On Monday morning the weather was fine. By the following Monday, the city had changed forever.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Illustrations by Marc Conaco
The rain chases me into my car.
I leave for work at 4am on the morning of what would later be called “Cyclone Eve”. It’s dark and the weather is fine. I can hear the sea roaring off in the distance – not unusual, considering Cyclone Gabrielle, whose arrival was forecast weeks ago, is approaching.
As I close the gate with the car idling at the curb, I hear another sound. It’s closer than the sea. And getting closer still.
Then I see it – the glow of the bulb three streetlights away is suddenly blurred by a fog of heavy rain, then two lights away, then right next door. I jump into the car, slam the door shut and buzz the windows up just as the squall hits my car broadside. Sheets of wind-driven rain lash the car as I drive to work through Marewa and Pandora.
Management has engaged a cyclone action plan whereby staff at our site, just north of the Esk River, are to leave work by 4pm Monday and those who can are expected to work from home on Tuesday.
As the weather in Napier hasn’t improved and the bulk of my work is done by 8am, I leave earlier still to take my nine-year-old daughter to school in the rain. Oddly, while all the city’s high schools have already announced over the weekend that they will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, many primary schools still run as normal on Monday.
After the school run, we keep a cautious eye on the creek across the road from home, which almost spilled over in the disastrous floods of November 2020. It’s up, but not by much.
So far, so good.
Steady rain continues throughout the day and trees bend but don’t break.
We hunker down and go to bed, the falling rain barely audible over the sound of the wind.
I wake early and do some paperwork at home as the rain and wind’s severity just keeps elevating outside, peaking around dawn.
I am keeping an eye on social media to see what’s happening weather-wise around the region. Lots of trees are down, lots of rivers are up. The Esk River has broken its banks, and the already rather feeble Esk River bridge, which I have written of before, is allegedly damaged.
Not long after 7am I lose work connectivity. Not unusual, as losing power at work would naturally cut off remote access.
I see pictures of Esk Valley on Facebook and Twitter. It’s no longer a valley, it’s all Esk River.
I learn later that by this time my entire work site is under about two meters of water.
Other reports start coming in.
The Puketapu Bridge over the Tutaekuri River is damaged (we learn later that it has gone completely).
This bridge is (WAS) about ten meters above the regular height of the river. At intermediate school, we conducted nature studies underneath it, measuring river water for clarity and speed. We measured how fast it was flowing by timing how long it took to float tennis balls downstream a given distance in a controlled situation.
But this situation is anything but controlled.
A Facebook friend posts that the Tutaekuri river has overflowed its banks near Waiohiki Bridge, by the Pettigrew Green Arena. It flows into the EIT Te Pukenga campus, the area surrounding Waiohiki Marae across the river and into the streets of Taradale.
Taradale is flooding!
My in-laws had become increasingly concerned about the river’s height throughout the morning watching social media updates, so they come to our place “for a visit” around 9am, just as the evacuation notice is given. They see the river water coming down a nearby street towards them as they head east to our house with police and buses going the opposite direction to evacuate people.
We lose power before they arrive.
Redclyffe substation, which provides Napier’s power from Wairaki in Taupo, is underwater.
When I was in primary school my dad worked for the NZED (New Zealand Electricity Department) before Rogernomics filleted, gutted and asset-stripped it to sell to private interests. He took us to Redclyffe on the way to or from the dump one day. We sat in the control room – it had a very 60s-70s civil servant aesthetic, even in the late 80s – and looked out through big windows at the mass of transformers and power lines corralled in meters-high chain-link and barbed wire beyond.
The defensive fences are there for a reason – millions of volts buzz just outside the window. Dad’s friend, who was the operator on duty, warned that anyone who went outside into the caged area risked being “instantly fried”.
But millions of litres of water flooding down the Tutaekuri river don’t care about fences of electric volts.
Power goes out and the city goes dark.
It’s not just power that leaves Napier in the dark.
About four hours after losing mains power, the city’s cell towers, running on back-up batteries, start dropping out – and a society so inseparable from its cell phones and internet access loses connection with itself and the rest of the world.
With the networks down and cellular devices straining to get a signal, phone batteries start running dry and dying across the city by the end of the day.
Napier started life on and around what was at the time an island: Mataruahou, later known as Napier Hill, where the settlement grew into a town and then a city.
In February 2023, it reverts to being an island again. The flooding Esk River to the north and Tutaekuri and Ngaruroro Rivers to the south cut off all state highway access to the city, and almost all communication links are broken.
Along with Coromandel, Tairāwhiti and a number of other regions where Gabrielle’s force is being felt the worst, Hawke’s Bay declares a state of emergency midmorning on Tuesday, and soon afterwards, a national state of emergency is also declared, but many of those under the state of emergency only learn of this on transistor radios and car stereos, listening to RNZ National Radio and some, but not all, of the region’s many commercial radio stations.
With my in-laws temporary evacuees at our house, we hear from neighbours that Pak n Save Napier is open with generator power, so my mother-in-law, her sister (who happens to be visiting from Australia) and I gingerly make our way there – no power equals no traffic lights and Hawke’s Bay drivers are far from the best in optimal conditions, let alone emergencies.
We are there for supplies, as is around a quarter of Napier.
It’s organised chaos.
The bare minimum is understandably operating – lights, checkouts and, thankfully in a cashless society, Eftpos. Freezers and chillers are no longer freezing or chilling and have largely been emptied or shuttered. Everyone is stressed, but this is also a very “civil” civil emergency.
Queues are very long, but orderly. People say please and thank you and are helping each other. Tension and stress are evident, but everyone seems to realise we are all in this together. We make it home safely in time for lunch with a hint of blue sky between occasional showers. The in-laws go back to see if they can gain access to residential Taradale.
They set off and due to the communications black-out we don’t hear from them immediately. We assume they made it home safely. They confirm the next day they did, though Civil Defence’s text notification for the all-clear doesn’t reach them until hours after the actual all-clear is given.
We borrow our neighbour’s gas bottle and hob to boil up some two-minute noodles and broccoli for dinner. They are fostering two puppies, whom my daughter absolutely adores. She runs around and plays with them.
There is some light in dark times.
From early evening news reports on the radio, it appears most of urban Napier has gotten off relatively lightly. While still without power or communications, our drinking water is safe and secure, and remains so for the duration of the emergency.
We move our mattress into the living room, so all three of us can sleep close together in the powerless dark. Our day of disaster ends with the setting of the sun.
I am up just before the sun and into the car to listen to our one guaranteed source of information – the radio. I periodically turn the car on and leave it running in the driveway to refresh the battery and occasionally get some charge in my phone.
With such limited communications and no power, the repeated phrase “check out our Facebook page / this website for more information” on radio becomes torturous.
Gabrielle’s flooding is still causing damage a day later. The rain has stopped but the sheer volume of water still coming down the region’s rivers hasn’t, causing residents of the low-lying Napier suburb of Te Awa to be ordered to evacuate when there is another breach of the Tutaekuri river, closer to the sea this time, inundating the Awatoto industrial area, Napier’s sewage treatment plant, and golf course before heading towards the neighbouring suburb where our daughter’s best friend lives. Her family safely evacuate to a centre at Napier’s McLean Park.
The sheer volume of urban traffic is quite amazing, but also concerning. With no power there are few to no petrol stations open, meaning fuel tanks will start running as dry as cell phone batteries if people don’t limit travel.
Taradale’s western suburban side looks like footage of Christchurch’s post-quake liquefaction in 2011.
The Tutaekuri’s overflow is everywhere and unmissable, with several centimeters of silt and mud across the streets, clogging gutters and evidently in some homes.
The smell of wet carpet is unmistakable.
We venture to Greenmeadows New World for supplies on the way home. There appear to be long queues outside, but they are all people just trying to connect to the store’s free Wi-Fi.
Everyone is still so calm and civil. No panic buying. Politely giving access to others and moral support to the staff, who must wonder just what the hell is happening. They too smile, but there is a look of tiredness and shock in many eyes.
While we treat ourselves to a block of Whittakers chocolate, many trolleys appear to contain dozens of cans or bottles of beer. Can’t really blame them, to be honest.
The first deaths are confirmed on the radio during dinner, including a child in Eskdale, which my daughter overhears. You naturally want to shelter your children from death, doom and destruction, but I also think she needs at least a little exposure to it to acclimatise to life’s perils.
Inspired by those alcohol-laden New World trolleys, I liberate a few short-dated beers from my father-in-law’s now-room-temperature beer fridge with his permission.
Others won’t be so polite. On the way home we pass a local liquor store, using its delivery vans to barricade the big glass windows at the front of the shop. It won’t work: that night they are broken into and burgled.
It won’t be the last occasion of burglary or looting, with security systems down due to the power outage. Police presence will ramp up in the city and we will have the “Eagle” helicopter circling over our city regularly for the next few evenings and nights.
The shine is coming off the civil emergency’s civility.
We empty the contents of our fridge into the bin.
The coastal route between Napier and Hastings via Clive along State Highway 51 reopened late yesterday to emergency traffic and essential travel, but with speed restrictions and stop-go points along the way.
Many Napier people have self-evacuated to Hastings to be with friends, family, or just to get fuel and power for charging devices. Some are trapped there overnight when the road temporarily closes again.
We’re staying put despite some anxiety starting to creep in about fuel and food supply levels.
If every media network had to donate $5 for every time I hear the grammatical ulceration of “the Hawke’s Bay” (it’s “Hawke’s Bay”, no “the”) during this emergency, recovery efforts would be flooded with cash, not water and silt.
I crack one of my father-in-law’s beers while listening to updates not long after lunch. We don’t need the radio to know there’s a lot going on today – sirens are constant throughout the day.
We live on one of the main access roads to the Civil Defence centre based at the Napier Fire Station and see some, but not all, of the emergency vehicles going past. Fire engines mainly, but other rescue vehicles as well. A convoy of four-wheel-drives pass our house towing trailers stacked with Surf Rescue IRBs (Inflatable Rescue Boats) heading away from the beaches. It’s all we need to know that things haven’t improved much.
Helicopters have been droning back and forth overhead for the last few days, too. The big RNZAF NH90s make a notably deeper “thud-thud-thud” as they fly overhead.
There is even a privately-owned Sikorsky Blackhawk – a rare sight in New Zealand. We later learn it’s here to help re-establish power with its heavy-lift capabilities.
We spend most of our day at home, go for the occasional walk around the block, and visit the puppies next door. I establish some degree of communication by borrowing a Spark cell phone from our neighbour. I text a friend in Christchurch to get updates and let people know we’re OK.
Vodafone is going to lose a region of customers after this.
We help our neighbours clear out their freezer by going over for a BBQ that evening. Our typically finicky nine-year-old daughter discovers a new favourite food in honey soy chicken kebabs.
Small bits of normality in abnormal times.
We listen to damage reports and updates on the radio during dinner. We still have no real idea of the extent of this disaster three days after it began – and we’re at the centre of it!
With the speed the media world cycles through news, there will be events and images from the worst of the initial flooding that some Napier people will likely never see or know about.
We read in the twilight and go to bed with the sun again, but I wake up at 1am and lie there wide awake for some time. This will be something that continues over the next few days.
Is it Friday? Who can tell?
Up before dawn. Still no power.
But after going social media cold-turkey for three days, I finally have limited data connectivity on my phone again. I scroll and scroll in the early morning darkness as my daughter and wife sleep and the load on local cell towers isn’t high enough to lose signal or drain my chronically low battery.
Looks like I inadvertently caused a bit of panic yesterday: The last tweet I sent, about Taradale flooding on Tuesday morning, was stuck in the ether when the networks went down and wasn’t posted… until data coverage was restored on Thursday afternoon. Luckily several people quickly picked up on the glitch, assuring everyone it was old news.
I finally get to see some of the pictures of devastation.
It looks like the entire Esk Valley is buried under one to two metres of silt and mud. From aerial photos, my workplace appears to be a big, wet, muddy mess. We won’t be going back there any time soon.
Bridges are out everywhere – Puketapu, Waiohiki, Brookfields Bridge, linking Meeanee with Pakowhai in between the Tutaekuri and Ngaruroro rivers. All gone.
Aside from the wholesale destruction in Esk Valley, State Highway 5 – the Napier-Taupo Road that runs through the valley – looks to be wiped off the map and hillsides in several places further up towards Te Pohue and Taupo
The rail bridge at Awatoto – the main East Coast line – is gone.
This is going to require engineering and construction on a national scale. Reinstating the Ministry of Works really looks to be a valid concept. Formally reconnecting Hawke’s Bay to the rest of New Zealand is just too much for one region, or one contracting company, to achieve.
I don’t listen to the radio as much today. We play family games and go for walks, getting weary of news while we’re still in the dark. I do hope these events trigger some sort of longer format, live and local, relevant regional radio renascence in Hawke’s Bay at the very least.
A special, free edition of local paper Hawke’s Bay Today is delivered to dairies and other sites around the region. We walk down to our nearest dairy to get a copy and see the queue of cars for our nearest service station, now open on generator power for the first time since Tuesday, is nearing a kilometre long down Taradale Road.
We hear on an afternoon news report that power has started being restored to Napier via Hastings. The CBD and Napier Hill have electricity again. Hopefully the rest of us can’t be far off.
I am awake again at 2am.
As the Saturday sun rises, I go out to the car to pass an hour listening to the radio.
We finish cleaning and clearing out the refrigerator, leave the door open to dry it out, and go visit the puppies next door. We need petrol and some more food so, with power now on in town, I head to Countdown. But first I go into the CBD.
It’s been almost a whole week in our state of powerless lockdown and I need space and sea air. Even when it’s almost completely deserted and most of the shops are closed like today, just being in town lifts my mood. I park on Marine Parade and take a short walk along the seaside Rotary Pathway, from Tom Parker Fountain to the Veronica Sun Bay and Soundshell.
There is storm-washed driftwood on the high tide mark and most of the way down to the waterline. Nowhere near the volume seen in Tairāwhiti, but it still goes on for as far as the eye can see. This is also different to the wood clogging Tolaga Bay and other East Coast beaches. Rather than cut radiata logs and forestry slash, these appear to be whole and shattered willow and poplar trees and other riparian plantings. Knotty branches and root balls torn from riverbanks and hillsides by Gabrielle’s deluge and raging rivers.
As I walk towards the Soundshell a completely different sight catches my eye: two women fully dressed in 1930s “flapper” dresses are sitting on a blanket having a picnic. With everything else going on (and off) I’d completely forgotten it was supposed to be Art Deco Weekend.
The event was understandably canceled on Wednesday when the practicality of receiving and hosting tens of thousands of tourists in the city looked as likely as instantaneous power restoration and bridge repairs.
The weekend usually includes the New Zealand Defence Force in a ceremonial capacity because when the 1931 earthquake struck the navy’s HMS Veronica was in port. Sailors from the ship were key participants in immediate rescue and recovery and humanitarian efforts. Neither Napier, nor the Navy have forgotten this partnership. The Royal New Zealand Air Force Display Team is also usually present doing aerobatics and fly pasts, along with privately owned vintage aircraft.
This weekend all three branches of the New Zealand Defence Force is back, just in a more practical format, providing aid, assistance, and supplies to a region recovering from disaster, just like the crew of the Veronica 92 years ago.
When I return home two hours later, so does the power.
Power won’t be fully restored to almost all of Napier until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest – over seven days since it was lost. Those in its rural surrounds will have to wait even longer.
My In-laws’ house is one of the last suburban areas to get power back, by which time some people have already returned to work, while many others continue to work to help friends, loved ones and strangers recover from the floods.
For some of us at least, life will quickly return to a relative “normal”. For others it will take a longer time, and for others it will never be the same.
Thousands of cubic meters of mud, silt and debris will be removed over the coming weeks around the region. As Hawke’s Bay’s weather returns to its more traditional summer settings after Gabrielle departs, all the silt, mud and entombed particulates will start to dry, harden and blow away as dust when moved.
By the following Tuesday you can already smell, taste and even see it in the air around Napier. The immediate health threats of flooding may have passed but others will remain for some time.
I see aerial photos of my work. It’s a mess. I am told our office is flooded and likely little will be recoverable. But they are fully insured, and our company’s Japanese owners have pledged full support for rebuild and recovery. The site suffered a similar fate during Cyclone Bola in 1998, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami wrought even greater levels of destruction to facilities over there, so the owners have experience with this. Their support also gives job security and income stability to those working for one of Hawke’s Bay’s biggest employers.
It won’t be the same for everyone.
I feel guilty having gotten off so lightly. We were only powerless, but I have friends whose houses are a mess, uninhabitable, or gone completely. Others whose businesses are wrecked, or jobs and income no longer secure.
Restocking and replacing key household appliances for all those households that flooded will take some time, with basic household tasks potentially remaining as if the power was still off for months.
Building products like plaster board, already having run out in New Zealand last year due to staffing and logistical issues brought on by Covid-19, will be in high demand and short supply.
I hear from friends who usually commute between Napier and Hastings that the usually 15-20 minute trip along the SH2 Expressway now takes a minimum of 40 minutes with speed restrictions, detours and congestion, and a maximum of over two hours.
Travelling north by road from Napier to Taupo and Auckland will have to be done via a major southern detour through Palmerston North and the Central Plateau.
We aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
With numerous stretches of rail and bridges out, no Kiwirail freight will be going to or from Napier or its port for some time. Freight logistics will be a nightmare. While many of us weren’t overly affected by Cyclone Gabrielle, the after-effects could well have many long-term detriments for the region and its inhabitants.
Hawke’s Bay will be tested.
Like C.S. Lewis’ Pevensie children, most Napier people find ourselves emerging unscathed from the wardrobe seemingly just an instant after we entered. We have power, internet, work to do, school runs to make, just like any other day.
Yet we are older, wearier, and more jaded having gone through so much, and not quite sure what to make of ourselves. A week of our lives has both vanished and been burned into our memories. We feel guilty for not being as badly affected as so many surrounding us, but also feel thankful for the exact same reason.
I would like to think we are more tolerant, kind, and considerate having looked after each other for that week – smiles and elevated levels of politeness are still evident some days after. But tensions, trauma and nerves are starting to crack cheery facades.
We look hopefully to the future, but also realise that this severe weather is likely only the first of many such events we will witness or be impacted by as our climate changes. It may take a while to fully process and understand what a week in the dark means to our region and ourselves.