‘Everyone’s pretty disappointed’: New Zealanders struggle to pick up parts after Cyclone Gabrielle

New Zealand

With emergency services overwhelmed, residents band together to clean up and protect themselves from looters — saying they see the best and the worst in humanity

There are apples everywhere, scattered across the valleys and plains. Red balls line the streets and dot the drying mud. They are strung like pearls on the fences, impaled on barbed wire. As the high tide rose, people waded waist-deep, then shoulder-deep – and then swam down the stream, past the Royal Gala and the Braeburn. As the river flowed through Max Robertson’s home, he pushed his father and two dogs onto a floating table and attempted a joke, “I said, Look, Dad, we can go apple seesaw.”

New Zealand: Search for missing as Cyclone Gabrielle brings death toll to nine

When rivers burst their banks and Cyclone Gabrielle’s floods swept through Hawke’s Bay, they swept hundreds of acres of orchards, tearing the fruit from the trees and driving it across the valleys.

With them, the livelihoods of many farmers and fruit growers are washed away, which are lost along with houses, belongings and at least nine lives. Now surviving communities are gathering to try and pick up the pieces. Amid the nationwide relief effort, emergency services are stretched, leaving some frustrated that more support hasn’t arrived. In small towns and valleys, residents gather to dig up the mud, clear out houses and protect their homes from looters – and say they see the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. The death toll rose to 11 on Sunday.


On a street in Puketapu, nurse Julia Ebbett and doctor Penny Henley dig some bandages out of the back of a ute. They gradually wander through the valley where they live, looking after people and helping where they can. At least one woman in this small community has been confirmed dead, drowned by flood waters in the attic of her home.

“I woke up around 4:30 a.m. and all I heard was a rumble,” says Ebbett, who lives on the hillside. “I said to my husband, this is water… the bridges are gone and the valley is filling with water.”

A road overlooking the river bed was cut in half by the violence of the flood waters. Photo: Kerry Marshall/Guardian

Upstream, the Tūtaekurī River had swollen to a rage, fueled by 175.8 mm of rain, landslides of mud and huge forest debris. On its way down the valley, hemmed in by hills and narrower gorges, it had built up an enormous force, breaking bridges and burrowing into the slopes. Upstream, a road overlooking the river bed was split in half by the force of water turning a corner – 10 meters above where the river surface is now. When this water reached the open plains of the Dartmoor Valley it spilled over the banks and filled the valley like a hose ending in a shallow bowl.

“I still haven’t cried”: Cyclone Gabrielle survivors return to the devastated valley

When it got light, Ebbett says, “I looked over at our neighbors and all I could see was an island of sheep, and the rest was like a river. The houses across from us were just completely covered with water.”

Her neighbor was up in a tree with her five-year-old son, daughter and dog, where they had clung all night. “She had to let one of her dogs go because her kid was underwater,” says Ebbett. “They called emergency services around five o’clock and she basically waited there in the tree for five hours — she had cuts all over her legs, bruises from here down,” she says, pointing to her waist.

In these early hours, when helicopters were still hampered by strong winds, many of the rescue workers were locals, who waded through silt and chest-deep water to help the stranded. Now, with rescuers continuing to search for bodies and being overwhelmed with shipments of essential supplies, much of the early clean-up falls back to local residents – digging up each other’s homes, sharing water, carrying in donation boxes from neighboring towns.

“People feel a little neglected,” says Henley. “They get angry and upset.”

An overturned car after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Kerry Marshall/Guardian

On the city’s main street, a group hauls destroyed furniture and mattresses out of a house to dispose of outside. A truck from Silver Ferns Farms arrives loaded with donated short rib beef burgers. A man drove in with a grill on his truck and is handing out sausages to passers-by.

However, there is a community meeting taking place across the street on the main street: Tensions are running high after four houses were hit by looters last night. At the end of the meeting, the city decides to set up roadblocks on the main road coming in and out of the city, using trucks and concrete blocks with forklifts over the road.

“Everyone is pretty devastated. We’re going through enough,” says Nigel Parkinson, who volunteered to guard the roadblock that evening. “The thought that we have to set up roadblocks at night to hold down our already destroyed earthly goods – digging through the mud to find shit – that’s terrifying,” he says.

“The police – they’re still looking for missing people. You’re trying to find people. So we know they’re doing everything they can, but they’re overwhelmed.”

dr Penny Henley has been doing welfare checks near Puketapu, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Photo: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

In a derelict apartment next to the local mechanic’s shop, the water has turned Paul Shann’s walls brown-grey. He points to the high water mark – a few centimeters above his two meter high body. He escaped to higher ground before the water got too high.

“I went out to check a few things, next the water is at testicle level. I said, well, that’s my limit — I’m out of here,” says Shann. Dressed only in board shorts and a large straw hat, he says almost everything in his apartment was destroyed by the water. A few salvaged belongings and tools are drying outside. Garbage is burning in a metal bin next to it.

Shann retrieves a pitchfork from the pile of leftover tools – and says he carried it around when he couldn’t sleep at night while walking around town. “I wear this,” he says. “It might not be nice. It may not be legal. But if there are looters? Yes, I will not stand here with a walking stick.”

Cleanup efforts continue after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

Henley says, “There are these others — presumably displaced and dispossessed or general pied pipers who come into the community and they don’t come to help.” Some are Caucasian, others have tried to trespass on properties or loot empty homes. Police in the region have already made a number of arrests for looting. “If they don’t come to help, we don’t want them right now,” Henley says. “You will likely encounter aggro.”

In front of the fire and emergency station, a woman takes care of those seeking help. She listens to the news that looters are making the rounds. “Well, times like this you get angels and assholes,” she says.

“I like to say that: some assholes, but also angels.”


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