Saturday, March 2, 2024

Despatches from between the raging rivers

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An AgriHQ analyst’s farm sits between two of the rivers that wrought such devastation in Hawke’s Bay. This is her experience of Cyclone Gabrielle.
The torrent of water created by Cyclone Gabrielle cleared out gorges on Suz and Campbell Bremner’s Hawke’s Bay farm. This stream was only a few metres wide and was overgrown before the weather event. Suz checks out a new potential swimming hole with children Taylor and Jack.
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The life of sales seems like another realm at present as my beautiful region deals with the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. Our sheep and beef farm sits between the two main culprits of the widespread devastation – the Tutaekuri and Ngaruroro rivers – but given our topography and height above sea level, we are some of the lucky ones. 

We all knew the cyclone was coming, forecasters had ensured we were well informed, and we had, up until Monday, been watching its chaotic journey down the island. But no one was prepared for the scale when it unleashed itself on Hawke’s Bay and further up the East Coast. In the space of 24 hours, a friend’s digital rain gauge measured 735mm and our triangular gauge overflowed at 170mm. Measurements taken closer to the coast were not as high, but there was only one way that over 700mm of rain was heading, and that unfortunately was down towards Napier and Hastings via the waterways.

As every farmer would have done in those early hours of Tuesday morning, my husband Campbell and I went and took stock of our farm. Driving out onto Taihape Road, the scale of damage on some of the steeper farms around us was aggressively evident. One hillside in particular had been deeply scarred by Cyclone Hale, only for Gabrielle to finish the job properly. 

We were cautious of venturing too far out on the farm with heavy rain still falling, and so our initial visual assessment was done from the road. But we soon found we were not able to access the top end of our property as a logjam on a road that runs through the middle of our farm meant it was impassable. That was a real shock, amplified by the sheer force of the water running through it into our once quaint stream. 

We then checked in with neighbours. Most of these interactions happened at the end of driveways, or on the roadside as locals ventured out to see that everyone was doing okay. We attempted to head east towards Hastings and Napier but were only able to get a few kilometres down the road before we came across the first fallen trees. At that stage power and phone were still on, but within a few hours we lost all communications and so were not aware of the devastation unfolding further down. 

We firmly believed that at least one, if not all, of the many bridges on the Taihape Road would have gone, and so assumed that we were effectively cut off from town (Hastings). It in fact wasn’t until the Wednesday we came across a very frail couple from Texas on our road – they had driven out from Hastings and were trying to get to Rotorua – that we realised we could in fact get to town now that the water had subsided. Their journey to Rotorua was not to be, though, as the Taihape Road remains closed, a week on from the cyclone.

For the first few days it was about the small wins – it stopped raining, we cleared the logjam, a check of the farm showed minimal slips in paddocks and major damage in gorges but no stock losses. Our water pump survived, we discovered we could get into Hastings; we were able to make contact with family and friends, albeit by finding random spots of coverage. We managed to slide a diesel pump down to our main water supply and get that going; the power came back on! 

These small wins kept us going and once we had our place sorted, we turned our attention to helping those that need it so badly. And that was when the reality of what had happened really hit home. I cannot begin to describe the mixed emotions that myself and so many in the region are dealing with. Everyone I have spoken to has been hit to some degree, but each person has said “but we are lucky because …”. Survivor’s guilt is very real and we all feel sorrow and heartbreak each and every day, but we also feel pride, for those that are getting stuck in and helping out their mates, and their mate’s mates, and people they have never met. 

There is so much destruction out there that people are dealing with, yet farmers and growers still need to operate their businesses. There are still sheep to dip, mobs to shift and finished stock to get away to processors. There are still cows that need to be milked, and fruit that needs to be picked. The list is endless. Water issues are a very real problem for many and the irony of that is not lost on anyone. It has been a blessing that the days following the cyclone have been sunny and that has made the difficult task of clean-up no harder than it already is. But it has meant that thirsty livestock are seeking the drinking water that is not to be found in many troughs, and that has taken a huge toll on farmers as they do all they can to get fresh water to their stock.

The clean-up and recovery phase is a moving target, and each new day presents new challenges and victories. But there is no end in sight for many and it is going to take a long time for the regions badly affected to get used to another new normal. 

Kia Kaha, stay strong. 

This article was written by AgriHQ analyst Suz Bremner. Suz leads the AgriHQ LivestockEye team, including data collectors who are tasked with being on the ground at sale yards throughout the country. Subscribe to AgriHQ reports here.