28 February 2024

Cyclone Gabrielle, One Year On

Here, Jill Fallowfield, Parent to Parent’s Regional Coordinator for Hawke’s Bay, describes her first-hand experience of when Cyclone Gabrielle hit and her community support work in the immediate aftermath.

The force of the flood water really hit home on seeing this crushed car when driving through Eskdale.

“One year on and it’s raw. It’s still raw here. Some places were untouched, some were battered, and other places were just annihilated. Eskdale is just gone, completely gone. We live five minutes away from Pakowhai; there’s a large river there, which turned into a raging torrent. It washed the whole community away.

“Hawke’s Bay wasn’t really on the radar to start off with. They said we were going to get the side of the cyclone and we’d get heavy rain. We do get some flooding here normally, so everyone was expecting the usual: parts of Napier to flood, and then by the next day, it’s gone through runoff, and everyone’s back to normal within a few days. They said it was going to come across the North Island and head up the coast to Gisborne. So Gisborne and Wairoa were on watch, but we weren’t, and there was not enough warning at all.

“I first realised it could be a lot worse than anyone was expecting on the Monday night, February 12th. I was staying with my daughter in the children’s ward of the hospital, and my partner and youngest son had come to visit. Afterwards, I walked them out the front; it was raining and very windy. My son popped his umbrella up, and a gust of wind picked him up—caught the umbrella like Mary Poppins—he tells people he had a Mary Poppins experience. He was thrown back about a metre in the air. My partner ran; there was a man on crutches who also ran (he had just had surgery on his leg but was very quick on those crutches!). My partner caught him mid-flight. If he hadn’t caught him, he would have been slammed into the side of the hospital building. It was scary. That’s when I thought, wow, I’ve never seen wind like that. This is going to be bad.

“During the night, I knew it was serious because the helicopters started coming. Maybe every 10 minutes I heard a helicopter flying in. They’d be there a few minutes and fly back out, then the next would fly in. In the middle of the night, there was a little tap on the door. It was a nurse who asked if I could help out, as she knew I supported the disabled community in my role at Parent to Parent. I was already awake—freaked out by the helicopters—so I got up, and the end of the hospital was flooded. I started to help mop up the water and put towels down. Then I prepared towels and pyjamas ready for people coming in.

The now infamous Eskdale sofa that floated to its resting place with cushions and remote control untouched.

“Not long after, whole families started to arrive with hypothermia—children with their parents, all of whom had been in the flood water. I heard people saying, ‘We had no chance. It was minutes, just minutes.’ When I got back to our room, my phone rang. It was a man with autism, paralysed with fear in his home. He hadn’t known who to ring so he’d looked on the Parent to Parent website and rang me. We are not an emergency or crisis service, but I’m glad he did ring me because I think he could have died otherwise.

“He said, ‘Jill, I don’t know what to do. I got out of bed, and water is up to my waist.’ Within two minutes it was up to his chin. I talked him through how to get out of his window, climb up the trellis and sit on the roof. His fear level was so great he couldn’t physically move. So I coached him through every detail, step by step, ‘You need to open the latch up. Okay, now you need to push the window out and get on top of it.’ Then I got on my daughter’s phone to the police and called Civil Defence on my private phone saying, ‘Hey! I’ve got this person. This is where he is. Can you please go and help him? He is autistic.’

“He spent about four hours on the roof waiting to be rescued with his two cats. Once they got him, someone from Civil Defence rang back to say that he was safe. I was just so relieved, as his phone had cut out. We lost power; phone masts came down. And the media really didn’t portray how horrific things were. People were in trees for hours and hours and hours.

On my way to find a family in Pakowhai, I came across this. I was just stunned by how the water had shifted and dumped this heavy vehicle in trees.

“About 24 hours in, my personal phone wasn’t working anymore, but my work phone did, so that’s how I managed to get some communication out—not phoning but texting until the phone systems went down completely.1 We couldn’t get in touch with my oldest son for four days. He lives in Napier right on the waterfront—walk across the road, and it’s the sea. That was horrific in itself, not knowing if he was okay and that he was in the evacuation zone. He lives in a household of four neurodivergent people. They were meant to have evacuated but didn’t.

“We also have lots of Parent to Parent families in Eskdale and Pakowhai, and I didn’t know where everybody was and if, or how, they were coping. As soon as my daughter was out of the hospital, that’s what I did: go to the accessible family homes to check in on them, then, if their homes were uninhabitable and coded with spray paint, to the evacuation centres to find them. I couldn’t get to Napier because the bridges were all closed.2 So I started out at Pakowhai… ”

We will be posting more about the resilience of Parent to Parent’s Hawke’s Bay community through Cyclone Gabrielle and its aftermath.

Next month, read about how a member of the community with Down Syndrome came up with an ingenious way to decide when to evacuate his home. 

*1  Transpower declared a grid emergency on 14 February after Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne District lost phone coverage, internet coverage and electricity.

*2  The Royal New Zealand Navy dispatched supplies and equipment to build temporary bridges but it wasn’t until 14 June 2023 that all state highways to the Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne regions were reopened.

Jill Fallowfield Bio

Jill Fallowfield has been Parent to Parent’s Regional Coordinator for Hawke’s Bay for just over a year. Jill worked as an architect until the birth of her second child and has been a member of Parent to Parent Support Groups for over 25 years through her first child. She has three children with varying diagnoses. Her 15-year-old daughter has had more than 100 hospital admissions due to complex medical needs, making Jill well-known to Hawke’s Bay hospital staff who send families her way for Parent to Parent support.


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