The long winding road to Wairoa Recovery
Kids in Wairoa, Hawke's Bay, helping with the clean up on Thursday February 16 after Cyclone Gabrielle. horse pony

[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

Three Bridges at Risk of Collapse … Building Better Roads … Wairoa ‘a priority’ for NZTA … State Highway 2 reopening to take up to three months … 

These are headlines you would expect in the immediate aftermath of a cyclone, but they are all from weeks and months after Cyclone Gabrielle cut the northern Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa off from the rest of New Zealand. 

Regional Council data reveals the cyclone caused the Wairoa River to flow higher than 7,100 m³/s. That’s nearly three times higher than the previously highest recorded (in 2015).

Effectively cut in two when Cyclone Bola felled Wairoa’s main bridge in 1988, it was a similar tale of two towns during Gabrielle.

North Clyde, the half of town on the northern side of the Wairoa River bore the brunt of the town’s flooding when the river poured in through the showgrounds, inundating nearby areas. Further upstream, access to Frasertown and Lakes Waikaremoana and Tuai, along SH 38, was also temporarily cut off.

Around one-third of Wairoa’s homes were damaged with approximately 150 households displaced.

BayBuzz asked Wairoa Mayor Craig Little, HBRC’s Wairoa Councillor Di Roadley and local businesswoman Dianne Downey, owner of ‘The Limery’ about recovery efforts and the challenges the town and district face.

Precipitation preparedness

Could any key entities (central and local government, organisations or national infrastructure networks) have been better prepared for Cyclone Gabrielle?

“Cyclone Gabrielle was an unprecedented national disaster. Its severity shocked our country. Wairoa was alone and isolated with no roads in or out of the district, no power and no communications,” says Mayor Craig Little.

“The local responses and decisions that were made were based on what was happening and what was known at that moment in time. I am sure that in hindsight, there are areas that could have been improved and we will all learn from this, which could help us be better prepared next time.

Given Wairoa’s isolation and situation, I believe our localised response and mobilisation of our united community was amazing. I acknowledge our Wairoa Civil Defence response and staff. I have absolute admiration for our local Wairoa team that carried on despite being cut off from all support. 

The long winding road to Wairoa Recovery 16022023 News Photo RICKY WILSON/STUFF SH2 between Wairoa and Napier
SH2 between Wairoa and Napier Damage to the road caused by slips 16022023 News Photo RICKY WILSONSTUFF

“However, I believe the over-arching national Civil Defence model is not fit for purpose and needs to change. Wairoa District Council’s resources have been absolutely strained. Whilst we had some support from Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in the Civil Defence response, we urgently need additional support from the regional council for our recovery.” 

Little has been critical of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s cyclone response in a letter to HBRC chairperson Hinewai Ormsby that was released under the OIA in April. 

Hawke’s Bay Regional Councillor Di Roadley says: “We can’t control the weather, but moving forward we can be prepared for whatever nature throws at us. Cyclone Gabrielle didn’t behave as predicted, the path it travelled and the quantity of rain that fell far exceeded the projected expectation. 

“The extraordinary magnitude of this event has made clear that we have areas for improvement. One obvious shortfall was the ability to communicate when the relied upon systems failed. As a nation we need to explore all possibilities to ensure that our ability to respond during an adverse event is strengthened.” 

Dianne Downey, owner of The Limery believes more could have been done by national organisations, given the early warnings of Gabrielle’s anticipated severity. 

“Metservice rain radar showed ‘purple’ indication of heavy rain in the hill areas of Gisborne, Wairoa and Napier 72 hours prior to rain starting in those areas. Lakes like those at Kaitawa and Tuai (part of the Waikaremoana Hydro scheme) in the ranges should have been lowered in preparation days before, not hours.”

“Civil Defence relied on digital data not physical markers therefore no ‘Plan B’ was in play given the Metservice predictions.” She adds, “No siren or alarm sounded either physically or on cell phone to alert people to evacuate yet we have had this in the past for tsunamis and Covid.” 

Immediate challenges

Mayor Little says, “Getting people back into their homes and looking after our community, including businesses and organisations is our priority.”

“Lack of roading connectivity and isolation remains an issue. State Highway 2 between Wairoa and Napier has been significantly damaged. We know contractors are working hard and NZTA Waka Kotahi has prioritised getting this highway open.”

At the time of writing the road connection with Gisborne had been re-established, but State Highway 2 connection south to Napier was still cut off at the Waikare Gorge. A temporary Bailey bridge isn’t expected to be in place until the end of May. 

“Locally our roading and bridge network was severely affected. Two bridges are unrepairable, and others need significant repair work. We still have roads closed. We are fortunate that our local roading contracting business QRS is based in Wairoa, and we have other local contractors who we have been able to draw on to help us on our district roads.”

Dianne Downey agrees that road access is their main issue. “The biggest challenge is access! Access of goods to market, access for specialist trades coming in, access for supplies, gas and fuel deliveries.”

She questioned when road closures needed to happen, having heard the road to Gisborne would be closed for two days in the middle of the week to replace a culvert. Her preference “would have been for Saturday/Sunday as Tuesday/Wednesday are heavy trade days for producers and manufacturers such as us. Staff cannot get to and from work.

“Decisions like this are obviously made by non-businesspeople who have no understanding of economics and productivity,” she says. 

Water, water, everywhere!

“Our immediate ability to make water for our township was wiped out by Cyclone Gabrielle. However, it is the work we have been doing on our water resilience that got us through,” says Little.

“Our electric water pumps were submerged in 30 metres of water and silt and took days to pump out using local council staff and the local fire brigade volunteers. 

“Our Wairoa water team, with some external support, got our supply up and running within five days. Council has been focussing on water resilience and water loss and because of this we have increased our capacity. Stored water in our reservoirs could have supplied our township for a week. Having enough stored supply and getting our ability to make water back up and running so quickly in such extreme circumstances is a huge tribute to our council staff and also to Affco who we worked in partnership with.” 

The Wairoa mayor considers these infrastructure recovery efforts are an indication his stance against central government water reforms is well founded. “This demonstrates the power of localism, having locally based staff with skills and knowledge.” 

Future-Proofing Wairoa

“The challenges around Wairoa’s isolation need to be recognised,” says Mayor Little.

“We have no alternative routes and, as has been evidenced with the closure of SH2 to Napier, this has a tremendously negative impact, particularly from health, whānau and economical perspectives. 

We need the state highways to Gisborne and Napier to be more resilient and we need State Highway 38 to be vastly improved and brought up to a state highway standard for the future safety of all our people.”

“We are one of the most digitally challenged areas in New Zealand. Because of our geographical isolation, we should be prioritised around digital investment and yet we are lagging behind. Cyclone Gabrielle has demonstrated our district needs significant central investment to give us parity with the rest of the country.

“Our Wairoa airport was our lifeline during Cyclone Gabrielle. However, our runway is too short for larger planes which meant a lot of flights into Wairoa were by helicopter. Using a larger plane would have cut down the helicopter trips considerably. A longer runway will also provide resilience for health/medical flights. We are hoping the government will recognise this need and support this project.

“We also need to work with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and Central Government in a meaningful way to develop a plan to mitigate the extremities of future flooding.”

Councillor Roadley agrees more involvement and funding from central government is required. “Money doesn’t solve everything, but it is the great enabler. Wairoa is a vast area with a small population and rating base. We need additional Central Government support and funding to ensure that we have options to mitigate repeating the same cycle of vulnerability that our communities and businesses are suffering now. 

“Protecting our people from flooding is paramount. Flooding of the Wairoa River is a known risk. Moving forward we need an approach that protects our people and businesses from the floods while respecting cultural rights.

“Building a roading network that is fit for purpose and able to withstand the impacts of weather is critical. We need to have confidence in the resilience of our life-line services including power, communication and telemetry/warning systems.”

Dianne Downey, too, stresses the importance of access, but notes another vulnerability. “The other issue for Wairoa is power. We are faced with continuous power cuts (a nightmare for machinery) as there is only one main line coming in, yet in the ranges we have a hydro power scheme!”

Opportunity Ahead

Craig Little thinks, “Wairoa’s opportunity is to be better than it was. Some of our biggest challenges are the same issues we have been talking about for years, roading and bridge resilience, digital connectivity, longer airport runway etc. We need support to upgrade this infrastructure and, in particular, have State Highway 38 fit for purpose as a state highway.”

He adds, “…we are resourceful, we know our people and we know our needs. If we are supported, the opportunity exists to rebuild and make Wairoa even better with infrastructure and services that are on a par with the rest of the country.”

Councillor Roadley echoes the need for Wairoa not to be overlooked again, “We need Central Government support” while emphasising local leadership. “Locally we are united, and we will work collectively to place the Wairoa district in the best possible position. Wairoa must lead Wairoa’s recovery and we need expert support, funding and courage to make change. We must be responsible for our own decisions and actions, focus on what is important and keep our eye on the horizon.”

He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata!

Clearly apparent throughout coverage of Cyclone Gabrielle and its aftermath has been people working together and helping each other – mucking in, providing food, shelter and assistance.

Being cut off by the loss of transport and communications lines in Wairoa it was an even more key feature. 

“We have seen the best of community spirit and leadership through this awful time,” Di Roadley emphasises. “Individuals have put the needs of others foremost and stood up as leaders; this resource is one of Wairoa’s greatest assets. We must utilise the wisdom of many and be the example of how the sum is always greater than the part.”

“Wairoa’s response was totally local,” summarises Mayor Little. “We were isolated with no communication, we were alone. This event highlights the need to support localism and recognise that smaller isolated rural communities cannot be treated the same as metropolitan New Zealand. We need solutions that suit us. 

“We have over 200 yellow-stickered homes that our people can’t live in. It is heart-breaking to see whānau who have lost lifetimes of possessions, and now their houses are too damp to move back into and need considerable repairs.

“Wairoa District Council has assisted with silt removal and the removal of flood-affected items because we had to support our people. We have been cleaning the silt up from the main street playground to at least get some normality back into children’s lives.

“Our community has shown what we can do and how we work together and with support from volunteers, both within and outside of our district, we are making progress. We are a strong community, but Cyclone Gabrielle certainly gave us a hiding.” 


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