A cheer has finally gone up around Patoka.
After 15 days without electricity, power is back in the small Hawke’s Bay community – and for many it is the first real sign of progress since the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle.
“It was a big morale booster,” said farmer and community board member Isabelle Crawshaw.
“We had a big cheer, a round of applause and a few tears. We’ve got a long road ahead of us in terms of isolation. But just having that basic necessity of power restored to families is huge.”
Plenty of challenges remain for locals and the next focus is ensuring they can get enough fuel to enable farmers and the community to return to some normality.
Access to Patoka, Rissington and Puketitiri was crippled when the Rissington bridge was destroyed in the cyclone.
With road links to the region expected to remain cut off for another four to six weeks, they are still reliant on what supplies can be brought in by helicopter or army unimog vehicles travelling across river access points. As soon as it rained the river became inaccessible, and it stayed that way for days.
“The generator that is fuelling our substation is extremely thirsty and that’s what is keeping everyone’s power going now. So that’s another battle,” Crawshaw said.
“Now that lights have come on farmers want to start focusing on animal welfare, getting to stock, fixing fences and stuff like that. All of that requires a lot of fuel for tractors and quad bikes.
“We’re far from being out of the woods yet in terms of what supply we do have and are obviously heavily reliant on the resources in town to keep getting us the fuel that we need.”
Crawshaw, part of a group co-ordinating the community’s cyclone response, estimated Patoka and its 300 people need about 2000-3000 litres of fuel a day to sustain the community and “we’re not getting close to that”. The local school and kindergarten have reopened, but because residents have to restrict fuel use some families are unable to transport children to class.
What has been evident since the cyclone is community spirit. Locals gather regularly for meetings to update the situation and are quick to put their hands up to support neighbours. Organisations and businesses that normally service the community have stepped up with significant donations.
“The support has been humongous. We now have access to everyone, which is amazing. We’ve gone through the immediate emergency phase of people chipping in around the community,” Crawshaw said.
“Now farmers have got the massive task of sitting down and looking at the their individual situations.
“There is a mammoth road ahead for a lot of farmers out here and it’s only just now people are stepping back and saying ‘Where do we start, where are our focal points and what’s our plan for the next 6-12 months?’
“There will be some difficult conversations for a lot of people.”
Crawshaw said discussions have been held with the Rural Support Trust and it is hoped funding can be found for “some outside eyes” – such as farm consultants or advisers – to assist locals. After so many days looking at property damage, it is difficult for farmers to make rational decisions about their recovery.
“Those fresh eyes and that experience is going to be crucial to get farmers through however long this recovery is going to take.”
She said work is also being done with the Ministry for Primary Industries to enable farmers to access vital supplies such as fencing through their regular companies, and for the New Zealand Defence Force to transport it into Patoka.
“It’s a mind-shift from survival into what’s ahead of us and what do we need to start looking at. But we’re lucky. We’re not in same boat as some horticulture and viticulture properties that have been completely wiped out.”
For the time being Crawshaw’s focus remains on the local community and she is prepared to continue to make sacrifices to ensure that happens.
Her husband Patrick has effectively been left on his own to manage their sheep and beef farm while Crawshaw focuses on the community’s needs. The couple chartered a helicopter to evacuate their two young children to family in Wellington while the clean-up continues.
“Yes it is hard. We are in the same boat as all the other farmers in terms of our farm and the damage caused to it,” Crawshaw said.
“We’ll need to take some time to sit down and make a plan. I’ve not been out on the farm yet. I haven’t been able to bring myself to do that. I just want to focus on the community for the moment.
“I don’t think I have the capacity to even think about the worries and the long-term recovery plan that we are facing on our property.”