Cyclone Gabrielle: Hawke's Bay families battle uncertainty, emotional toll a year on

By Lauren Crimp for RNZ  

On the anniversary of Cyclone Gabrielle, thousands of people will wake up in marae, at friends' houses, in campervans and cabins - but not at home. Lauren Crimp looks at what's next for those displaced after floodwaters destroyed everything they had. 

In their caravan, Cynthea and Raymond Greene are at least on their land. From the window, they look back up the driveway at their flood-wrecked Fernhill home in the Hawke's Bay. 

They have lived in it since May, which was still "a bit of an exercise", Cynthea said. 

Confined to a tiny space on wet, cold winter days, trying to rustle up meals from a makeshift kitchen in the old cow bale - which is also a makeshift bathroom and laundry. 

They get by. 

But the emotional toll has been massive. 

The remaining, silt-ridden belongings in the Greenes' garage.
The remaining, silt-ridden belongings in the Greenes' garage. Photo credit: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

"I think I personally have shed more tears in the last 12 months than ever before in my life," Cynthea said. 

She lived in different houses on this rural Hastings land her entire 70 years, and it has been in her family more than 100. 

Emotionally, she said, it was a lot to lose. 

A peek inside the Greenes' home, is 'pretty much untouched' since the cyclone, Cynthea says.
A peek inside the Greenes' home, is 'pretty much untouched' since the cyclone, Cynthea says. Photo credit: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

While their home is ruined, the property is classed as Category 1; it is deemed safe to live on after the stopbank behind their home was repaired. 

The insurance was recently settled, and they could rebuild if they chose. But that was a big if. 

It would mean about two more years in the caravan. 

"We're a little bit, probably I'll say, dangling," Cynthea said, trying to decide what's next for them. 

Their home may be destroyed, but the makeshift vege garden is thriving.
Their home may be destroyed, but the makeshift vege garden is thriving. Photo credit: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

A year on, many still don't have the answer to that question: what's next? 

'Massive period of uncertainty' 

For some, the answer hinges on flood protection. 

Categorising land and deciding whether it was safe to live on was a massive technical exercise, Hawke's Bay Regional Council chief executive Dr Nic Peet said. 

But an even bigger emotional one. 

"It was a tough, tough process for people to go through," he said. 

And it still was not over. 

"For those still in Category 2, and particularly those in 2A, so Wairoa and Pōrongahau, that's still a massive period of uncertainty in their lives." 

More than 700 homeowners in those areas were still waiting for council to land on a solution to protect them from flooding. 

Hawke's Bay Regional Council chief executive Dr Nic Peet.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council chief executive Dr Nic Peet. Photo credit: Supplied / Hawke's Bay Regional Council

Solutions were imminent, Peet said, but until they became a firm decision, people remained in limbo. 

Those in 2C were on a "solid path" to moving to safe Category 1 - meaning there were viable options, and funding available, to protect them from future flooding. 

"We know what to do, we've got the money in place, and it's just going through the design process," Peet said. 

The regional council agreed with the government to complete the flood protection work within five years - and together, they were still hashing out a plan to speed up the usually lengthy regulatory process. 

In the next year, Peet wanted people to be able to see "physical evidence" of flood protection being built. 

But it would never be perfect, he warned. 

"We can build flood protection to a certain level, but you'll never build flood protection that copes with every single event. 

"If you get something as big as Gabrielle, then flood defences will get overtopped in various places." 

A slightly different approach would be taken in Gisborne, where about 200 Category 2 homes - most in Te Karaka - would be raised to protect them from flooding. 

Fears for Wairoa families 

For many Wairoa whānau, there is no answer in sight. 

Without insurance - or enough of it - there is no way they can afford to repair their homes. 

Instead, they live in donated cabins on their land, hoping the efforts of the district council and post-settlement organisation Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa to secure funding will be fruitful. 

Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa chair Leon Symes said support was trickling in, mostly from Te Puni Kokiri. 

But it would only cover just under half of the necessary work, he said. 

"We don't want our whānau living in pods for the rest of their lives, we need to make sure that the repairs for their houses is being done." 

It was unclear yet where the shortfall would come from, but Wairoa mayor Craig Little previously told RNZ he wanted the government to cough up $6 million to help complete the repairs. 

Buyouts under way for some - others still in dark 

The future is a little more certain for owners of properties deemed too unsafe to live in: Category 3. 

There are 165 properties across Napier and Hastings eligible for a voluntary buyout, and 62 in Gisborne. 

In both regions, the process is well under way. 

Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst.
Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst. Photo credit: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

In Hawke's Bay, two buyouts were complete - and two-thirds should be complete by the end of June, Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst told RNZ. 

There were some sticking points - for example, Hastings and Napier councils were mulling over whether those who received full insurance payouts should contribute to demolition costs. 

One resident told the council they had nothing left to give - financially, or emotionally. 

But the process was at least in train. 

It is a far murkier story for whenua Māori. 

Much of it is owned collectively, rather than on a single title, which made buyouts complicated, Ngāti Kahungunu chair Bayden Barber said. 

It was being dealt with differently, with central government taking the lead. 

But it was tough to watch the council-run process for single-title land sail by while Māori landowners were still waiting for a way forward, he said. 

When Prime Minister Christopher Luxon visited the region before Christmas, Barber sent him a clear message: "The process has been too slow. Speed it up."