Cyclone Gabrielle survivor furious no changes made to flood warning systems one year on

A Cyclone Gabrielle survivor who was swept 2km by floodwaters is angry that, a year later, there have been no changes to flood warning systems.  

Gareth Jones held on to his friend, Susane Caccioppoli, after the house they were in was engulfed, but he eventually lost his grip and Caccioppoli drowned.

One year ago, a quarry in Esk Valley, in Hawke's Bay, was a raging torrent.

Jones was desperately holding onto his friend - but he was pulled under and she was ripped from his grasp. Her body was found later that day.  

"Sorry," he said at first, before turning away with tears in his eyes.

"Anger is in me. This was so preventable, you know, hearing the authorities knew at half-past-five that Esk Valley was pretty doomed," he told Newshub.

"There were no alarms raised. If I'd known that I'd have evacuated."

Jones and Caccioppoli had been house-sitting in Eskdale.

When the valley flooded, they crawled into the ceiling cavity and called emergency services, pleading for help.

"We said we have to hang up, and say our goodbyes. And within seconds of finishing that call, the house broke up. I'd held on to Sue with my right arm, I had her in the lifesaving position, and we hit the water. And I told her, whatever you do, do not let go," said Jones.

In the water, it was absolute chaos as entire trees, shipping containers and vehicles were hurtling through the torrent around them.

Gareth Jones and Susan Caccioppoli were swept 2km down the Esk River by floodwaters.
Gareth Jones and Susane Caccioppoli were swept 2km down the Esk River by floodwaters. Photo credit: Newshub.

"I'd gotten tangled in the trees and that's when I was pulled underwater. That's when I had to let go of Sue because she would have been dragged underwater with me," Jones added.

"When I eventually freed my foot, I came up and couldn't see her anymore. I honestly don't know how I survived. At one point I was actually thinking, when am I going to die? This is so cruel."

He made it onto a stony bank, before passing out.  

When the river eventually receded, he crawled across the silt and was found by Stan Evans.

"I don't know what he got hooked on but there was this chunk of meat about 20mm wide that was stripped right off the bottom of his foot, hanging off," Evans told Newshub.

The foot became infected, and Jones' big toe had to be amputated.

He's just grateful to be alive, and now has a tattoo covering the scars Caccioppoli left on his arm from trying to hold on.

"Remembering what lovely person she was. Her love for country music and dancing. She was a good friend, a really good friend."

Newshub asked Jones if he's been involved with the inquiry into the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.

"No. They obviously don't value any input I have, which is dumbfounding really considering we were in the heart of it," he replied.

"And yet that fuels the anger because it's 12 months on. Nothing's changed. If we had a cyclone in two weeks' time, what would we do differently?"

To try and prevent deaths like Caccioppoli's, authorities have red-zoned hundreds of homes into Category 3, saying the risk to life is "intolerable".

But residents argue that if there was a proper flood warning system, there'd be no risk.

"The only intolerable risk to life is that we didn't get evacuated. If we'd been evacuated then no one would have died," said community advocate Louise Parsons.

"So what has happened is that the Hawke's Bay Regional Council has used intolerable risk to life to categorise our communities, and it's their own failings that they've used," she added.

"I wouldn't want to see any big changes to that categorisation," said Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell.

"It's in place, locals have agreed to it, council has agreed to it. Let's just get it moving."

Although dozens of locals Newshub has spoken with don't agree.

"The ones who want to stay should be allowed to, and not be hindered," said Parsons. 

And those who survived are calling on Civil Defence to step up. 

"Even if it's a false alarm, and you're evacuated for no reason - at least you're still alive," Jones said.