24 May 2024

Cyclone Gabrielle, One Year Three Months On

Here, Jill Fallowfield, Parent to Parent’s Regional Coordinator for Hawke’s Bay, describes her community's experiences after Cyclone Gabrielle and how a man with Down syndrome devised an ingenious evacuation plan.

Brookfield Bridge, which can’t be repaired.

“Once my daughter was home from the hospital, I couldn’t get to Napier because the bridges were all closed, so I started at Pakowhai and visited some of our family’s homes. Some were okay. The empty ones, those you couldn’t get to or had been spraypainted—I looked for those families at the evacuation centres.

This house is buried under the silt at Risington. It was the closest house to the bridge, which was washed away—it has since been replaced by a temporary one-lane bridge.

“I visited two centres for one family as they weren’t at the first one. At the second, the staff said, ‘Yep, they’re here, but they’re on their farm today, seeing what they can salvage.’ I found them there—they were devastated but okay. When they’d been taken off their property by helicopter, they had managed to fit their dogs in the helicopter, too!

“While there, someone told me there was another family at the end of the road with an Autistic child, and they’d lost a lot. When I got to their place, they were standing by their fence crying. It was full of dead sheep. I put on my gumboots, face mask, and gloves. I couldn’t stand here and watch them pull those sheep out on their own—horrific. So we did it together: taking about 200 sheep from the fence, piling them onto trailers and the council then came to collect them. Of anything I’ve experienced, I would say those sheep nearly broke me. All I could think the whole time was, ‘Please don’t pop on me.’ They were bloated up, those poor things. They would have been so frightened before they drowned.

“I returned two days later and helped the family dig some sewage out of the house to retrieve photo albums, jewellery, and other sentimental things. We didn’t have much luck. Then someone from the council or Civil Defense told us to stop—the sewage was contaminated, and you could risk losing your insurance if you dug around in your house—so that was that.

Silt being removed from a home by excavators.

“Next, I headed to the Civil Defense Centres and refuges. COVID was now rampant: it spread through those little communities and spaces like wildfire. I’d joined the Civil Defense committee, and a few days after, a committee member rang me to say they’d be opening the Clive Bridge to Napier for 40 minutes. He said, ‘We can let you through if you need to find people.’ One of our families lives in Waipukarau and the husband was trapped in Napier. So I rang the mum to try to get the husband home. They have a son with ADHD and ASD and they really needed Dad back. I told Mum to get hold of him and tell him he can come across, but he’s got to go right now. We passed each other on the Bridge as I went to find my son, and waved.

“When I got to Napier, it was pitch black. I’ve never seen anywhere so dark. There were no stars, no moonlight. We camp a lot, so we’re out in the dark often, but this was something else: no light pollution at all. It was eerie. When I arrived at my son’s house, I frightened them. They were sitting around the table with little candles, and I just put my head in the door and said, ‘Are you alright?’

“His flatmate screamed, thinking they were being robbed. I turned my phone light on and said, ‘Look, it’s me!’ It took them a while to register. Once they’d recovered from the shock, they gathered some things up and I brought them home. Two friends who were in Napier came along as well. So we had six young adults in their early twenties (four of whom are neurodivergent), my partner, myself, and our other two children—it was a houseful!

“When my daughter and I were in the hospital, we could charge our phones and devices. But once we were home, we had to manage without. We had two nights without power, then the lights came on. We ate meat from our chest freezer and wrapped it in blankets to keep it fresh. Whatever was on the top would be barbecued up—we smoked everything for a few days—and fed our neighbours, too.

“The water supply was terrible. It ran brown, and then there was none for a few days. Nourished for Nil are the food rescue people here—quite a few of our families go there to get a top-up. They were donating bottled and boxed water, a real lifeline for families.

A birthday party abandoned when the cyclone hit.

“I don’t know really how to describe it. It was like the world had ended. Apocalyptic. No contact from the outside world. Even before cell phones and the internet, you could just pick up your landline, but that was also gone. People outside the region, our families and friends, were panicking because it was about four days before we could text to say we were okay. They felt hopeless and helpless as there wasn’t anything they could do, they couldn’t get here. And we couldn’t leave. We were trapped while the bridge at Waipara was closed. When it opened, there was one lane and hours of traffic. We still only have two bridges. Once the second bridge opened to Napier, it was much easier to get across, but a 15-minute trip would take two or three hours. It’s still a bit like that.

The remains of Redclyffe Bridge.

“Working it all out for ourselves was hard, but it was unbelievable how resourceful the community was. I saw Kiwi ingenuity in spades.

“One of our families—the son is in his 50s and has Down syndrome, and his mum is in her 80s—is a prime example. He had packed their bags and had them sitting by the front door when the cyclone first hit. He’d reversed the car to the doorway so he could carry his mum out and put her in the car if they had to go quickly. Then get this—he is a genius—he decided where on the car tires it would be safe for the water to come up to. He marked that level, measured it, then went down to the front gate, marked the gate, put a flashlight with two cable ties on it, and turned it on. He then sat up with his night vision goggles and binoculars and watched the post. He explained how he knew the flashlight would shine differently under the water and said, ‘That’s when I’m putting Mum in the car, and we’re leaving.’ He watched it all night, and they didn’t need to leave as the water didn’t get up to the flashlight, but he was completely prepared.

“I made him a certificate, went to the $2 shop to get one of those little trophy cups, and made him a basket of goodies because he deserved recognition for what he did. I would never have dreamt up that flashlight idea.

“He said, ‘People think I’m not smart, but I am.’ I think he proved that without a shadow of a doubt!”

Jill with the Mayor of Hastings, Sandra Hazlehurst.

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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