It’s already a month since Cyclone Gabrielle hit. A month! Hawke’s Bay resident and wine writer Yvonne Lorkin recalls the day
“Hi luv! Happy birthday!” It was just after 10pm on the night of Thursday Feb 16th when my phone rang. It was my mum. The line was terrible. “We’ve managed to charge our phones in the ute and we’ve driven to the top of the biggest hill on the farm to see if we could get reception!” she yelled. “But we’re running out of diesel up here, so we can’t keep running the engine, but I just wanted to try to ring to tell you I love you and that we’re ok”.
My mother and stepfather are organic dairy farmers in Patoka, a sparsely populated area about an hour’s drive from my home in Hastings at the base of the Kaweka Range. To get there you can drive through either Fernhill (Omahu), Waiohiki, Puketapu, Dartmoor, Rissington and Puketiritiri. However when Cyclone Gabrielle (or Gabri-hell as some are calling it) roared inland on Monday 13th and into Tuesday 14th and dumped colossal amounts of rain on their already sodden hills, those areas were swamped, the beautiful old bridges interlinking those areas collapsed. They were cut off. Like little islands in the hills. No phone. No power. No escape. “Some houses up here are still on the move,” she said.
Until then, I hadn’t known how they were because despite not being flooded too badly at our home in Hastings, we had no power or phone either. I was panicking. We listened to National Radio on the worlds smallest transistor (not much bigger than a matchbox) that my husband won in some fishing contest raffle. Or maybe it was in a Christmas cracker? I forget. But it kept us informed. We learned about the fairytale-perfect Esk Valley being buried under metres of silt. Metres. I tried texting my winemaker friends over there. No answers.
The radio stations and the local authorities being interviewed kept saying things like “we’re updating our facebook page”, or “check our website for further information”. What did they not understand about no power and no phone equals no internet equals no information?
We learned all the main rivers, Tukituki, Ngaruroro, Tutaekuri, Waipawa and Esk had burst their banks. Just a couple of kilometres from my house, the muddy water had overtaken fruit trees and grape vines, people were being rescued from their rooftops, but others not so lucky. That this cyclone was named after “a good and holy angel” is a total headscratcher. Acres of fences that once stretched across the Chesterhope, Pakowhai and Twyford plains were now loose, deadly driftnets, the animals had no chance.
But I was worried about my mother and stepfather especially. They’re youngish, but have heart issues. They couldn’t just call 111. My stepdad couldn’t drive her to hospital. Slips blocking roads, no bridges. No generator yet. The cows were getting stressed. No power means no milking. Not being milked means cows can be in pain and get sick. They were thirsty too. The irony. In a cyclone with no water because no power also meant the pumps couldn’t work. And you can’t just lead cows to raging rivers. But hearing my mother’s voice that night, that both her phone and my phone actually worked for a few precious minutes, meant I slept a little easier.
In the following days I charged my laptop and phone bit by bit in my car. Managed to get sporadic reception, enough to have a chat on breakfast television and with Wallace Chapman on The Panel. Managed to somehow file a column for the NZ Herald and material for Dish. While other people were still looking for loved ones in the debris, shovelling silt from their homes, trying to settle children and get some sleep in evac centres across the region. That was hard to reconcile. Our power came on eventually but we didn’t hear stove or the fridge beep into life because they were drowned out by the constant tug tug tug of dozens of helicopters flying low overhead.
“Please be heading up into the hills,” I said to the sky.
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.