By Julia Luise Tiemens
New Zealand is evidently one of the safest countries in the world, concerning crime and death rates. However, it is very exposed to natural disasters since it is located right next to a big fault line. Earthquake and Tsunami drills are as normal in kiwi schools as fire drills in European schools, still the country is aware of these dangers and has measures to prevent big consequences; houses are built earthquake-safe, sea walls are put in place and constantly increased, and evacuation plans exist. Last week cyclone Gabrielle hit the country with a force that no one could have foreseen. The widespread destruction is unimaginable and recovery will take a long time. The kiwi population is in shock and traumatized by the loss.
2023 started off as a weird year down under, characterized by many rainfalls in areas that usually suffer from droughts and water shortage in this season. Already in January heavy floods filled the Auckland international and domestic airports with water. By February the country had recovered from those, which is when the cyclone hit with its full force. On February 13 throughout the night, it turned from a mere storm into a disaster. Around midnight the rainfall became so heavy that many rivers and lakes burst and rose rapidly. Masses of water streamed with a high force into the cities and the houses. In places, like Esk Valley, many evacuations began to take place immediately and fast. Many people were awoken by the water filling the room and entering through windows, doors and cat flaps. For many the only survival chance was to save themselves on top of the roofs and wait there all night for the helicopters to rescue them in the morning. A family of four in Hawkes Bay attempted to flee their house, the mother being heavily pregnant. Each of the parents was carrying a toddler on their shoulders. The mother ,however, slipped, which led the child to fall and get washed away in the streams. Another family in the same area got woken up by the sound of the water that soon filled the bedroom neck high. As they were calling the Police, they realized no one was coming. The only way to survive was for the father to punch a hole into the roof and the whole family to climb through it. These are only two of thousands of stories in the traumatized population. Further, waves were consuming the highway and many trees fell. Where water forced its way under the asphalt and made the road ripple, drivers could only save themselves by climbing trees and hoping for them not to be taken by the water. Gabrielle brought floods, landslides and storm surge and the troubles and destruction that they pulled with them. The areas most affected are Hawkes Bay and Esk Valley.
Right after the disaster at least 46000 homes have lost power. A week later about 5000 homes in Hawkes Bay are still without power and societal wars over generators are beginning. Further, a large number of flights were canceled and lots of money lost. For now, the death count has only reached eleven, however, over 1100 people are still unaccounted for and more deaths are expected. Rumors include 70 more bodies being found that are not identified yet and press releases being held off to not create mass panic, making the population unsettled. Press releases say not to panic, as in the kiwi farm community many just live really far out and might not be able to get service. However, many houses are completely destroyed and people are unsure whether they will be able to return. Even a sunny week after the floods, the floors and furniture are covered in ankle-deep mud and it has also taken over the walls, which are starting to be moldy. Many beloved farm animals, including dogs, horses and sheep did not survive the storm. The popular “Dog Man” in Hawkes Bay, who is the person that commonly trains most people’s dogs, lost all of his pets and had to watch them drown. In many places, like Wairoa or Dannevirke, we witness an urgent need for fuel. Driving through the streets of Hastings Orchards one week after, the apples, that were supposed to be harvested soon, cover the grounds and are starting to foul. Cars with spray-painted “X” are parked on the sides of the roads, to show that they have been cleared for people. The atmosphere is heavy but communal, as people come together to help each other. New Zealand declared the third National state of emergency in the history of the country, which has now been extended until next week.
Declaring a state of emergency in a country has a simple reason, which is giving the local authorities greater power to respond to dangerous situations, including travel and providing aid. In many parts of the North Island the rescue teams are still searching for bodies and survivors non-stop. “Huha-Rescue ” has set up at the Hawkes Bay racecourses and the showgrounds are filled with volunteers donating and packing boxes. Dozens of evacuation centers have been set up in places like Hawkes Bay and Auckland, in order to give the people that have lost their houses a home. Many schools and facilities are still closed. Due to the bridges breaking down, there are a lot of cities and regions that are still wildly cut off. Some roads, like the Napier-Taupo Road, will most probably be closed for months. The Cabinet has announced to be putting 50 million dollars in an interim relief package, half of it put towards the kick off recovery efforts for farmers, growers and rural communities that are significantly affected. Another 250 million are going towards the rebuilding of roads.
Moreover, many people are traumatized by what happened. Many social media posts are circulating, talking about how to deal with a crisis like this, in terms of mental health.
More than the obvious problems, the issues go further. In cities, like Napier, that are still without power, all home detention ankle monitors have been deactivated as they rely on Wifi. Therefore, many looters are on the loose, stealing from the helpless people and from golf clubs etc.. There have been attempts to steal the limited radiators and generators. Many people are scared to be robbed and therefore do not use their power to not show the possession of it. The famous gangs in the country are uncontent about the situation and serve unrest in the streets. The police have arrested 42 people in Hawkes Bay and 17 in Tairawhiti, Gisborne. In Hawkes Bay 140 extra policemen have been put in place.
Nevertheless, a crisis like this shows the cruciality of community. In Hawkes Bay, for instance, everyone who has a shovel has been called out to help to free the houses from mud and thousands of people are happily helping. Even grandparents are baking for the helpers and donating. Many volunteers assemble in the show grounds and pack boxes for those who have suffered. So many donations are streaming in, that people have been asked to stop donating. Private helicopter owners have begun to donate their vehicles and fly all around the clock to help find the missing people and rescue stranded citizens from their roofs. Many families open their houses to host friends or family and adopt beloved pets to foster them until the owners can return to their homes.
Now after the destruction of the cyclone, the country faces many questions regarding the rebuilding of the infrastructure. The climate crisis will certainly bring more extreme weather, which we can witness in New Zealand’s past but also in many other parts of the world (floods in Brazil, Earthquakes in Turkey…). Therefore, there is a lot of preoccupation about the valleys and the way they are shaped. Thousands of Kiwis live in regions that have ongoing risks of flooding and extreme weather. This brings us to questions like what infrastructure will be needed to make the normally so safe country stay safe. Many areas might be able to be protected by extensive mitigation measures like sea walls, stop banks and stilts. The problem here is that these are really expensive and in some areas the installment will be impossible, which makes the risk for anyone living there ongoing. Insurance companies refuse to cover flood-prone properties, which puts the decisional responsibility in many ways on the shoulders of the government. The decisions regarding rebuilding have to be made now and fast, before people start to invest into the processes. The Prime Minister Hipkins has announced that damage to this extent has not been seen in New Zealand in the last generation. However, he announces that they will not shy away from tough decisions that will have to be made, as he wants the country to be rebuilt stronger and safer for the future generation. He expects the overall costs of rebuilding to be similar to the ones after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, where they were around 13.5 billion New Zealand dollars. After the big earthquake around 8000 houses were red zoned and the land declared to never be safe to rebuild again. This led the government to buy it and turn it into communal parks. Looking at past crises like this, we may find future solutions post-cyclone Gabrielle reparations.
How fast and successful recovery will go, only time can tell. However, the most crucial point is the existence of a functioning supportive community that relies on interdependency. This will help people to overcome the mental trauma and to rebuild. It is tragic how many people’s homes became unsafe for them, but the crisis response has been amazing and rapid. The future problem in terms of rebuilding and safety measures will be highly reliant on the government. The population trusts them to make the best decision in order to protect future generations.
First-hand experience and observations at the location (Hawkes Bay region and Wellington).
NewsNationalWorldClimate (2023, February 21). Cyclone Gabrielle Recap: National State of Emergency extended. Stuff. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/weather-news/300812027/cyclone-gabrielle-live-updates-national-state-of-emergency-extended
Guardian News and Media. (2023, February 20). After Cyclone Gabrielle, New Zealand wonders how – and if – to rebuild. The Guardian. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/20/after-cyclone-gabrielle-new-zealand-wonders-how-and-if-to-rebuild
NASA. (n.d.). Cyclone Gabrielle Lashes New Zealand. NASA. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/150972/cyclone-gabrielle-lashes-new-zealand
Al Jazeera. (2023, February 20). Cyclone-hit New Zealand extends state of emergency, pledges aid. Floods News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/20/cyclone-gabrielle-new-zealand-extends-state-of-emergency
Armstrong, N. Y. & K. (2023, February 13). Cyclone Gabrielle: Thousands left without power in New Zealand. BBC News. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-64617013