“I had a sad but useful visit to Hawke’s Bay yesterday, seeing the situation from the air and ground, and hearing from local Government, businesses, and families affected by Gabrielle’s floods,” says ACT Leader David Seymour.
“The scale of the devastation is enormous, it cannot all be seen from the ground. Vast areas of orchard flattened, acres of greenhouses disappeared under silt, whole bridges disappeared. Vast amounts of forest slash banked up against the bridges. Some bridges broke, others held, but the slash is there in all cases.
“There is a lot of talk that the death toll isn’t close to being known yet. This morning I saw a dozen Rigid Inflatable Boats leave Napier Port to do search and rescue. We can only hope for miracles against this speculation.
“On the ground, it is just as bad up close. Thousands of onions washed off the ground now hang from trees. Dead horses, large caravans in the middle of fields, metres of silt around homes.
“Apple growers I spoke to face a daunting decision. The silt will kill their trees. They need to plough them out and replant. That means enormous capital expenditure without production for four years while the trees mature. Can they recapitalise, without certainty that the stop banks will be built stronger? Would it be better to cut their losses? A lot will depend on both kinds of banks.
“A line of people wait two hours. They want to be early before the petrol station starts filling gas bottles. They never thought they’d get sick of barbequed meat, but here they are and they don’t want to lose their place in queue. They’re most hungry for information, they asked me, only half joking, ‘we haven’t seen the news for a week, can you please promise us there isn’t another cyclone coming?’
“In the country, a disaster really does bring out the best. Outside all the country homes I visited, there was a row of utes. The whole neighbourhood was out to help clean up the silt and strip out damaged carpet and furniture.
“I was lucky to spend some time with the Mayor and some Councillors in Napier. Kirsten Wise, Annette Brosnan, and Sally Crown are impressive. Passionate, practical and knowledgeable, they’re a good reminder of why elected local representatives should be listened to instead of marginalised.
“They know what the issues are. Their expenditure of $68 million on drainage since the 2020 flooding paid off. No amount of drainage could ever compensate for a broken stop bank though, the river is too big. They know they have no power because their substation has been on a flood plain since 1925.
“Two Napier substations, one next to the sea and the other next to a river, should be a wake-up call for New Zealand’s climate policy. After one futile emission reduction policy after another, the more urgent solutions of climate adaptation have been ignored.
“Compared with these efforts, centralised control and disaster politics are counterproductive. People flying aid to cut-off communities in private planes were grounded as NEMA tried to control the airspace. This restriction-first approach doesn’t help, there needs to be more trust in people.
“Others told of rescuing their neighbours two days before Government officials showed up and told them what they couldn’t do. There needs to be far more trust in people to take initiative rather than follow rules.
“An emergency response such as this should be directed from those at the centre of the disaster, with support from those in Wellington. Not the other way around. The latter will never know enough about the needs and available means on the ground, but they can damage it.
“Inevitably these disasters bring out the worst in human nature. Some of it is understandable frustration and desperation, like altercations over queues at the petrol station. Other crimes are opportunistic and unacceptable. Stories of generators taken by force, and gang violence at supermarkets are rife. This is no time for such inhumanity, the police and justice system should be ruthless.
“What has happened in Hawke’s Bay is not just a cyclone, the real issue is the flood. The failure of stop banks to contain the rivers, exacerbated by forest slash destroying bridges, and the placement of vital infrastructure all contributed to an all ‘round disaster.