Cyclone Gabrielle survivor welcomes Government inquiry into nationwide emergency response

A Government inquiry has been launched into the nationwide emergency response during Cyclone Gabrielle, Cyclone Hale and the Auckland Floods, driven partly by widespread criticism of Civil Defence.

It's being welcomed by cyclone survivor Rikki Davis, who spent six hours clinging onto a tree in Esk Valley as the floodwaters rose around him.

"I was thinking about my son and not dying. I spent three hours thinking I was going to die." 

Luckily, a couple of locals in a boat came to the rescue. 

"If they didn't do what they did I'd be dead - and so would more people in this valley."

When his rescuers arrived, Davis was naked. He'd had to take his work clothes and boots off because they were dragging him down in the water.

He'd given up hope of being rescued when he suddenly heard a boat engine.

"I heard a noise and thought, 'Nah you're hearing things,' then next minute they were there and I was giving them a naked hug." 

The tree that saved Rikki Davis and the boat that rescued him.
The tree that saved Rikki Davis and the boat that rescued him. Photo credit: Newshub / Supplied

When Cyclone Gabrielle hit on February 13, Davis was working with a roading crew closing the SH5 gates. Then at about 11pm, the river burst its banks and was threatening homes.

So he knocked on doors, waking up locals and evacuating them. 

Davis said there was no warning from Civil Defence, and they'd left the valley at 5pm.

"They should've had people there at night, they shouldn't have gone home. Don't send an evacuation message when I've been in a tree for six hours. Their message was eight hours too late."

When Newshub asked Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty why people were left to fend for themselves, he said the unprecedented scale of the weather event needed to be taken into consideration.

"People can't always get assistance immediately."

Hundreds of people were rescued from roofs - and some didn't make it. Eleven people died in Hawke's Bay which Davis said was unnecessary. 

"The loss of life could have been avoided if the Civil Defence response was better. We would have got out, all these people would have got out." 

That response will be under the microscope in the Government's inquiry into how emergency teams have responded to major weather events around the country this year.

"I've spoken to a lot of people, heard concerns. It's those concerns that partly led to the inquiry," McAnulty said. 

And the findings of the inquiry will be taken on board. 

"It should reassure everyone we are taking this very seriously, and whatever recommendations come seriously as well."

The Government has also announced a new cyclone support scheme for growers and farmers. It aims to provide $240 million in finance and underwrite loans of up to $10 million.

"The agriculture sector and the hort sector are far too important to leave to their own chances, we wanted to back them and this is the best way to do it," said the minister.

Damaged crops in the area.
Damaged crops in the area. Photo credit: Newshub.

The sector has been calling for this support for months.

"It's a long time to wait so frustration and uncertainty has taken huge toll on the mental health of people out there," said Apple & Pears chair Richard Punter.

However, the new support scheme isn't the $750 million the sector asked for. 

"For some growers, the financial support options will not be enough to allow them to continue, and it will be a challenging time for them, their families and their staff."

 But it'll help some secure loans, which Horticulture NZ CEO Nadine Tunley said is a positive step forward.

"It gives us certainty. Growers now know what exists out there, and can make decisions and move on."

The new scheme relies on banks being generous, and Tunley said the process might be tricky. 

"It is complicated. That's where industry bodies kick in - to give advice and help growers through."

And hopefully, get them back to some sense of normal.