Since Cyclone Gabrielle hit, I have been on the ground in Tairāwhiti, where I have watched the vital role rural leadership plays during adverse events. No questions needed to be asked, people just pitched in and did what was needed to keep everyone safe.
On the evening of Monday February 13 I sat in my rural cottage near Te Puke with sandbags protecting the house, hoping the cyclone would not repeat the damage caused by Cyclone Hale two weeks earlier. Hale had caused floodwaters to race down the Raparapahoe Stream, bursting its banks, damaging bridges, farmland and buildings. I did not want my place flooded again.
That night I spoke with Gisborne-based agribusiness leader Hilton Collier. As well as discussing the cyclone I shared with him that I had decided to take the plunge and start my own management business. That call ended with an agreement to check in the next day.
The next morning, I woke to the news that Tairāwhiti was completely isolated, with no communication, road access or power.
Like many others I watched the news updates that showed the devastating impacts of the cyclone as it cut a path across Te Ika a Māui. Like many I felt helpless, unable to support whānau and friends whose homes and livelihoods were being destroyed by the cyclone.
I felt a powerful urge to lend a hand. During the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake a group of us had gone to Kaikōura to help our rural community by lending a hand where needed. Since then, heading to Kaikōura has become an annual event that has enabled us to build strong bonds with those farming families.
With no way of talking to Hilton I spent a few days baking, for me a therapeutic practice. Once I was able to get back in touch, I told him I was packed and coming, filling my car with baking and donations, and would get there as soon as the road opened.
In Gisborne, Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou had mobilised its networks and established a distribution centre to receive, sort and redistribute food and care packages for all whānau impacted by the cyclone. Support was being given to both Māori and non-Māori and donations were dispatched as those from outside the region responded and gave what they could at a time of need.
Iwi had mobilised its vast networks and connections to expand its already deployed network of Starlink devices and generators to help the region re-establish vital internet and communication. A timely reminder of how important it is to have a comprehensive and actioned business continuity plan.
These networks have proved invaluable in getting other much-needed goods and kai into the region.
It was amazing to see the real-time operation and co-ordination of truckloads of donations as those in need were supported. For reasons of practicality, we received bulk supplies that needed to be broken down to whānau-sized boxes for distribution. These were then loaded onto four-wheel drive vehicles for delivery into the regional evacuation centres.
The distribution centre was staffed by volunteers, including students in the Gisborne Girls and Boys High rowing teams, along with iwi employees drawn from social and commercial entities, who had been redeployed to help “feed the people” .
This was an exercise that needed to scale up further when power was restored but EFTPOS and banking remained offline. Even those families who were less impacted by the cyclone had to seek support as their pantries ran out of food.
In the absence of structured support from government agencies, I saw a rural leader establish and staff wellbeing and business hubs to reconnect some in the most isolated communities with the outside world. I saw the value of local leaders flying in by helicopter (at their own cost), to front their communities and to provide a reassuring and empathetic voice to hear how the community was feeling and what they were facing. I learnt the value to a farming community who saw support from outside the region arrive, and then the receipt of the Ministry for Primary Industry’s Farming Grants.
In the context of the devastation, these gestures are modest. However, they helped to start the process of healing from the emotional trauma of seeing a life’s work devastated, shifting people from despair towards hope. Mental wellbeing is as important as physical wellbeing. As farmers we all need to do more about how we feel and think about our own situations.
The power of social media has enabled us to coalesce our rural spirit and kinship, which saw truckloads of fencing gear brought in, and over 1000 bales of stock feed, a dozen pallets of dog biscuits, untold boxes of goods and sanitary items.
No small contribution goes unnoticed here on the ground, and as the situation begins to settle, this region can pause and marvel at the generosity of many of you during the region’s time of need. In time there will be messages of gratitude and appreciation. For now, rural isolation remains, delaying the healing process.