Surf lifesavers involved in Cyclone Gabrielle rescues recognised at Search and Rescue Awards

Navigating flooded highways, live wires and torrents of water to save almost 250 lives during Cyclone Gabrielle has earned Hawke's Bay's surf lifesavers New Zealand's top Search and Rescue gong. 

The Search and Rescue Awards were held in Wellington on Tuesday night, with some humble heroes donning their glad rags. 

Their brief should've been simple - stay safe, save lives - but nothing could have prepared Hawke's Bay's surf lifesavers for the hours and days following Cyclone Gabrielle. 

"One of the hairiest moments was driving on the motorway with an IRB (inflatable rescue boat) and you don't know what you are driving over - it could be cars, apple trees, fences, yeah, just crazy things," volunteer surf lifesaver Rhys Harman recalled.

"Having the choppers left, right and centre pulling people off the rooftops, being in that moment thinking this is something we will never see again.

"It's pretty surreal to be a part of something I can only describe as an apocalypse really."

Volunteer Jess Bennett spearheaded last year's pre-dawn callup for 80 lifeguards that lasted days. 

Her team left behind families, including pregnant partners, to pluck people to safety across areas like Esk Valley and Pakowhai.

"People were sopping wet, they had been on their rooftops for hours," Bennett said.

"They might have had a bag with them, they might have had a pet, and just the sheer relief I think for them to get to dry ground."

At Tuesday night's Search and Rescue Awards, surf lifesaving volunteers from Waimārama, Ocean Beach, Pacific and Westshore will receive New Zealand's top award. 

Using their training and skills in unprecedented conditions, they dodged live wires and debris, even helping search for bodies. 

"It's going to stick with me for a long time, as I imagine it sticks with those people involved. It's going to stick with them for many years to come," Harman said.

Bennett added: "For the whole community there is a lot of healing to be done but I'm also looking forward to being able to close this chapter slightly and take the learnings."

These heroes will now be ensuring their community, their people have every chance of survival.