Hori Reti was keeping an eye on the river but by the time he realised things were becoming dangerous it was too late to get out. As darkness closed in, he didn’t realise the river had changed course and was running on the other side of his house from its usual path. 

“In the early evening we knew the river was getting pretty high, around about six o’clock in the evening I drove down to see the level of the river was up to the bridge. And I could already see that the river had come over the side of the bank down Beach Road. And then I drove up to see my cousins were okay in the middle of the block. And I could see also that their driveway was quite bad and that the waters had already breached and into their property. And that was the start of what unfolded over the next eight hours.”

Part one: The long tail of Cyclone Gabrielle: Between the rivers

“I think it was about 1am the power just flipped out. And water started coming into our room. We’re on the highest point in that block.

“My wife and my son woke up and I just told them to get in the truck. Then I attempted to drive out of our driveway and by the time I got to the driveway the water was already above the bonnet of my truck, which is already high. I just looked at my wife and said, ‘We’re not going to get out of here’. We couldn’t see anything because it was pitch black. We didn’t know at that time that the river was on the opposite side of our house from what it usually is.”

They had no option but to hunker down and wait. But if they couldn’t see what the storm was doing they could certainly hear it. 

“The rest of the night and early morning was just rumbling, just a continuous rumble like trains. It was like you’re standing in the middle of a double train track with the trains going both sides.

“I still thought that the river was still where it was originally. At six o’clock, I looked out my window and saw the river was just rushing past in all directions. From our house, we were like a little island.”

Reti’s generation is not the first to experience devastating floods in the Tangoio area. Tangoio and Esk Valley just to the north of Napier have a history of flooding and that history was repeated with a vengeance during Cyclone Gabrielle. Tangoio’s history is tied up with the loss of land and human changes to the environment that have left it vulnerable to flooding.

The hapū grouping centred on Tangoio is collectively known as Maungaharuru Tangitu, which is a reference to the abundance of the area. Maungaharuru translates as the mountains that roar, which is a reference to the abundant bird life of the forests. Tangitu refers to the abundance of the sea life. Both added up to an environment of plenty.

But that abundance was all but destroyed during colonisation to be replaced by other land uses introduced from elsewhere. The block of land from near the current Napier airport up to the Mohaka River was confiscated by the Crown for a skirmish that had nothing to do with the local hapū.

The land was then broken up and sold and the forest was cleared for sheep farming.

Sheep farmer Herbert Guthrie-Smith wrote what became a classic in environmental history, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station. The book captures not only the moment in time when pioneer farmers like himself tried to tame the land, but also a sense of unease about what that meant for the future of that landscape and the waterways that were an integral part of it. “Have I then for 60 years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?” he asked towards the end of his life.

Māori communities were pushed onto small tracts of land in the bottom of the valleys such as Tangoio, but as the rivers silted up because of the deforestation they became vulnerable to flash floods. Floods hit the Tangoio and Esk valleys on a regular basis with particularly bad flooding events in 1931 and 1938. These were often followed by outbreaks of typhoid and other illnesses. Another flood occurred on Queen’s Birthday in 1963. 

Hori Reti from Tangoio. Photo: Aaron Smale

Once the floodwaters from Gabrielle subsided, Reti’s neighbours, Ross and Hoani, came looking for him and his family. 

“They were surprised to see we were still there actually. So I asked them the condition of our marae and they said ‘You have to come and have a look’. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, but I came up anyway. And I just cried, I just cried, cried because of the state of our marae. It just hurt. It still hurts.”

Another who cried was one of those who built the wharenui and carved many of the carvings, kaumatua Joe Taylor.

“I served an apprenticeship from the wishes of my grandparents, they wanted me to become a carpenter. Their prayers and hopes and dreams was to have a new marae. No sooner had I come out of my apprenticeship than they were down in Wellington and Dad said ‘It’s time you came home, we need you’. I had different plans, but I’d promised my grandparents. So we did do the mahi. It was hard. It was long. It was enjoyable. And we ended up with a beautiful marae that we’re all proud [of].”

Taylor now lives in Napier and started hearing rumours about what was happening at Tangoio, but wasn’t too concerned as the marae had only experienced surface flooding during Cyclone Bola in 1988. 

“My neighbour said to me, ‘Your marae got hurt badly’. I thought it’s probably just like the Bola flood. But when I came down here when I was able to get through, it broke my heart like the rest of the whānau. We all bled tears, we really did. My brother (Bevan) and I, we were all hurt. I came in here and I just tangi, I just cried my eyes, because I was here from the smoke of our old whare that was demolished and gave birth to the new whare. The tears came from my mokopuna, my kaumatua, that are lying in our urupa and all the helpers that were with me, my cousins they are lying in the urupa. It was their tears coming out of me.”

The sad irony is that after many years of debate and red tape, late last year the hapū gained resource consent to move the marae to a different location on higher ground and plans were underway when the cyclone hit. Some had been resistant to the move because of an attachment to the current location, but the flooding has settled that argument. The carvings and tukutuku panels have suffered some damage but will be able to be restored and moved to the new marae. Joe Taylor hopes he is still around to see the third version in his lifetime. 

“I want to live long enough to see the future of our marae in a safe place.”

If the buildings of the marae and all the history they hold are damaged, the function they served in the community carried on. Elaine and Ross Cook live across the road from the marae but on higher ground tucked up into the hillside. Many of those who had been flooded evacuated to their home, which became the base for the community over the following weeks.  Donations of food and other supplies were dropped in by helicopter at first and then by vehicles as access opened up. The support they could offer each other meant they could share the collective burden and trauma of what they’d been through. 

“There’s so many beautiful people out there,” says Elaine.  

“So many kind people have come together to help us.”

The immediate need has been restoring basic functions like drainage so any rainfall can get away and not cause flooding again, says Reti. Recovery will take time. 

“It’s a long road. It’s not a quick race. It’s a marathon.

“We had to adapt. And we did. We had to react to different things that were happening in our environment, like the silt has covered the land and flattened it. So there’s no drains. That was our first priority because water was still just running back to wherever, into our homes and into our marae.”

Tangoio has a historic connection to the Ratana church and there were branches in other parts of the country that immediately gave their support. 

“Other takiwa up in Taitokerau (Northland) that also got hit, they sent a whole lot of supplies and are still planning to be part of our recovery which is which is just amazing. There’s so many people to thank, just so many.”

The lack of communications led to panic among family members outside the region as media began to issue reports of bodies being found in the area. Because many hadn’t heard from their loved ones they started to think the worst. There are stories of people walking for hours from Napier to try to find family and messages finally getting out when phone connections started to be reestablished. Reti says many have been in disaster mode and the full impact of the trauma will be ongoing.

“It was terrifying for all of us and we’ve been too busy in the past two and a half weeks to actually reflect. It’s in the quiet hours of the night that it all surfaces again.”

“It still hurts, still hurts knowing your whānau have lost everything. That’s the painful part.”

But even those who’ve lost everything in material terms often count themselves fortunate when compared to those who have lost loved ones. 

“I feel pouri (sadness) for the families that have lost family members … as a result of this cyclone. Here, yes, there’s devastation to the land devastation, to our homes, but we have our lives. We’re alive. We feel for those families that are grieving. It’s close, so close.”

Luella Bullivant from Tangoio.  Photo: Aaron Smale.

Luella Bullivant was close to the worst of the cyclone’s destruction. There were moments when she didn’t know if she and her family would make it out alive. 

“I looked out my lounge window and the water was actually up to the window which we sort of freaked out at. We turned the mains off and sat on our bed in the dark, praying and hoping it didn’t come any higher. I was trying to be strong because I didn’t want my grandson to be scared or freak out. Just act like it’s alright, we’ll be right. But I did think we might not be alright.”

Eventually neighbours managed to get to them in the morning and help them evacuate, but the lack of communications created a vacuum of information for her family outside the area.

“My kids were all absolutely freaked out because they didn’t know whether we were alive or dead. I don’t know how many times they were ringing the police and the fire and reported us missing.”

If the flooding was overwhelming, so was the support they got from the community in helping with the clean-up and offering food and other necessities.

“We had two days of just like mini-armies with just our friends, our family, my kids’ friends. I just couldn’t thank them enough. They came out with diggers, barbecues. They brought food out. It was a very tiring week digging out the sludge and then taking all my stuff out of the house. All our stuff just ended up being rubbish, but we’re alive that’s the main thing, at least we lived.”

Tangoio’s proximity to the Esk Valley and Tutira means many of them know people who died in the floods. 

“I had to go to a funeral for one of my work friends who was found in the roof with her dog. That was pretty sad, pretty hard to go to.

“I’m just going day by day at the moment. I don’t like being around too many people now, which is weird because I’m quite out there. I think it’s just because I don’t want to repeat the story over and over. If I’ve lived it I don’t need to repeat it and relive it. Everyone was saying, ‘You’re still laughing’. And I said, ‘What else am I supposed to do?’”

“When we first left the house I actually thought, ‘Do I even want to go back?’ But it’s home. You’ve got to just come back and do what you’ve got to do. We’ll have to start again.”

Reconnecting with family is what’s getting her through. 

“I can’t wait for Mum to get here, she’s here next week. I can’t wait to see her. Yeah, there’s nothing like a hug from Mum.

“I can cry and be angry. But it is what it is now. We’ve just got to carry on and rebuild.”

*Made with the help of NZ on Air*

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

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