New Zealand’s under-reported cyclone


Photo 01: Forestry waste (slash) piled up on Gisborne’s Waikanae Beach

A Pakeha (Non-Māori) friend in Auckland, who has been studying Te Reo Māori language for some years, thinks all New Zealanders should know at least 100 words.

On our visit there between February 9 and 24, I began to realise how many Māori words I do know, and this time I learned a few new ones including Huripari.

This is Māori for storm or, if expressing the extremity of a cyclone, hurricane or tornado, you might say: He āwhā nui, ā, he tino kino te pupuhi o te haumātakataka.

Cyclone Gabrielle swept through Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and down the East coast.

Gabrielle did not receive much media coverage here in Australia, despite inflicting a damage bill conservatively estimated at $NZ13.5 billion. More than 250 roads are closed; 1000 people are still living in shelters, many cannot return to their homes and at least 11 people died. Roads cut between Wairoa and Napier and Taupo and Napier could take months to clear, rebuild and re-open. Many homes have been red-stickered, which in local parlance means they are ‘munted’. (A non-Māori word meaning destroyed)

I’ll admit we took the Cyclone warnings too lightly. We landed in Auckland on February 9 and stayed with friends, who had their own disaster stories after Auckland’s dramatic deluge on January 30.

From there, we drove to Rotorua for a truly immersive experience. We were surely among the few Australian Pakeha people at the Indigenous All Stars vs NZ Māoris rugby league match. It was a beautiful sunny day with no hint of what was to come. The sport started early with a mixed touch footie game (a draw), then the Indigenous women’s team played their Māori counterparts (who won).

Then to the main event. Former NRL legend Greg Inglis appeared on camera, looking good in a suit. He was being interviewed by Sky Sports before the match. The crowd of 25,000 got involved in the pre-game Indigenous welcome dance and Māori haka. Much of the cheering and roaring was saved for the advancing haka party.

The match was played in good spirit; few injuries and only one sin bin for a high tackle. The Māori team more than held their own, but thanks to the athletic brilliance of Brisbane Broncos player Selwyn Cobbo, who scored three tries, the Indigenous team won 28-24.

We chatted to a group of Aboriginal women from Moree and other places. They flew over especially for the game and were ready to fly back on Sunday, weather permitting. They seemed happy to be among whanau (extended family). (I loved the whole experience. Ed)

Next morning we set off to walk through Rotorua’s Redwood forests, which are quite impressive, the tracks heavily used by locals cycling and walking their dogs. My sister texted, anxious about the weather report. She wanted us to drive through the Waioeka Gorge to Gisborne ASAP. There was evidence of previous slips on this road, which is quite often closed for a day or two while road crews clear the way. It is a mountainous valley road with steep hills prone to slips (landslides).

By the time we arrived in Gisborne, the ominous black clouds we saw building up beyond Rotorua had pursued us to the coast. We bunkered down for the night as strong winds and heavy rain developed. My sister lives close to but on the ‘high’ side of the river. Her house is sheltered and well insulated, so the only real clue we had to the ferocity of the weather was to watch the big pine tree swaying around behind her neighbour’s house.

We lost power on Monday, but thankfully it was restored by the evening. The Hawkes Bay towns of Wairoa, Napier and Hastings were less fortunate. By the end of the week, power had only been patchily restored in Napier, where a major substation was submerged by flood waters.

Our collective anxiety levels were high as we lost cell phone and internet connection so had no idea what was going on in the outside world, apart from staying glued to the 24/7 coverage on NZ1 TV. At least I had contacted my other sister in Hastings on Sunday night to tell her we had arrived safely in Gisborne. Then there was no phone communication for six days. So much for the VoiP phones foisted upon us all in place of reliable copper landlines. (What ‘genius’ didn’t foresee that this lack of communication would happen in the case of widespread power blackouts? Ed)

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was quick to get to the front line – no side trips to Hawaii for Hipkins, who replaced Jacinda Ardern as leader after her resignation on January 13.

One story I found while browsing Australian media was filed on Monday by the ABC, with Hipkins announcing a global fundraising effort.

The appeal will fund longer-term recovery projects and target wealthy expatriates, businesses and ‘anyone with affection for New Zealand’, Hipkins said.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, around 660,000 New Zealanders live in Australia, a third of them in Queensland.

Despite the obvious interest in news from home, people who were looking for it went to The Weekend Australian, by contrast, made no mention of Cyclone Gabrielle at all.

This FOMM was aided and abetted by the aforementioned ABC report and news drawn from, the Gisborne Herald, Hawkes Bay Today and the NZ Herald.

Cyclone Gabrielle hit New Zealand’s North Island on February 12, taking out roads and bridges and leaving tens of thousands without power or connectivity. A National State of Emergency was declared for only the third time in the nation’s history. Disruption to supplies of clean water was just one of the problems.

The drama is by no means over. Police are still searching for four people who are not accounted for. Heavy rain at the weekend hampered clean-up efforts and, as is common in this part of the world, the occasional earthquake came along to ramp up anxiety levels.

Hipkins said early on in live TV broadcasts that it was time to ‘get real’ about New Zealand’s transport, power and communications infrastructure. Opposition Leader Chris Luxon started off well by acknowledging the role climate change had played in this catastrophe. But he later mounted a law and order campaign, after reports of looting and intimidation by gangs.

He described ex-Cyclone Gabrielle as the most damaging natural disaster in a generation. That didn’t stop the Reserve Bank from raising interest rates to 4.5%, in times when ordinary working Kiwis are finding it hard just to pay for groceries and fuel.

The New Zealand Government has announced an inquiry into forestry practices which saw tonnes of debris (known as ‘slash’) washed down rivers and into the ocean. Along the way, this trash inevitably aggravated damage to bridges and roads. The photo above shows forestry waste piled up on Gisborne’s Waikanae Beach. On a good day, it is the East Coast’s favourite safe swimming beach. What more can I say other than share this second photo.

On a positive note, hundreds of Kapa Haka groups from all over New Zealand (and a few from Australia), took part in Te Matatini, a celebration of Māori culture and traditions held at Auckland’s Eden Park.

I was particularly impressed by the group from Wairoa, a coastal town devastated by flooding. The dancers smeared their lower legs in mud, as if to say ‘Cyclone – what Cyclone?’ These are resilient people, caring for family and community, and, despite catastrophe, still with a sense of humour. Kia Kaha.

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Simon Wells
Simon Wells
March 4, 2023 1:28 am

Great bulletin, this one Bob.