Reflecting On Our Experience Of Cyclone Gabrielle’s Devastation

On Monday, 13th February, I spent the best part of a day writing a catch-up post about our antics before Christmas. I briefly talked about the weird weather wet we’d been experiencing and how Cyclone Gabrielle was about to hit. I posted after 10 pm NZ time.

The following morning we woke to find the effects of Gabrielle to be far worse than expected locally and nationally. I worried that family and friends in the UK would be anxious. We were without any means of communicating with the outside world for two days.

Isolated From The World

We all knew Cyclone Gabrielle was coming. We’d seen the colourful images of her swirling path heading towards us. There had been warnings to be prepared – have batteries ready, clean water, enough food for three days, etc. It wasn’t long since the previous Cyclone Hale had caused devastation, the aftermath of which had killed a young boy holidaying in Gisborne.

But I doubt anyone could predict, in the days leading up to Tuesday, 14th February 2023, exactly how much havoc Gabrielle would cause. Gabrielle had started showing her colours the previous evening. That was definitely the blog writing day, then. Ali was off work, and Barry had been asked to get the photos from our Takitimu Bay excursion sorted and ready for Tom to do some Social Media posts for Bayley’s Real Estate.

We spent the day glued to our laptops, ensconced in finishing our commitments. In between writing the blog, I had a Google Ads account audit to perform for a potential new client for Ad-Extra. The wind howled outside, and rain lashed down. Gary emptied the swimming pool a little every few hours to prevent it from overflowing, and the grass became a sodden puddle. We’d literally ‘battened down the hatches’ of their outside deck covering and were prepared to sit it out for a day or so. Little did we know what was coming …

The evening of Monday 13th February 2023, in Ali and Gary’s back garden

I’d asked Barry to put on a slide show of his images of the past six weeks onto the blog. Once I’d mostly finished writing, editing, link building, tagging, and optimising it, he got onto that job. By now, it was well into the evening, and I’d cooked us a tasty chicken curry. We borrowed the game Sequence from Tom and Mir to show Ali and Gary how to play, and we enjoyed five rounds. Ali and Barry won despite Gary and I being two games ahead to start!

Cyclone Gabrielle phone alert 13th February 2023

Following the game, I heard the warning sirens that had scared us when we camped at Kumara on the South Island almost two years ago when we got the first COVID emergency text. The warning flashed up on both my UK AND NZ phone. A woman’s voice spoke to warn us things were getting very serious, and anyone close to rivers or the sea should consider moving to the nearest evacuation centre. 

We realised Barry’s elder brother Ray lived right next to the Tarehura River, and his roadway and drive had flooded previously. Barry gave him a call and suggested he evacuate or come to us. He couldn’t drive his car, as the river levels were already rising up his drive – and high tide wasn’t until 0043hrs. Barry offered to go and pick him up from the road above, but Ray wanted to stay at home and preserve what he could.

A short time later, the power suddenly went off, and with it, our internet access. Ali and Gary had retired to bed but got up to get out the candles and torches. Yes, I know! We’d been told to get all that prepared. Like most people, we thought that was targeted at those living ‘up the coast’, not us townies. Ha!

I’d been in contact with my daughters and sisters to let them know things could get worse, but I felt we’d be fine. I shared the Gisborne District Council FB page link as a means of potentially discovering what was happening should I fail to get back in contact. I’d almost finished the account audit, and Barry had got his (amazing) slideshow onto the blog post. We had candles, a head torch Ali had recently sourced for me to take to our imminent Australia trip, and of course, our mobile phone lights. At this point, I realised that although I’d charged my phones, I’d neglected to charge my laptop! I had only a short time left before the battery ran out.

I swiftly completed the account audit as soon as the power returned, not too long later. In the meantime, we felt the house shaking loudly and realised it was an earthquake. Apparently 4.5 and located 20 km away. Mother Nature really was throwing her might at us! I checked the blog post for errors and ways to optimise the content, but not as thoroughly as I could have, as I wanted to get it published before midnight. It was describing the Cyclone towards the end, and to make it logical, it needed to go out asap. It did, thankfully.

The account audit was emailed to the potential client – with whom I had a Zoom call scheduled for Wednesday 15th, at 0730 hrs. Retrospectively I realised it would have been wise to forewarn her if I didn’t show up, it would be because we had no power or internet. That never occurred to me. Unbeknown to me, prior to the call, she cancelled it anyway! I just wasn’t to know for a few days …

I re-read the posted blog and made notes on my phone of all the glaring errors before going to sleep. My darling daughter Kimberley was also messaging me with them having read and knowing how anal I am. I said I’d fix them in the morning but needed to sleep now. It was around 0030hrs. I put my earplugs in as I knew the loud rain and wind would keep me up. As is usual, I was up to the toilet three times in the night, and although still raining, it didn’t sound too bad.

It was calm and dry outside when we got up in the morning. Phew, I said. That wasn’t so bad. But then I checked my phones, and both said, ‘no service’. We checked the power. Nothing. After breakfast (we boiled some water on the gas BBQ for tea/coffee), we decided to drive to Tom and Mir’s to see how they were and help out with Ludo. We didn’t get far.

The Aftermath

The Ormond Road bridge near the Gisborne Council offices, which we needed to cross, was cordoned off. So we turned around, thinking we’d divert via Stout Street and go through town and over a different bridge. We had no idea how bad things had been. The roads were ridiculously busy with traffic – far more so than on a normal day. But no businesses were open, and no lights were on. We parked up by the footbridge near Ray’s house and walked across it. Barry had wanted to drive there, but I said it would be better to walk. I didn’t want to park on the road by the river on that side.

Thomson Street is one the lowest streets near one of the three rivers in Gisborne. Walking over the footbridge, it was plain to see the river had recently flowed over it. Thankfully Ray’s house was built above the river level and has a fairly steep drive. The other houses weren’t so ‘lucky’. He showed us the height the water level reached around 0300hrs that day. Debris littered his drive and the front gardens in the neighbourhood. Ray had managed to move his car as high up the drive as possible, but it had still been soaked. Barry visited the house two doors down from Ray to talk with his friend Merv (see Barry’s slide show at the end of the post to see more). A large log and another house’s mooring jetty had made their way onto his property.

We stayed chatting to Ray for about an hour, during which a constant procession of cars and vans drove up the road, turned around, and then returned. It’s a one-way street. These were ‘disaster tourists’, Ray said, just driving around to gaze at other people’s despair and destruction. What else was there to do with no internet or power? Incredible! That continued for days all around the city. I guess it’s like a ‘live’ television program?

Ray subsequently shared a few photos from his traumatic experience overnight, which show how high the river came to his property:

It was undoubtedly very frightening. The experiences of people further south, in the Esk Valley and nearby Wairoa, are unimaginable.

Power Restored

We headed back to the car and thought we’d try again to get to Tom and Mir’s, heading to the main street over the still-open bridge. Again, we were aghast at the volume of traffic on the roads. We listened to the news on the car radio. People were being urged not to use the bridges out of town. Heavy machinery was coming through to try and clear the rivers of debris mounted up under the bridges. We were cut off from the rest of the country, and the world, with no power or internet and no idea of when it would return. The cables for ‘high-speed’ internet had been badly damaged, and we were advised to conserve water at all costs. Only for basic hygiene needs and to flush the toilet when absolutely necessary.

We turned around and headed back to Ali and Gary’s. On the way, Barry saw a friend, Liam’s, van and waved. Liam and Gabe (Garbielle!) live across the road from Ali and Gary’s, and I’d thought the previous night I wanted to pop around and see how she was. She was heavily pregnant, and I wanted to offer any support – as an ex-midwife. I popped around, and they had the TV on, watching the news. Liam had managed to get a generator set up so they had hot water and access to the TV. Things looked as though they could be improving.

Back at Ali’s and we had lunch – a toasted sandwich cooked on the BBQ. We enjoyed reading books and snoozing. It was quite surreal wondering what on earth to do without access to the internet! You realise how dependent we’ve become on it – it was unnerving. 

Friends visited. Power had been restored in some places, they told us, so we tried it and lo and behold, it was on. Still no internet, though. My concern was growing about how I would be able to manage my online work with no internet access. We had a trip out of Gisborne to Auckland planned for 21st February, so I wasn’t too concerned. So long as the flight would be leaving that day and we could get to the hiring company. I’d then have to deal with the backlog of emails and messages.

Many of the city’s water pipes had burst, so access to clean water was going to be restricted for a while (as I edit this post, on Monday, 10th April, eight weeks after the cyclone hit, the water supply is STILL limited). We filled bottles and saucepans just in case. And used “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”, the oft-repeated phrase on our narrowboat – especially during the night. 

Post Gabrielle Chaos

Power continued to be available in town, as well as clean water. But without the internet, there was no Eftpos (card machine payments), no car park payments, no online banking, no emails, and no work for me! Barry’s brother Ray said he’d open his town café Verve on Thursday and accept only cash. We went there for coffee – and to borrow some cash.

One Supermarket had Eftpos machines working via Satellite, but the queues to shop there were as long as they had been during COVID. We went to Countdown instead, where the queue was minimal, and bought what we needed for a couple of days, paying by cash. Many people we knew had some cash available purely for this type of emergency. Whilst in the cafe, someone we knew from a local radio station came in and told us a satellite link had been set up outside the theatre for public use. That was our next port of call! We managed to get brief internet access and send messages to family and friends to reassure them.

Then met up with someone else we know – Dudley Meadows, who manages Tairawhiti Musem. A large collection of Barry’s negatives from his years of professional photography are stored here. Dudley wanted to check if an East Coast image was by Barry so it could be attributed to him. He had a look, and yes, it was. We were then treated to a delightful private tour around the temporarily closed museum. Barry found another huge print that he’d worked on decades ago, along with Dudley, when they developed their own photographs.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins flew into Gisborne on 16th February and visited residents in Te Karaka en route to the Waioeka Gorge, where we’d drive through to Opotiki. Forty-seven residents had been evacuated late that Monday night and taken up a hill where they spent a cold, dark and frightening 27 hours before the waters receded. Many homes were ruined. Miraculously only one person died.

Help From The Forces

By Thursday, 17th February, the New Zealand Navy had arrived in Gisborne waters to bring supplies to Gisborne and the east coast. We walked from Tom and Miriam’s into town and watched as they brought boxes of fresh water and provisions ashore. We saw where vast quantities of logs had been washed down the river and smashed into the walkway beneath the bridge where we used to walk.

Internet Restored

It took until Sunday, 19th February, for the internet to be restored to the city. By Friday 16th, a queuing system had been set up at the Lawson Field Theatre as so many people attempting to log on meant no one could. So they allowed ten people in every ten minutes to do what we needed to do. Kind-hearted people were parked up and giving out free grapes in the car park. It really is a fabulous community here.

That day we heard that if we stood outside the Police Station in town, we could hook up to their satellite wifi. We did this was it was the only way I was able to reliably access my work emails and respond to them. A gentleman walked up to me (he’s walking away in the image below)and said cheekily, “Do you remember airmail letters? Maybe we should get those back!“. I did indeed remember them and had used them in the early 1980s. However, that would’ve been no help as there was no way to even get ‘snail’ mail out of Gisborne!

Community Spirit

Though the cyclone has been devastating to many people in Gisborne and its surrounds (and many other areas of NZ), a positive that has been obvious is how the community was brought together in adversity. Without the internet, people walked around – and talked to each other far more than previously. Children were outside playing. And the Farmer’s Market that Saturday, 18th February, was packed. It had to be moved from its usual venue of the council car park, as that was full of emergency vehicles. Stories of what happened over the previous five days were talked of and marvelled at. Check out this New Zealand Herald article from that day, with aerial images of Gisborne showing the scale of the disaster –

Leaving Gisborne For Six Weeks

On Monday, 20th February, I had the absolute pleasure of supporting Gabe through some of her now-established labour and recommending she head to the hospital. Her second daughter, Dalia, was born beautifully one hour after arriving. How wonderful it was to be ‘with woman’ once again. But without all the ‘politics’ of working in the health service, which I don’t miss one bit!

Arabella, Gabe and Liam on Saturday, 18th February

There are thousands more words to write about the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle on New Zealand – already, there’s a Wikipedia page all about it, which I have no doubt will be added to:

Severe Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle was a severe tropical cyclone that devastated the North Island of New Zealand and affected parts of Vanuatu and Australia in February 2023. It is the costliest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere, with total damages estimated to be at least NZ$13.5 billion (US$8.4 billion),[2] of which the provisional cost of insured damage is at least NZ$1.15 billion (US$730 million).[3] It was also the deadliest cyclone and weather event overall to hit New Zealand since Cyclone Giselle in 1968, surpassing Cyclone Bola in 1988.”

Fortunately for us, we’d already planned to leave Gisborne on Tuesday, 21st February and head to Auckland to pick up a campervan from ‘Travellers Autobarn‘, for a free seven-day relocation deal to Christchurch. We found the amazing deal on the NZ ‘transfercar’ website. Actually, when I say ‘fortunately’, on reflection, that wasn’t quite the case! I’ll share more in the next post – hopefully in the not-too-distant future!

Before leaving, we enjoyed a Sunday afternoon BBQ at friends with Tom and Ludo, and they took us to the airport.

There followed a whirlwind of adventures around New Zealand and Australia. We returned to Gisborne on Monday, 3rd April, and hope to get an overview of those journeys posted in the next couple of weeks as we’re now we’re staying in one place for six weeks!

Since we left, there’s been a mixture of weather. Gisborne town beaches were cleaned up, but recent heavy rain has once again caused the town beaches to be littered with forestry ‘slash’.

“… after the weekend rain, the main city beachfront was once again heavily coated with woody debris. Contractors Siteworx Civil only completed the latest debris removal operation of a frustrating summer late last week. At that point the beach from the Cut to past Midway looked good . . . not any more.  A company spokesman told The Gisborne Herald yesterday they had not received instructions from the district council to do it all again. The council has been approached by The Herald for a statement of intent around another clean-up.” – 12th April 2023

I took these photos on Saturday 8th, April:

Barry’s Cyclone Gabrielle Slideshow

As usual, click on the first image to see images of the devastation from Barry’s lens:

10 thoughts on “Reflecting On Our Experience Of Cyclone Gabrielle’s Devastation

  1. Pingback: A Christchurch Catch-Up With Unique Street Art ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  2. What a terrible mess and so much disruption to your lives. I remember cyclones like that in South Africa. The devastation was awful. I hope the winter is calmer for you!

    • Thank you Valerie. We’ll be back in the UK on Narrowboat Areandare before the NZ winter. Just in time for a British summer.

      Sadly hundreds of people in the North Island have suffered so much devastation it’ll take a long time for them to find a semblance of ‘normality’ again. Hopefully there are no more severe weather events here for the foreseeable future but I guess that’s highly unlikely 😢

      • Oh I do hope we have a better summer in Europe than you had in NZ. We’ve just done a long trip on my barge and found it very cold for April. We had to wait for the ice to clear from the decks before leaving in the morning…brrr! Happy cruising, anyway. Do you have any cruising plans?

        • Yes I hope so too!

          Our only plans initially are to de-winterise the boat and find somewhere to paint the roof and gunnels. Both have needed doing for a couple if years! Then heading towards Chester. We have kiwi friends arriving 15th July for a week.

          Not planned after that 😂 which is quite refreshing. 😉

  3. We are finally getting our extension built and thought that we were living in a muddy mess – but you beat us hands down !! A blog to remember !! Very interesting to get such a personal view point, helps to put some perspective into television news reports. Thank you for posting it.

    • How lovely to gear from you! It’s been a while. Crikey I can’t believe you’re still in the midst of building work! So much for slowing down 😂

      Thank you for your feedback. I felt it was worth sharing despite the delay. The devastation to so many people here is staggering 😢

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