Cyclone Gabrielle: Waiting for emergency agencies could have risked hundreds of lives in Hawke's Bay

As the anniversary of Cyclone Gabrielle's flooding of Hawke's Bay approaches, some of the local heroes who responded immediately say if they'd waited for emergency agencies to act, it would have put hundreds of lives at risk. 

A draft report of the investigation into how Civil Defence handled Cyclone Gabrielle is currently before the Minister and it's expected to result in big changes.

With just rooftops poking out of the floodwaters, locals jumped into action and rushed to the rescue as floodwaters caught authorities off guard.  

In the pitch-black early hours of February 14 2023, Corporal Storm Harrison of the NZDF reserves was desperately trying to rescue his neighbours in Esk Valley.

"The river was like a freight train, with brown rapids and tanks, containers floating past. I could hear people yelling for help", he said.

But the water was too deep and he couldn't reach them until a couple of hours later when the waters started receding so he and others could get a Unimog in.

"There was mum and two kids on the roof of their house, I jumped out, waded our way through the water and the silt and pulled the kids off the roof," he told Newshub. 

But there were people he couldn't save. 

"There was a couple, but I think what hurts my heart the most and plays on my mind the most is I wish I was there a bit earlier. Things might be different," he said.

To check that people weren't in flooded houses he jumped in the river with a rope around his waist.

"It pushed me down to the houses, I could feel things hitting me in the water," he said.

"You don't think about your own life until afterwards, you think 'oh I could have died there'."

Corporal Storm Harrison.
Corporal Storm Harrison. Photo credit: Newshub

Orchardist Cameron Taylor also put his life on the line to rescue others. Using his helicopter, he saved over 150 people from their rooftops.  

"Some were in a bad way, I found out later that there was children unconscious coming in and out of consciousness," he said. 

His own property was disappearing underwater, but he stayed in the air - hovering over floodwaters, plucking people from their rooves. 

"On the day, Civil Defence, I don't think they realized Hawke's Bay was so bad, because they kept trying to send us up to Tutira," Taylor said. 

"In the end I got angry and said 'f**k we've got our own community to save'." 

And he doesn't think the region is any better prepared a year on.

Harrison said what could have been better with the Civil Defence response is the communications - and just one key person in charge. 

"Too many chiefs I think was one key aspect," he said. 

Cameron Taylor.
Cameron Taylor. Photo credit: Newshub

It was up to Harrison and others to start rescuing their neighbours in those crucial early hours. 

"There was a lot of heroes that day. For us, I think it's just natural as Kiwis to get stuck in and save as many people as you can," he said.

Civil Defence wouldn't front for an interview despite being given several days' notice. In a statement they said an independent review into Hawke's Bay Civil Defence is due next month.

The aftermath.
The aftermath. Photo credit: Supplied

"This independent review will assess the operational performance of the Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group's response to Cyclone Gabrielle, with outcomes used to identify learnings, improve resilience, and ensure the Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group has robust emergency management capability and capacity to support our communities," said a spokesperson in a statement.

There's also a national inquiry into the North Island's emergency response to the cyclone, led by Sir Jerry Mateparae. A draft copy is with Emergency Management Mark Mitchell, who told Newshub it will "definitely result in some changes" to the way New Zealand responds to disasters in future.

Exactly what changes are, and how big they are, will be revealed next month, but all the people Newshub's spoken to say communication improvements are key - so that authorities can still talk to each other even when all the mobile phone services are wiped out.