Hawke’s Bay cyclone effect: 'It's still raw to us'

It was the literal calm before the storm at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Hawke’s Bay on Monday, 13 February 2023.

Time to read: 9 mins

Like most people in New Zealand, the directors had heard about the ominous Cyclone Gabrielle and late that afternoon, told their teams to work from home the next day if they could.  

Through the night, Business Advisory Services director Michelle Valler barely slept while ferocious winds battered her family home in Havelock North.

While power and cell phone coverage were patchy the next morning, some had intermittent communication. Soon, screens lit up across the region as the directors attempted to check on their teams and each other and reiterated the importance of staying home.

Many people didn’t yet know about the floods and resulting destruction to lives and property, says Michelle. “Not even the media, because no one in the worst affected areas could communicate.”

Over in Napier, Business Advisory Services / business computing services specialist Marcia Mabey had been in regular contact with her Dad in Pakowhai. At about 8am on Tuesday, he said he’d never seen anything like the rising waters on his property. Marcia and her partner Doug tried to drive over but the connecting bridge was closed.     

At 10.30am, she was on her phone to her Dad while he was climbing onto his roof, with the floodwaters nearly up to the window sills. About a minute into the call, coverage went down completely. It was the worst part of the experience, Marcia says – knowing her Dad was alone and not knowing if he was safe. Doug called 111 and though call quality was poor, they eventually conveyed the situation to the emergency services via text.

At roughly the same time, the couple were told to evacuate, as was Marcia’s 20-year-old daughter across town. They prepared to leave but stayed put along with their neighbours, monitoring the roaring nearby waterways.

At 2.30pm, word came that Marcia’s Dad had been airlifted off his roof and taken to a nearby shelter. He was one of the lucky ones, she says, having been stranded for three or four hours when others waited much longer for rescue.

After the fraught hours of uncertainty, she was in tears when she saw her daughter on Wednesday morning. And they finally saw her Dad on the Thursday. “As you can imagine, that was a very happy and emotional reunion,” she says. “Then we drove Dad out to his property, which was pretty devastating for all of us.”

The lifestyle block had been bought by her parents some 20 years earlier. They’d transported an old home onto the land, created an organic orchard and lovingly developed the property to its immaculate pre-floods state. Marcia’s Dad, a furniture restorer, also did some work from home.

Her Mum died two and a half years ago and her Dad, having realised the property was too much work for one person, had reluctantly sold it. The settlement of the property was meant to be on 4 April, but now they’ll need to rebuild once the insurance comes through.       

Going through his possessions was heart-breaking, but there were three miracles.     

The water, at the height of the flood, had been five metres deep and everything in the house was wet and covered in silt. But when they walked inside, there was one photo frame still on the wall – their Mum, still “keeping an eye on what’s going on”, says Marcia.

“Dad had also taken their wedding photo off the wall of their bedroom and put it high in the wardrobe, thinking it would be safe. When we opened the door, the top shelf had collapsed. Dad got down on his hands and knees and retrieved this photo and it was perfect. You wonder how that can be when the water had been over the roof and everything was sodden. And although the albums on either side of it were wrecked, we retrieved their wedding album, so we have had a few wins.

“I said to Dad the other day, we didn’t lose any family, so we are lucky. Yes, we've lost possessions, Dad’s lost income and that sort of thing, but we’re alive and safe.”

Marcia’s own household possessions were in storage and have mostly been destroyed.  

There’s a photo of her with her muddied, ruined belongings. She’s wearing a Baker Tilly Staples Rodway top and a broad grin. The shirt, she says, was one of her few clean tops that day, and the grin is because she felt compelled to be the family “rock” in the numbing, immediate aftermath.

Like many others, Marcia still bears the scars of the trauma, but with good support from colleagues, friends, family and a counsellor, she’s getting there.     

Now she says community care is paramount. Checking on neighbours, offering assistance, is a great way to help while residents wait for everything to dry out and tidy up as best they can. She expects it will take at least 12 months for people to “really start getting on top of things on their properties,” especially with the hovering question of insurance payouts.

While Marcia was starting a three-week absence from work to deal with immediate family needs, Michelle was driving to the office for the first time since the cyclone, horrified by the number of trees down. As communications came back up, she and her fellow directors were gradually learning of the enormous scale of the devastation. 

“When we came back to work it was all about client love and looking out for our teams,” she says. “We were just thinking about who might have been impacted, calling them, trying to get up to date with all the new funding – or lack of it at the time – and supporting our clients through that. A lot of clients still couldn't be contacted, but we did what we could do.”

Even now, she finds it hard to talk about the disaster. “We all know of a few people who have lost everything including pets, so it is pretty tragic and surreal. 

“It’s still raw to us… and it changed the way we operated. We were trying to reach out to make sure people were okay and it became a lot more personal in a positive way. I recently saw some clients who I would usually greet by shaking hands – but they arrived and gave me a hug. I don’t think this will continue, but the cyclone made you appreciate the importance of the people behind your working relationships,” she says.

She first saw the true extent of the damage while driving to help a friend’s daughter who’d lost everything in Eskdale.

On the way through Pakowhai, everything was brown and broken. The road had been cleared of dead sheep and trees, but there were dirty waterlines high on buildings. Trees and debris covered the landscape, and trees everywhere were strewn with belongings. It looked like a war zone, with hundreds of people clad head to toe in silt, helping each other in their time of need. “It was a huge coming together of the community, which was quite emotional.  People were helping others any way they could.”

Back in Napier, the wetlands had been affected. Railway tracks had come apart along Marine Parade and the area was a scene of ruin. On the debris-covered beach was a lone, labelled onion from Puketapu – half an hour’s drive away.

“It is going to be a hard road for people to rebuild, from a personal and a business perspective. We can’t even quantify the devastation to our horticulture industry alone. A significant percentage of the crop has been destroyed, which impacts on our supply of fresh fruit and vegetables – and we’re a big supplier across the country and the export market."

Clients have been reaching out for extra funding. Some weren’t directly impacted by the floods, but their businesses are hurting.

She says plenty of people who applied for Ministry for Primary Industries grants were paid within a week, but it took longer for the government’s business support grants (up to $40,000) to start filtering through. Those initial funds have now dried up and applications have closed. "But people are still in desperate need of money and help."  

Some of Michelle’s clients, who couldn't operate their businesses due to flood damage, were told they’d need to go on a Jobseekers benefit and attend job interviews. “So the wellbeing factor is massive.”

Michelle’s seen people within social media groups pleading for outside assistance. She has clients who are nearing retirement age and haven’t had time to look after their own businesses because they’ve been working around the clock to help with the clean-up.

Survivors’ Guilt is a term that’s been bandied around a lot. Those who got off lightly are very aware of the chasm between their lives and the realities of those who suffered heavy losses. “Every time you connect with someone and don’t know if they’ve been impacted, you start with something nice, like you hope everything is okay. And sometimes they have harrowing stories. How do you go back on that? ‘Sorry to hear’? What can you say… There are a million stories. People are still literally digging silt out of their house. There are meals being made and distributed, which is heart-warming. But we're going to need a lot more help.”

For now, the region’s inhabitants are taking it day by day, and Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Hawke’s Bay is taking it client by client.

“We can’t promise miracles, but we are here to offer pragmatic help with anything from business advice and strategy to finance, restructuring, business plan revisions, cashflow forecasting and support.”

To donate money to the flood relief effort, click here or to volunteer your time, click here.

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