Nestled in the far northeastern corner of Te Tairāwhiti, the people of the Ruatoria community have much to be thankful for after dodging the worst of what Cyclone Gabrielle delivered to their cousins further south.
Life in Ruatoria has been overshadowed by multiple severe weather events over the past two years, the most recent – before Gabrielle – being Cyclone Hale, which wiped out roads in the region in the New Year and even created a new lake up in the flooded Waioraongomai valley that feeds into the Tauaeroa River.
The Waiapu River adjacent to the town has the dubious reputation for holding the highest sediment load for its size of any river in the world and cuts an ugly passage to the sea downstream.
The river is progressively swallowing its catchment, with each event slicing off chunks of fertile river flats and spewing them out into the Pacific.
Five kilometres downstream from Ruatoria on the coast the beach is choked with debris, and vast swathes of debris-laden silt cast a stark birthmark of the land’s damage against the Pacific’s blue.
This time around, local fire chief and resident Monty Manuel said the biggest challenge for residents is no road access to the south beyond Te Puia Springs.
This leaves the arduous State Highway 35 route around East Cape as the only way out by road. Locals have been nervously eyeing fuel supplies to the community generator as they await a fuel tanker for a top-up.
Meantime food supplies at the local emergency centre received a welcome boost with deliveries of goods from Tauranga Aeroclub at the weekend.
The three plane-loads of food, milk and hygiene products were cheerily greeted with an offer to swap any eggs on board for fresh venison.
Manuel is proud to be living in a community that through necessity has become increasingly resilient with each event it has experienced. This time around the tiny town has played a key part in helping inform Civil Defence officials in Wellington about Gabrielle’s impact.
“It got to the point we were the only township on the coast that had comms and power, and we were transmitting back to national emergency defence headquarters in Wellington,” Manuel said.
A visit to the town’s main street confirmed how skilled locals have become in dealing with the likes of Gabrielle.
Manuel points to the well-positioned community generator on the drive to the smoothly run emergency shelter and supply centre at the local rugby grounds.
The nearby fire station has become a centralised, well-connected emergency co-ordination centre, working with chopper pilots and locals to co-ordinate food deliveries to remote settlements that may face weeks of disconnection.
A huge whiteboard neatly lays out the critical tasks facing the cheerful young team overseeing comms and road network repairs.
“And we have a road crew here who are a crack team at rebuilding bridges.
“The Tolaga Bay bridge that washed out last year was supposed to take several weeks to get back in place, they only took a few days.”
Leeanne Morris, Ruatoria’s emergency response co-ordinator, said Gabrielle has added another layer of experience for the community to learn from, and they are already starting to put its lessons in place.
“A key thing has been to maintain communications,” Morris said.
“For us this time getting Starlink satellite pods distributed across Ngati Porou and hooked up, this has been a real lifesaver that has worked all the comms for Ruatoria, including police, fire, and road gangs, it’s all run out of here.”
Local Ngati Porou iwi moved quickly early in the week to secure the 30 of the Starlink links, valued at $1000 apiece, by leveraging off contacts at major supply chain stores to source in bulk. These have been distributed out to the remote disconnected eastern communities by helicopter.
With no definite help centre, Morris and her colleagues can now claim to be among the experts in NZ in getting the satellite systems up and running.
Priorities now are in getting food and supplies to the half dozen tiny communities out from Ruatoria that are likely to be isolated for weeks due to road damage.
“Our thinking is that this is going to happen again of course.
“It’s going to be about how we can future-proof ourselves even better for subsequent events. The Starlink is one of the ways we intend to do that, and we are also securing more small generators. Should this happen again we are going to have comms, power, and food.”
Again, using iwi networks and connections the community intends to secure containers that will be loaded with small water treatment plants, generators, Starlink pods and non-perishable foodstuffs that store well.
“Then when we need them, we have it all there on hand.”
She said one key issue has been EFTPOS going down, with cash less common than it used to be.
“We had technicians come in and get it back again, but we want to have systems in place before it happens next time.
“It’s just all about making sure we are better prepared for next time around.”