Silt, slash, tears and anger

Misery, stress and anxiety remain etched on the faces of many of those who, a year ago this week, were blasted from their homes by one of the strongest tropical cyclones to make it to our latitude in recent history.

Cyclone Gabrielle did not come as any great surprise. Quite the opposite in fact, making its intentions pretty clear many days before spinning into the North Island’s orbit.

Weather forecasters were able to call it early, thanks to the unusually high-level of agreement among the main computer models. That was useful in terms of readying the populations of Northland, Auckland, the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay for something major.

Unfortunately, only so much useful preparedness can be carried out against nature’s wrath. High winds, torrential rain and storm surges pummelled those regions on February 13 and 14 last year, killing 11 people, destroying homes and displacing many tens of thousands, wrecking farms and businesses, and changing the landscape.

A national state of emergency was declared when the horrendous effects of Gabrielle became clearer, and lasted a month. Twelve months on, residents are still reeling and there remains a huge, almost unbelievable, amount of repair work still to be done.

The scale of such disasters boggles the mind, despite all manner of damaging natural events which affect New Zealand almost every year. In terms of recovery, Cyclone Gabrielle is getting up there close to the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-11.

Putting things right after such a titanic event isn’t just a matter of a year or a few years. The renewal can take decades or even a generation.

The mutilation of the roading network, bridges, pipes and cables throughout the North Island’s east coast is particularly shocking.

Among the lessons which can be learned from the impact of Gabrielle is the importance of having a mature, and long overdue, conversation about infrastructure, which no political party tied to three-year terms in office appears to have the courage to initiate.

View from a New Zealand Defence Force NH90 helicopter en route to recover people from the...
View from a New Zealand Defence Force NH90 helicopter en route to recover people from the rooftops of their homes in the Esk Valley near Napier on February 15, 2023. PHOTO: NZDF
One year is not very long. For those whose lives have been upended by the cyclone, whose land has been swamped and buried in silt, it will have seemed an inordinately long time.

While 160,000 tonnes of woody debris have now been removed from beaches and water ways, there are still hundreds of thousands of tonnes of forestry slash lying haphazardly throughout the hills of Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, waiting for the next heavy rain to wash it downstream and cause more chaos.

Tracts of land remain capped by up to a metre of mud and silt, although progress has been made here too. The announcement by the government this week of a further $63 million to clear silt and slash has been welcomed by many, especially farmers and growers, who say it should allow them to remove the last of the mud deposited by raging rivers.

More than $230m has now been disbursed by the government in the past year for clearing slash and sediment.

While there are aspects of recovery work to cheer, life for some in the region remains miserable, uncertain and difficult.

Homeowners are still cleaning claggy, clinging mud from their houses and grappling with insurance claims and their inherent complexities. Sad to say, those could drag out for years, if the experiences of Christchurch residents are anything to go by.

It’s a lamentable aspect of human nature that those unaffected by something soon move on and forget what others may be going through, for it is not the day-to-day burden they have to bear. Life goes on, they say.

It’s also part of being human that we like to measure and mark chunks of time since something significant happened. In that way we feel we can have some control over the uncontrollable.

Anniversaries provide handy markers of progress after a disaster or tragedy. They are occasions on which we can remember those who were lost and those selfless people in communities who risked their lives to save others and their livelihoods.

That is why we must pause on the anniversary of such a devastating event and make a concerted effort to think of those affected and realise just how lucky we are.