Cyclone Gabrielle: Mother with four children stranded on roof as floodwaters enveloped house

By Phil Pennington for RNZ

Jo Cox believed her daughter, Hannah, and grandchildren were dead when the Tūtaekurī River enveloped their home, with the family huddled on the roof under a pool cover, a week ago today.

Rivers throughout the district overflowed their banks, leaving some houses completely under water.

Hannah* had been calling 111 since they were forced to escape on to the roof by climbing a ladder lodged against a trellis at 5am, in Dartmoor Road, Puketapu, near Napier.

"The last call I had from her was ... she was on the roof and she said that no one was coming," Cox said, in her flood-ravaged Waipawa home.

"And so we tried to get a hold of Civil Defence. And then my youngest said she seen on the news that the choppers weren't coming in anymore because it was too dangerous.

"And so we thought she was dead."

She stopped, breathing deeply.

"So I spent all of Tuesday morning crying.

"And then she rung me about 1.30pm, and I was like, 'Oh my god, she's alive!' "

On a steel roof, in the rain

Hannah, who withheld her surname, had climbed with her nine-month-old baby, her three-year-old, a two and a seven-year-old, her partner and five other adults onto the roof.

The baby woke her at 4am.

"If I hadn't got up to feed the baby, I would never have known how bad it was."

The rain that had worried them at 8pm, when they checked the Civil Defence advisory, had kept up. The online advice, that it was not necessary to evacuate, looked shaky in the pitch dark.

"When I looked outside it was already shin-height. And then all of a sudden it was a torrent.

"And then it's way too late to leave."

Her in-laws next door got up, too. Then they all got up on the roof about 5am, passing the children up.

They began calling for help, dialling 111 - six times all up between them, Hannah said.

"Every time I rung they said, 'We're en route', but they never came.

"They knew that we had an insulin-dependent person. They knew we had four kids."

As dawn came, the river kept rising.

"Kind of watching our cows swim out down the driveway. And then cars start floating and then my in-laws' campervan goes for a bit of a swim."

The water began to lap at the gutter.

At no stage did emergency services call her back to say they were not coming, she said.

"It would have been about 11 before I lost cell service."

She had called her mum before that.

In Waipawa, Jo Cox had fled herself, at about this time, from her home on the low-lying side of town as the Waipawa River topped and breached its banks.

Jo Cox
Jo Cox Photo credit: RNZ

At the town's evacuation centre, "amazing" Civil Defence workers saw her crying, she said, and tried to help.

"But then they said to me, 'I don't know if they'll get the emails, Jo, because all the comms are down so they might think they've been rescued'.

"But they're not."

A week on

A week on, Hannah matter-of-factly described what they went through, while Jo was shaky.

"My three-and-a-half year old is quite upset," the daughter said. "He keeps asking when I'm going to fix his window - because the water blew the window out. He just doesn't understand.

"But my baby's fine. Babies are resilient."

They had both been recipients of tremendous goodwill in the meantime, they said.

Cox could not quite believe how a dozen strangers turned up to shovel shin-deep silt out of her house, brought round a roast meal, and trucked hers, and the street's, piles of rubbish away.

"Jane, you know, all the way from Wellington, brought me a caravan cos she saw my post on Facebook, so I had somewhere to stay.

"Blown away."

She lost childhood mementoes of the kids' schooldays, wet and stuck together.

She won't forget how, when she looked behind her on Tuesday morning, the river had just topped the stopbank and was flowing and following her, 200m away.

She said there was a belated bullhorn warning to evacuate, just before that.

But she still had her dog, Bella, and five cats, who she had got catboxes ready for on Monday night when the rain was setting in, and took them all off to the evacuation centre on the Tuesday.

The assessor was in her house already, scoring marks at 500mm high on the walls where the linings would all have to come off. They were down to bare concrete floors already.

'I think about her, I start crying'

Cox was standing on the concrete, holding the gurgling baby.

"I'm okay about my own stuff, but as soon as I think about her I start crying," she said.

"Because they had a three-year-old and a 10-month-old up there - and you just think, 'god, how do you hold on to two kids on a roof with water coming up and save them?' "

At Puketapu, after 11am on Tuesday 14 February, the water began to drop.

A couple of utes swung by - neighbours - who helped them get down, and out, to a house on higher ground.

Hannah got word to her mum, who told the Civil Defence helpers: "She's alive".

Two days later, the diabetic person had to be airlifted out urgently, when the group waved down a passing chopper using a yellow blanket on the roof, Hannah said. It was a private, not a Civil Defence chopper, she added.

They, and family members who lived alongside them, had lost a lot: their homes, cars, retirement options.

Hannah could not go back to Puketapu, it was too traumatising, she said.

"I was really disappointed.

"And then the fact that you hear on the news that, you know, they're congratulating themselves for rescuing everybody and it's like, 'No, I could've died'.

"But yeah, we're very fortunate to be alive, I think."

Fire and Emergency National Commander Russell Wood responds:

"Cyclone Gabrielle was an unprecedented and catastrophic event. We fully acknowledge the extreme difficulty and trauma people experienced in many parts of the North Island that night.

"Between 11pm on 13 February and 11am on 14 February there were 1275 111 calls across the North Island related to Cyclone Gabrielle, including 528 111 calls in Hawke's Bay over the same time.

"Our Fire and Emergency volunteer and career crews did everything they could that night to reach people who had called 111.

"The number of calls far exceeded our people's capacity to respond to them all and the conditions prevented our people reaching many of the calls we were able to respond to.

"The weather conditions, the level of flooding, and sometimes their own circumstances, meant our people couldn't reach many of those in need on the night.

"Helicopters were unable to rescue people in darkness, and due to the overnight weather conditions and rescue efforts, continued to be hampered during the following day due to high winds. Our firefighters did an amazing job in the circumstances.

"There will be an operational review into our response, including how we responded to 111 calls, but at the moment our focus is on the immediate response and recovery effort."

Police Deputy Commissioner Jevon McSkimming responds:

"Cyclone Gabrielle has been an unprecedented event that's tested all who have been involved in the emergency response.

"Police personnel were at the forefront of the response, in roles that included assisting with evacuations, traffic control and search and rescue.

"On the night that Cyclone Gabrielle struck the [Police] Eastern District, police 105 non-emergency communicators were switched to receive 111 calls to bolster the emergency communicators dealing with the high levels of calls.

"The hard reality is however, that no matter how many staff were diverted to take calls and aid in dispatching the emergency response, emergency services only have so many people that can respond on the ground, and all services were stretched by the events of that night.

"In the aftermath there have been numerous stories of police personnel going above and beyond to help their communities, and these stories will be told in the fullness of time.

"Right now, our focus is on the recovery effort and helping our communities find their feet after this devastating natural disaster.

"This has been an utterly devastating event for these communities and our hearts go out to all those who have been affected."

*Last name withheld.