Forestry slash abuts the Wigan Bridge near Wairoa. Photo: Tairawhiti Civil Defence

Vast areas of the East Coast are unreachable by road phone or on the internet as Gabrielle leaves a trail of destruction through the region

People in the Tairawhiti region from Gisborne to East Cape have been cut off by Cyclone Gabrielle, with power, landline and mobile phone coverage, eftpos, bridges and roads taken out by the storm.

Civil defence officials have been in satellite contact but power failures cutting electricity to cellphone towers, and some broken fibre links have left the district the most isolated in the country.

Main roads from all three directions into Gisborne City were closed, from Wairoa, the Waioeka Gorge and SH35 around East Cape.

Multiple people on SH5 in Hawkes Bay were trapped in vehicles and in houses, with others trapped awaiting rescue in Puketapu. Fire and Emergency said helicopters were being prevented from rescuing people stranded on their roofs due to high winds. 

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Tongan RSE workers are trapped by raging floodwaters in Hastings.

Auckland Tongan community leader Pakilau Manase Lua told RNZ families in Tonga watched on as their relatives filmed while perched on roofs surrounded by tree tops.

The scenes were “harrowing” to watch for the families.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Gisborne’s communications, power and water issues were a high priority for the national response. Officials say it is one of the four top priorities, with evacuations in Dargaville, the Esk river area of Hawkes Bay and Muriwai near Auckland.

Underlining the gravity of the district’s communications and power breakdown, Tairāwhiti Civil Defence told residents on Facebook that:

“There is no 111 capability – if you have an emergency please go to the police or fire stations.”

A key communications cable was severed by the cyclone at 2.15 am.

It also said people should restrict water use because of two breakages in the network. “This is not a quick fix.”

Supermarkets and service stations are closed while plans are put in place to reconnect them to key services, the Facebook message said.

Transpower said its Redclyffe substation was out of contact, likely underwater, and a fix for power supplies to Gisborne and Hawkes Bay could take days, if not weeks.

“We are advising that the community should be prepared to be without power for days to weeks, rather than hours. We are working closely with Unison and Eastland to understand the situation and develop a restoration plan to ensure power is returned as quickly as possible.”

On Tuesday morning, Tina Ngata up the coast in Te Araroa said they were fortunate to have power, but approximately 50 people have been evacuated from their homes around the East Cape and the situation further south has been worse.

“In between Hicks Bay and Te Araroa we’ve got comms, but the comms across a lot of the East Coast are down – oh, it looks like a national state of emergency has just been declared, I’ve just seen that come up on the TV.”

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The Tairawhiti region had already been in a state of emergency since Monday morning and among reports was a family with four children stuck in their car. 

“Anyway, we’ve still got comms and power up where we are, which we’re really thankful for, because a lot of the Coast doesn’t.  Everyone is just doing damage assessment now while they can, while we’re at this stage of the storm, before it kicks in again. We’re just thankful we’ve had no loss of life. We’ve had whole paddocks wash away. We can’t quite see the parts of the paddock with houses in it that people have been evacuated from, so we don’t know if those houses are still there. There’s quite a bit of damage and quite a bit of concern.”

“There’s about 40 whānau up at the lodge, the hotel. There’s about seven or eight down at the marae, at Hinerupe, and there’s a few more out at Matahi. The comms are down at Matahi, so we’re getting patchy reports from them right out at the Cape. I’m not sure how many are at Awatere. So we’ve probably got about 50 whānau all-up around the place at evacuation sites.

“This is our sixth major event in 12 months that we’ve had to pull Civil Defence and close roads and evacuate people. You get some good practice. I’ve just been watching everything around the country and people are still getting used to how to deal with this. A lot of our whānau are kind, oh yep, here we go again. It’s definitely a step up but the same principles apply. Get everybody out early, get your evacuation sites ready.”

Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay were also having communications issues with the Gisborne Mayor unable to be reached.  

The forecast for Tuesday was a further 250-350 mm of rain or possibly more inland on top of what has already fallen, and 120-200mm of rain about the coast. Peak intensities of 10-15 mm/h, but 25-40 mm/h about the ranges this afternoon and evening. Further showers are possible during Tuesday, some could be heavy.

One of the major issues causing problems is the debris, or slash, from pine trees that have been harvested in recent years. In heavy rain the slash has washed into rivers and made flooding worse as it has built up around bridges and at other choke points.  Bridges in Tolaga Bay have been inundated, cutting off State Highway 35, the main route around the coast. The logging trucks that have transported the logs have also taken a toll on the roads, which are already prone to slips in the steep terrain.  

Much of the forestry harvested in recent years was planted after Cyclone Bola in the 1980s caused massive erosion along the East Coast. The government of the day advised that forestry was the best option.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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