The tragic human cost of Cyclone Gabrielle

This week’s massive cyclone across New Zealand’s North Island is unprecedented. It produced more widespread damage than the last such storm, Cyclone Bola of 1988. There is some evidence of even larger storms in the fifteenth century, knocking down swathes of trees. But nothing in historical times.

My home district, Hawke’s Bay, took a heavy blow. Although I moved to Wellington first for study and then work in 1981 – and was there when the cyclone hit this week – I spend as much time as I can in the bay, and my home town of Napier remains very much part of my life. I have long-standing friends and family there. It was horrifying to watch report after report of the flood damage – in Napier, primarily caused by the Tutaekuri river, on the southern edge of the city and adjacent to the largest suburb, Taradale, rising to burst its stop-banks. The Tutaekuri was not the only river to rise: others did the same, sweeping across wide stretches of land. North of Napier the Esk (Waiohinanga) river – flooded to unprecedented levels and devastated multiple small communities. In the north the Wairoa river rose extraordinarily and cut off the town of the same name, stranding 9000 people. To the south of Napier the Waipawa river rose and inundated half the town of the same name.

This description of Hawke’s Bay is not to reduce the equivalent scale of devastation across the upper and eastern North Island, destruction that confronted dozens of communities and, sadly, has carried a rising death toll. My own focus, though – watching, in effect, through texts and messages (such as were possible) and via posts on Facebook – was on my home town of Napier and particularly the Tutaekuri river and Taradale. My brother and his family live there.

Suburban Taradale, part of Napier, New Zealand. I took this photo from Dolbel Park in November 2021. In February 2023 this area was flooded by Cyclone Gabrielle.

For a little history, both Napier and Hastings are built on alluvial flood-plains, created by three rivers: the Tutaekuri river (it’s Te Reo Maori for ‘dogshit’, a reference to offal being hurled into it), the Ngaruroro river (literally ‘wave-fish’, a contraction of ‘ngaruupokororo’, ‘waves of the head of the fish’, a reference to patterns made in the water by grayling), and the Tukituki river (‘to knock over’). Before European settlers arrived in numbers from the 1850s, these rivers wandered across the plains as rain and flood changed their flows. Arguments over how to control them began almost immediately, but nobody wanted to pay for proper stop banks and – to cut a long story short – it wasn’t until a devastating earthquake in 1931 altered the fall of all three that a permanent fix was eventually applied.

A photo I took of Marewa, a suburb of Napier, December 2014. The Canary Island palms give a distinct California vibe, which was part of the intentional design of this suburb when it was developed in the late 1930s after a devastating earthquake raised the land. Part of the reason why it was made possible was because a major stop-bank programme tamed the rivers of the district and reduced flood risk.

The system completed in 1938, and its modifications since, was tested to and beyond its limits this week. One of the first problems was that water inundated the main district sub-station at Redclyffe, adjacent to the Tutaekuri but usually protected by the stop-bank, cutting power to the district. The sub-station was identified as at risk of flooding in 2020, but of course nothing was done then. Soon after the power went out, all but one of the cell networks went down, along with the remaining landlines. At least one fibre cable was also cut. Suddenly, Hawke’s Bay was mostly cut off. The disaster underscored the fragility of the infrastructure underpinning modern communications and the ‘information age’.

Still, the news that came through was horrific; and one of the saddest parts were pleas from friends and family of those in the disaster area, posting on Facebook and elsewhere for news of their loved ones. Have you seen my parents? Last seen floating away on their car’; ‘Have you seen my elderly father, last seen at —-?’; ‘Can anybody tell me if —– is OK, they’ve been missing since yesterday?’ And so on. Heart-felt expressions of humanity for whom no succour could be offered, because communications were so badly broken. One family sought their mother for four days: her home had been inundated. Yesterday (17 February) – and tragically – she was found dead.

This public effort to find missing loved ones did not include private messages to friends, of which there were many. I fielded one myself from a Napier friend whose mother was cut off. I was able to get through to my friend’s mother and discovered all was well, passing on the message. Later I heard from my brother: I had internet in Wellington. They didn’t, in Napier. Could I confirm an evacuation order? I checked. Civil Defence hadn’t issued one – the problem was malicious gossip.

That incident highlighted one of the stupidest parts of the whole catastrophe. Much of the emergency communication was handled via web-pages and Facebook. This was weird: the power failure and destruction of major fibre links meant there wasn’t much internet in the disaster zone. The old standby of roving emergency vehicles with loud-hailers was absent. And Facebook began filling up with wild gossip. Another dark side of the whole event, aside from the broader human tragedy, was the way crime spiked: generators set up to power cellphone towers were stolen, among other things.

My home district has certainly suffered a colossal disaster. The rainfall was extraordinary. Iconic bridges were destroyed, including this one on Vicarage Road, where I used to swim with friends when I was at high school. Back then there was a bank to the left and a deep hole just past the bridge.

I took this photo of the bridge on Vicarage Road over the Tutaekuri river, Hawke’s Bay, in February 2021. It was swept away in February 2023 during Cyclone Gabrielle. River levels in this photo are normal for summer, giving an idea of just how far the waters rose.

The frightening part is that all five bridges across the Tutaekuri, connecting Napier to the south, were unserviceable within hours – three destroyed, two underwater or close to it. Even the rail-bridge was broken. The loss of road connection also cut Napier off from all hospital services. How can a major city not a have a hospital, you ask? Back in the mid-1990s a neo-liberal hatchet-man was brought in by government to get rid of Napier’s public hospital. You see, there was another hospital in Hastings, just 19 km distant. And yeah, that’s not much by modern standards. But two flood-prone rivers separate the cities. My dad knew the guy and tackled him about it: what happens if there’s a disaster and the bridges are gone? Do Napier people just die? The answer my father got was typical. It wasn’t the hatchet-man’s problem, he was there to get rid of the hospital. Well quite. I hope the hatchet-man can sleep at night. (I say this rhetorically – of course the hatchet-man that did this sleeps well, revelling in the knowledge of state money saved so the rich can be taxed less. And if the poor die because they choose not to buy their own helicopters so they can fly themselves to medical help – well, that’s proof of natural selection, isn’t it?)

One of the bridges taken out by the flood-waters was the Rissington bridge on the Mangaone river (roughly, ‘muddy river branch’), a tributary of the Tutaekuri. Rissington is extremely familiar to me: as kids we were often taken on family picnics to the river, just below the bridge. Later a family friend lived just around the corner from the bridge and my family routinely spent New Years’ day there, often down at the Mangaone below the bridge where a dangling rope prompted Tarzan swings into the water. Now the whole lot is gone. Ironically, this bridge was completed in 1929 to replace one that had been swept away by floods in 1924.

The bridge over the Mangaone river at Rissington, Hawke’s Bay. I took this photo in May 2008 and always feel it has a ‘bridges of Madison County’ vibe.

And here’s a photo, which I grabbed from Facebook, showing the bridge now. I hope the photographer doesn’t mind. I think it was taken looking in the same direction as my photo above, about where the white fence ends adjacent to the bridge.

Rissington bridge, February 2023. Photographer unidentified.

As I write these words the disaster continues to unfold, driven in part by the fact that the storm destroyed key infrastructure, cutting off not only power and communications but also key transport links. One of the major problems has been the failure of power and, with it, both EFT-POS and ATM machines. Without EFT-POS, the ‘cashless society’ doesn’t work – and without an ATM, nobody can get cash.

The disaster has served to reinforce my cynicism about the way successive neo-liberal governments have variously under-funded and sold off crucial public services ranging from roads to hospitals and power grids, leaving them vulnerable and without resilience. But for now, all thoughts must turn to all those affected, not only in my home district but in all places beyond – the two-thirds of the North Island that was torn by the cyclone. My home district and the East Cape region to the north of it were hardest hit. And we must think of those who lost their lives, of their grieving families and friends, of those who have gone without power, with food and water running short and no way of communicating to the outside world.

It has been a human disaster of the largest scale for New Zealand, and the cost is likely to continue rolling in.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2023

22 thoughts on “The tragic human cost of Cyclone Gabrielle

    1. I was in Wellington when the disaster hit – I spend most of my time in the capital, it’s my main abode, but I did have plans to head to Hawke’s Bay this weekend for the annual ‘art deco’ festival, celebrating Napier’s 1930s architecture. That was cancelled and I found myself instead acting as information provider for family and friends in Napier – I had power and internet in Wellington, they didn’t in Napier. Bizarrely, the city council and emergency services were using Facebook and websites to spread warnings, which nobody in Napier could get – so I was passing them on to those I knew.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s surprised me is the speed with which the gangs got going. Napier had a problem with criminal gangs anyway and it seems they took the opportunity of the disaster to start looting. It’s not a good look. Over 100 additional police were deployed to the area a couple of days ago to help deal with it. From what I see on social media the general public are sick of it already.

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      1. It’s not a good look at all and certainly shatters my crumbling vision of NZ as an oasis. Instead, the disease that is poor citizenship is spreading everywhere. Governments cutting every corner to appease their wealthy backers, and doing so with epic shortsightedness. The public employing the same by continuing to vote them in, thus voting against their own self-interests. Meanwhile, more and more people are squeezed financially, more are disenfranchised, and so on. I’m oversimplifying what I’ve been watching in progress since the 80s.

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  1. We have visited your island in the past and loved all parts of the North Island, so sorry to read about this devastation. We still have a very good friend in Auckland and it seems that is one part that was a little more fortunate but still hit hard.

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    1. It’s been an unprecedented storm. The last major cyclone, Bola, struck the East Cape of the North Island in 1988 but did nothing like the damage of Cyclone Gabrielle. The fact that the two main centres on the North Island’s East Coast have been smashed to the degree that they were renders the event a national disaster. Napier, a town of 60,000 (not including the surrounding connurbations) is still largely without power after nearly a week. It’s hard.


  2. It’s hard to “like” this post, Matthew. I’m sad to read about the devastation. One would hope those who made those cuts would acknowledge their mistakes, but it’s doubtful, and wouldn’t help now anyway.

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  3. I wish WP had a ‘heart’ button instead of the stupid ‘Like’ one because liking this post feels so very wrong.
    Looking at the photos of the lost bridges brought home just how /high/ the water must have risen. It seems almost impossible that such a huge volume of water could accumulate in one place. But it wasn’t one place, was it? [rhetorical]
    Your new PM has had a baptism by fire, Much like Ardern had with the terrorist massacre. I hope this tragedy forces politicians to pull their heads out of…-cough-…the, um, sand and actually do something because climate change ain’t going anywhere fast. :/

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    1. It’s the biggest disaster to hit the Hawke’s Bay region since the 1931 Mw 7.8 earthquake. The death toll is likely going to be lower (sadly, it’s rising as I write this and more bodies are found, but unless police estimates are badly out, it won’t be in the league of the 1931 tragedy). However, the region affected is otherwise geographically the same and the scale of disruption similar. The latest warnings have been associated with disease; the river silt mixed with sewerage and orchard sprays and is likely to be toxic. It’s metres deep in places. Hipkins is a competent administrator – he ran the Covid response a few years back. In my opinion he’s the ONLY competent one the government actually has. I still find it extraordinary that we have a PM who’s usually known as ‘Chippy’.

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      1. lmao – Chippy? Really? Well, maybe that’s a good sign – at least he can’t take himself too seriously.
        As for the ongoing disaster in Hawke’s Bay…is there anything the authorities/town planners etc could have done to mitigate it?
        I ask because there’s a lot of talk here about buybacks and moving whole towns off flood plains etc. Some of that is starting to happen after the floods we had, but the pace is glacial.
        I know that flood plains are where you want to grow crops, but I can’t see why towns have to be there too, other than ‘convenience and cost’. :/

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        1. Yup – the PM’s nickname (to which I believe, on hearsay, he doesn’t object) is indeed Chippy! Only in New Zealand.

          The issue of building on a flood-plain in Hawke’s Bay is historically slightly an accident. Napier was established in 1856 to fulfil a promise made by the government land-buyer to Maori that a town would be established as part of a purchase from them. But it was only ever intended as a small port town because it was at the north end of a noisome swamp and there was nowhere to expand. The main district town was meant to be about 10 km away in a location dubbed Clive. Then Clive was found to flood, and in this cowboy-capitalist world of the frontier, ‘market forces’ pushed Napier ahead anyway. The adjacent large town, Hastings, was set up in 1874 to exploit the fact of a railway opening up the rest of the plains: local land-holders could profit enormously from selling sections. But nobody wanted to pay to build stop-banks to control the local rivers, which by nature flooded across the plains – it went to local Rivers Boards who were interested only in their own jurisdictions. The current scheme, broadly, wasn’t established until the 1930s after a major earthquake altered the river-falls and forced government action. It’s been tweaked since, but it’s broadly worked since… until now. Apparently up to 5 km of stop-banks near Napier have been destroyed, making each new weather event a moment for nervousness until they can be fixed.

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          1. It’s truly depressing how short-sighted humans are. I suspect the history of the Northern Rivers area in NSW is eerily similar to that of your Hawkes Bay, and then everyone is surprised when floodplains act like…flood plains.
            The worst part is that any mitigation put in place will only last until the next record breaking flood, at which point we’ll wonder why technology failed us.
            Depressing. 😦

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    1. In theory the 1938 stop bank system should have protected the main cities, but the volumes of water this time were so enormous. It’s a sad and tragic event. The region will recover, but it’ll take time and work.


  4. Very sorry to hear this. Barely a ripple about in Canadian media. Thoughts and prayers to you and your people. Appalling, but not surprising how quickly the goons come out to prey on the vulnerable in the depths of misery. Governments everywhere seem to act pretty much the same as well, excusing their self-serving decisions to reduce what serves the ordinary citizens while making sure their special people are well looked after.

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  5. Thanks for that insight into what’s happened in NZ, Matthew. Not well reported here.
    The same neoliberal nonsense has been going on across the world, and human life has ecome much more precarious because of it.
    If only governments acted on balance for the good of the people and humanity, rather than for the benefit of the rich.

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    1. Thanks – and appreciated. It’s been an unprecedented event for New Zealand, one of the largest regional disasters in a long time. The scary part is that this is only the latest in a relatively close-set succession of ‘one-in-one-hundred-year’ weather events. Infrastructure from roading to river controls to the power grid simply hasn’t been built to cope with this kind of battering, and government is dropping broad hints about a major nation-wide programme to correct the problem – probably a generation long and running to hundreds of billions of dollars, but becoming essential in this new world of climatic chaos.

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  6. Oh, Matthew. I’m just now coming to this post, for reasons not germane to responding.

    I am glad it appears your family and friends are alive and as well as they can be. I did watch the link you posted in a comment on your previous blog post. Horrific and so very devastating. Here in Florida we understand hurricanes and the power of water but no matter how many hurricanes, there is still shock every time. And as more than one article I have read indicates, all of us have to consider where and how we live. I have come to look to New Zealand to lead as you did the pandemic and so I believe you will as you consider how and where to rebuild.

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    1. Thanks – I hope all’s well your way. The floods across my home district were unprecedented in recent years: the last of this scale were in 1897, well before the current stop-bank and bypass channel system was developed. It’s been the worst disaster to my home area since the earthquake of 1931. But the district is recovering and active work is being done to restore the bridging, with long-term plans to build better infrastructure (possibly nationally) in the offing. Government has yet to announce any major packages but I expect they will. It’s curious: a few days after the disaster the leader of the Opposition, a former Air NZ CEO, turned up with his pack of flunkies and was photographed in his immaculate designer casuals looking at things and pointing, while bleating at the government. At the same time the former PM, Jacinda Ardern – technically still MP for Mount Albert for another few weeks, but essentially now a private citizen – arrived on her own volition, wholly under the radar, and got stuck in, hands-on, helping cook meals for the hungry. Yah, go figure…

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