Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Gabrielle’s bruises still fading

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Richard Rennie looks back over the past year of devastation, recovery and community strength.
Cut pine or ‘slash’ formed only a single digit percentage of the forest waste surveyed in the Hawke’s Bay region.
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The evening of February 132023 is likely to be a night many along the North Island’s east coast will share memories of.

As Cyclone Gabrielle chainsawed its way down the coast, things went from bad to worse and only patchy news filtered in. 

Gisborne-Tairāwhiti went off the air as its entire cell phone network failed. It was an unheard-of state, a chilling radio silence that only served to punctuate Gabrielle’s enormity.

Professionally, Gabrielle was an emotive step up from the usual challenges facing a rural journalist, where getting your car stuck on a farm track may be classed as a difficult day. 

Reality bit, as media members flying into isolated coastal communities were cautioned not to photograph any bodies they may see in the water from above. 

Uncertainty was rife about the whereabouts of dozens of people still unaccounted for in communities such as Wairoa.

What followed were weeks of intense initial recovery by residents, fuelled by equal parts of adrenaline and desperation to claw back some of their lost lives. 

And once again, New Zealanders did what they do so well, stepping up for those stricken, offering millions of dollars in donations alongside tonnes of food and supplies.

Since those intense days, the mechanics of disaster recovery have cranked up and along. 

It is a testament to the talent in local councils and agencies and their repeated grim experience that those hit the hardest at least had their basic needs and dignity maintained in Gabrielle’s aftermath.

A year on, the angry blame for forestry’s contribution to Gabrielle’s impact has somewhat subsided. 

A ministerial inquiry has at least provided guidelines that may enable the sector and the region to co-exist in a more sustainable manner. 

What is not answered is the ticking time bomb of legacy slash lurking in the steep country and needing only another severe event to trigger its damaging journey to the coast.

It has also been firmly established that recovery from such events is simply beyond the capacity of the affected regions. They are bereft of ratepayer funds for standard road and infrastructure maintenance, let alone major disaster recovery. 

In contrast to Christchurch’s earthquake, which included a high proportion of insured building assets, Gabrielle’s damage spanned extensive catchments of uninsurable assets like farmland and orchards, bridges and culverts.

The affected regions are simply too productive to leave them to recoup haphazardly. 

Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay are the country’s high value, highly productive fruit and produce bowls. It is in the interests of NZ Inc that the central government does not include their recovery in its budgetary cuts.

For rural communities, the phrase “resilient” is likely to be met with an eye roll today. 

But many will agree that communities that risked drifting apart before have been bought closer together.

Gabrielle has helped many reforge their links to each other, keeping a closer eye out on the neighbour, taking the time out to drop by and see where help can be given.

A year on, the rear view has not buried Gabrielle’s legacy by any means. But those who remain on the land as farmers and growers may prove to be those who care more for each other, as much as for how their land can be adapted to survive another Gabrielle.

In Focus podcast | 9 February

This month marks one year since Cyclone Gabrielle ripped through the eastern North Island. Farmers, growers and communities faced a massive recovery as they worked to rebuild infrastructure, supply chains and get the land back into productive shape.

For this week’s show, Bryan sits down with Rod Vowles, who farms just east of Waipawa a few kilometres from the Tukituki River. His story of survival is astonishing.

Then, Karen Morrish from Apples and Pears NZ to see how Hawke’s Bay growers are faring as the harvest gets under way.

And, Federated Farmers national board member Sandra Faulkner shares how Tairāwhiti farmers are getting on up the coast.

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