Women's Refuge says 'no surprise' family harm up 60pct since Cyclone Gabrielle

The Women's Refuge is urging women to seek help after Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said family harm cases are skyrocketing since Cyclone Gabrielle.

It comes as tensions escalate in Hawke's Bay as thieves and looters target vulnerable people. Items like nappies, generators and prized possessions have been stolen from flood-damaged homes. 

"The vulnerable are now getting their stuff stolen. The gangs are coming in, or looters in general. They're threatening people, stealing their stuff. We are very scared, people are very scared," Napier local Grant Porter told Newshub.

Ashbelle Wyatt has been helping people she doesn't even know and says her Onekawa house was targeted last week.

"At night time a ute pulled up outside our house, faces and number plates covered. What were they trying to do? Obviously steal from houses that had been evacuated."

Police have arrested 59 people in the Eastern District so far - 42 in Hawke's Bay and 17 in Gisborne.

Coster told AM on Monday looting and theft are always a "serious risk" after an event like a cyclone, but they have officers in place to handle it. 

"We have seen incidents of that kind of behaviour and there are no words to describe people who would do that to these communities given what they've experienced," he told AM co-host Ryan Bridge. 

But he said theft and burglaries are actually down, while family harm is up 60 percent since Cyclone Gabrielle. 

"In terms of what we're actually seeing, we have increased levels of family harm being reported, our dishonesty offending is actually lower than normal. We need to acknowledge, of course, that reporting is harder than usual, but in terms of our numbers, it's the family harm that is up at the moment." 

When asked if safe houses have been affected because of the cyclone and if there was enough support for anyone suffering from family harm, Coster said his best advice is for people to contact police. 

"If anyone is feeling unsafe and needs help they just need to contact us. Our team will make whatever arrangements are necessary to keep people safe," he said. 

"Clearly, there's been a wide range of impacts and all of the welfare services are extended in different ways but there's nothing more important than people's safety from a feeling like family harm."

Police say rumours and false information are being spread, which only serves to make vulnerable people feel even more unsafe.

"The fear that is in the community is understandable and much of the information that's being circulated about things occurring we've found to be inaccurate and that isn't helping people's state of mind when they are feeling fatigued and really vulnerable," he said. 

"So I think we just need calm. People should know there are large numbers of police staff deployed right across the district and we will manage any issues that arise."

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: AM

When asked what police have found to be inaccurate, Coster said he didn't want to give specific examples to compound the issue. 

"Many of the situations that have not been reported to us but reported in the community, when we've dug into them we haven't been able to substantiate," he said. 

"The things that have occurred we've dealt with. For example, yesterday there was a firearms incident involving a gang member, and we arrested that person yesterday afternoon. So we are moving really fast where we can sort of demonstrate that something has actually occurred."

Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury told Newshub she is sad to hear Coster's comments about family harm. 

"At the same time, his words came as no surprise. Experience tells us that family violence rates and calls for help increase immediately following natural disasters of this kind, so we are anticipating more calls to our services in the days and weeks to come," Dr Jury said. 

"Many women may be feeling alone during this time and unsure if they can reach out. We are here and ready to help. 

"We are open and operational including in regions affected by the cyclone.  We strongly encourage anyone experiencing family violence to not hesitate to reach out through our website, social media, or crisis line."