Cyclone Gabrielle: Emergency text urging evacuation sent to Eskdale residents nine hours too late

A Newshub investigation has discovered Hawke's Bay Regional Council and emergency officials knew residents in Esk Valley and Rissington faced a significant flood event and "homes were at risk", but an emergency text asking people in Eskdale to evacuate was sent out more than nine hours too late.

Newshub has obtained copies of all emergency text alerts and official communications, but by the time authorities acted, floodwaters inundated homes and people scrambled for their lives onto rooftops. 

In the case of residents in Rissington, no such evacuation text was ever issued. That's despite predictions of a one-in-50-year flood event being known by authorities the night before. 

It was pitch dark on the morning of Tuesday, February 14 when the banks of the Mangaone River caved in. Poplar trees were uprooted, the bridge collapsed, and debris-strewn water rushed through homes and properties in Rissington. 

Yet emails show authorities knew homes in this valley were at "serious risk" the day before they were inundated. Despite this, no official evacuation order was issued. 

Daniel Absolum's family has farmed land in Rissington since 1882. He's furious locals didn't get an evacuation order.

"It's someone's job to do it, and someone didn't do it," he told Newshub.

"You've showed emails of communications between people in authority, yet the public didn't get alerted… It's staggering that they weren't and really, really disappointing."

In Eskdale, piles of debris burn and heavy machinery still works to clear up the mess. Yet residents in that area also didn't receive the emergency information they should have been entitled to. 

On Sunday at 10:13pm, which was two days before Esk Valley was decimated by water, emails show that houses on Shaw Road were at risk. Officials making that assessment were right, but no one was told to get out. 

"They failed, miserably, Civil Defence and the councils," said Eskdale resident Doug Dickson.

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Email correspondence, obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act, details the timeline. Two days before the flooding hit, at 8:51am on February 12, the regional council's principal engineer emailed emergency management and council and stated "this will be a substantial event". They warned of rainfall exceeding one-in-50-year levels in northern Hawke's Bay from Waipatiki to Eskdale. 

That night at 10:13pm, he sent a map modelling possible flooding showing parts of Eskdale underwater, noting "houses on Shaw Road may be at risk".

The following night, February 13, at 7:28pm, staff were told the Mangaone River, which runs through Rissington, will "almost certainly" reach red 20-year levels "very soon" and would most likely continue above a one-in-50-year flood event.

This was followed by a map showing homes in Rissington with the note they are at "serious risk". 

By 7:50pm, staff were warned the Esk River is of "serious concern". 

Less than two hours later at 9:42pm, staff were told Mangaone is "now above the 50-year level".

At 11:04pm that night, communications show council and emergency management knew the Esk River at Waipunga Bridge was above one-in-20-year levels. 

"Something needed to be done then rather than 5:30am when everyone's floating down the valley. That's too late, way too late," said Eskdale resident Simon Spice.

It was 5:19am when the first emergency text to residents in Eskdale went out.

Cyclone Gabrielle: Emergency text urging evacuation sent to Eskdale residents nine hours too late
Photo credit: Newshub.

"We should not have lost any lives at all, it's as simple as that," said Eskdale resident Sarndra Spice, adding that she held authorities responsible for that.

Sarndra and Simon said there's been no accountability. 

"There is negligence and that should have been dealt with way better than it was. Have they not learned anything from any of the other previous disasters?" Sarndra said.

The council said it's doing a review. 

Full timeline leading up to floods

Sunday, February 12

8:51am: Hawke's Bay Regional Council principal engineer warns council and Emergency Management officials "this will be a substantial event". He said from Waipatiki to Esk there will be +50 year rainfall.

8:59am: Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency team leader responds saying: "My initial intention is to keep Emergency Coordination Centre and Emergency Operations Centre at monitoring today with an escalation to coordinating tomorrow."

10:19pm: Principal engineer emails overview which includes that "houses on Shaw Road (Eskdale) may be at risk". "Risk of high levels in Ngaruroro - models are showing up to 50 year in lower reaches."

It's noted there could be a "big rise in the Lower Tukituki from Red Bridge down to the coast. This could range from 20 20-year to 50-year return period." 

Monday, February 13

7:28pm: Hawke's Bay Regional Council's principal engineer emailed council staff with information for the HDC Emergency Operations Centre warning "actual rain has been greater than forecast rain" and that the Mangaone River will "almost certainly reach red level very soon, and most likely continue above 1:50 year".

"It's very likely these houses and properties are at serious risk."

7:50pm: Hawke's Bay Regional Council's principal engineer emailed council staff and warned "The Esk River is of serious concern."

7:52pm: Hawke's Bay Regional Council's principal engineer emailed emergency and council staff to warn that the Mangaone River at Rissington had passed red level and was "still rising very fast". A graph modelling rainfall showed expected river levels would exceed a 1 in 20-year event.

9:52pm: Principal engineer emails council and emergency management officials to state that "Mangaone River at Rissington was now above 50-year level" and rising.

11:30pm: The Regional Council's flood modeller emailed officials. They warned that rainfall alarms had been triggered at multiple rivers stating Esk River, Hangaroa River at Doneraille Park (above Gisborne and Hawke's Bay), and Mangapoike River (which begins in Gisborne and reaches Wairoa) were all at 20-year highs and rising.

"The Esk River has risen quickly and has hit the 20-year (Red) flood level" at the Waipunga Bridge site. "Further potential 100 to 170mm of rainfall overnight."

"Houses on Shaw Road at risk."

Tuesday, February 14

Hawke's Bay Regional Council principal engineer informed Emergency Management:

1:24am: Hangaroa River at Doneraille Park "just hit its 50-year level. This is about 1.5m higher than March 24, 2022."

1:58am: Mangaone River at Rissington "above 50-year level"

2:10am: Esk River at 8.19m, "the highest ever measured on Esk"

2:10am: Graphs sent by engineer show expected river levels at Waipunga Bridge in Esk Valley will exceed a one-in-50-year event

2:25am: "Probably best to consider any house in Esk Valley may be at risk." Manager Environmental Information emails to say "perhaps warn Waipawa people" due to rising rivers 

3:04am: Engineer said rainfall in Tukituki/Waipawa/Makaroro "less than predicted", "unlikely to be as bad as first predicted."

6:37am: Engineer warns of "major telemetry failure" and "our readings need to be checked." He asks if anyone has recently driven over Waipawa and Tukituki Rivers to check how high they are. "There is major flooding in Esk and Puketapu bridge has collapsed."

7:15am: Ngaruroro/Tutaekuri stop bank "overtopping" both sides at Mission PS

7:29am: Ngaruroro at Fernhill is still rising. "Low tide has passed, this is a major issue."

Emergency messages on Tuesday, February 14:

5:19am: "There is serious flooding in the ESK VALLEY from the ESK RIVER which is still rising. LEAVE NOW if you are in a low-lying area near the ESK River in Bay View."

10:16am: "Residents of Taradale and those on the south side of the Tutaukuri River to evacuate and go to higher ground immediately. Flood protection systems of the Tutaekuri River are failing to contain water. Get to higher ground immediately."

10:39am: "Hawkes Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group advise residents of Taradale, Jervoistown and Meanee residing south and east of Anderson Park to evacuate to higher ground. This also applies to residents on the south bank near Waiohiki and Omahu. Go now to your nearest hill and take grab bags and animals."

8:04pm: Same alert sent out 

8:07pm: Civil Defence warning about residents of Taradale repeated 

8:21pm: "CORRECTION Hawke's Bay Civil Defence evacuation advisory for Taradale and Tutaikuri was delayed in sending due to cellphone tower outages. If you have not already evacuated, you do not need to."