in rivers, on farms is unacceptable,” forestry minister Stuart Nash says at a media stand-up announcing the inquiry.

The announcement is made during a visit by prime minister Chris Hipkins to Hawke’s Bay, where he meets with volunteers at a Defence Force-led distribution centre that’s been set up at the Tomoana showgrounds in Hastings. Wet weather gear is being prioritised, he’s told, particularly with more rain on the horizon. “That’s a pretty practical thing at the moment,” says Hipkins, looking at a box filled with new gumboots. The prime minister has opted for less appropriate footwear, donning what appears to be leather sneakers – though he’s later spotted carrying a pair of wellies in a Countdown shopping bag.

Napier MP Stuart Nash, flanked by officials including emergency management minister Kieran McAnulty and PM Chris Hipkins, speaks to media in Hawke’s Bay (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

It’s expected that the recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke’s Bay will take months, if not longer. “I understand how traumatic this has been,” says Hipkins. “People have been put under a lot of pressure. In many cases they just got the power back on, they just got the communications back on and it started to rain again.”

The prime minister does have some welcome news, however: there’s now only a small number of unaccounted-for people and no further bodies have been found. He’s also more prepared than he was earlier in the week to answer questions about crime concerns in the region. After meeting with Hawke’s Bay police, Hipkins says he’s been made aware of “first-hand accounts” of violent behaviour in the wake of the cyclone. He is, however, reluctant to reveal exactly what that means when asked to elaborate. “There is a greater degree of concern and anxiety in the community,” he says. “People have seen the nature [of the crimes] reported in the media. I’m not going to do the police’s job for them.”

Hipkins pledges to return “regularly” to the worst affected regions after admitting he’s still to visit areas like Puketapu and the Esk Valley. Later in the day, Hipkins’ chopper to Wairoa is turned around on its way to what would have been his first trip to the isolated community. The reason: poor weather.

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