The many lessons I learned from Cyclone Gabrielle

READER REPORT: The rain has stopped for now.

The rivers aren’t swirling and brown today; they’re trickling as they used to over stones that were always there, and they’re making tāniko (woven) patterns, again, in their silty beds.

The waves are no longer huge and angry and brown. The piles of driftwood are beached and drying.

Emerson Street in Napier is open again – quieter, for now. The schools are open again too – some emptier because families are still cut off, and some fuller because they’ve taken in class-loads from schools that still can’t open. The Unison crews are bringing in new power poles, I saw this morning. They’re saying we’ll have power within the week.

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The helicopters traverse their now well-known paths more rarely; we almost miss their perpetual buzz.

Show’s over.

We’re trying now – trying our hardest – to return to our normally daily rhythms. As we were.

So, as the show is over – as the house lights are coming up (we hope they are, eh Unison?) – I’d like to take this moment to express some thank yous. Let the record show.

Thank you.

Thank you to my old Blundstone boots, which took over where my bare feet left off as the bloated streambed became connected puddles, became sludgy silt, became goopy mud, became stinky wet ground, as we walked, again and again, twice or thrice a day, around our little coastal settlement, next to the scoured-out streambed, our mouths agape. Across the beach, wondering where the sand went; trying to comprehend the changed beachscape.

Thank you to my faithful, ancient, cracked phone, too: the only torch I had for a long while, because when I went to Pak’nSave for supplies on that ill-fated Monday, I bought wine, chocolate and frozen pies (why?), instead of the stuff we really needed.

Thank you to my wiser parents (on whose land I live), for cultivating, as a matter of course, tomatoes, sweetcorn, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, eggs – and for maintaining a deep freezer, a barbecue, a Rayburn wetback and an outdoor bathtub; incredible luxuries.

Thank you for my three kids for always answering in the negative when I’ve asked them over the past two weeks whether they are missing TV.

Thank you (here we go, now) to family and friends around the world who waited to hear from us for one day, two days, three days. This was through the time when we had no means of communication, and then only a tiny bit, sometimes, at the top of our hill, if we were within sight of Napier, 20km away – as the TV news, I gather, was horrific.

Thank you to my siblings, aunties and uncles and cousins, my Hungarian family and Hungarian friends, and to India, Lisa, Holly, Ari, Clare, Tracey, Kate, Zelda, Lize, Kate, Brioney, Nickei, and others, for checking in.

Thank you to the helicopters that touched down here at Waipātiki.

Thank you, first, to the guy who landed because he was lost, and wanted to find Tangoio. You gave my 5-year-old an absolute thrill, and we’re glad you stopped to ask the way.

A Defence Force helicopter delivers relief packages to the community at Waipātiki.

Daisy Coles/Supplied

A Defence Force helicopter delivers relief packages to the community at Waipātiki.

Thank you, second, to the two army helicopters who later brought us supplies: gas and fuel, which had become our currency by then; food, water, hygiene packs. We were pretty self-sufficient by the time you got here, but the fact that you came at all meant the world to us. With your full regalia – your big boots, the small sand-coloured New Zealand flags on your biceps, the staunch expressions you wore, the dignified waves you gave the thoroughly undignified group who were jumping up and down as you landed. 

You gave us something to believe in, and that something was our country. I think you made my dad cry.

Thank you to my neighbours in this tiny coastal community – those whom I had barely nodded to before, those I never knew even lived here, those I knew were good folk, but I’d never talked to before. I know you now and I always will. And I’ll be grateful as long as I know you: for your company at our daily meetings, for your concern that we had everything we needed, for the food you shared, for the mail you brought, for the messages you passed on.

For the lolly packets you snuck into my kids’ back pockets. For the dripping ice blocks you gave them as everyone’s freezers packed in. For indulging them as they took over the almost-empty roads on their skateboards. For checking that the beach was clear of unsavoury sights for them every morning, before they even woke up.

Daisy Coles' daughters Nina and Maja explore silt left on the Waipātiki Road after Cyclone Gabrielle.

Daisy Coles/Supplied

Daisy Coles’ daughters Nina and Maja explore silt left on the Waipātiki Road after Cyclone Gabrielle.

Thank you for all this Kevin and Mandy, Brin and Mandy, Bruce and Robyn, Bill and Anne, Perry and Anesia, Lucan, Brett, Neil, Kiki and Nathan and family, Jane and her mum and Hartley, Dan, Shane, Gavin and Jenny (who have I missed?). Our village. I always thought I knew this community inside out, and it turns out I had no idea.

Thank you to the people who own baches in this wee holiday settlement for offering your generators, your LPG bottles, the contents of your dying freezers, your candles and torches, to those of us who were stuck out here. We’ll pay you back, one day, for the whitebait and the rib-eye steak. Maybe.

Thank you to the people we knew and didn’t know, from Napier and New Zealand at large, who sent us stuff they’d bought, foraged or found.

Thank you Bevan and Andrea, who seemed to put faces to this incredible, deep well of manaakitanga. We felt it like a wave that washed us clean. (That bacon and egg pie was above and beyond, by the way.)

Thank you, Gabrielle, mightiest of cyclones. Thank you for teaching me lessons I needed to learn.

I have learnt how lovely, gentle and conducive to a good night’s sleep candlelight can be, when you’re reading to your children just as the light is fading. How invigorating a cold shower can be, of course.

How therapeutic it can be to make a cup of coffee slowly, beginning by boiling a small pot of water on a gas stove. How deeply satisfying it is to turn the pages of a book, instead of scrolling.

Thank you for giving me an appreciation for the best and only sort of news– the news that passes from neighbour to neighbour; face to face.

Thank you too, Gabrielle, for teaching me that Aotearoa’s rivers are not benign presences, always to be relied on; there to be used and not cared for. They are not benign. They are gods, monsters, forces. They contain taniwha. They give and take away life. They, too, are efficient teachers; they teach us what’s important, by means of terrible force, if necessary. We learnt a great lesson of respect from our rivers: for this land, this shared habitat. That lesson is to protect and respect, not to use or ignore.

Nina and her brother Jojo on the flooded Waipātiki domain, several days after Gabrielle hit.

Daisy Coles/Supplied

Nina and her brother Jojo on the flooded Waipātiki domain, several days after Gabrielle hit.

Thank you, Hawke’s Bay. Thank you for sending us, at the end of the first week, what we never stopped wishing and hoping for, all through this unprecedentedly rainy spring and summer – a couple of days of good, sizzling, Hawke’s Bay heat, once those initial eerie post-cyclone days of low-hanging skies were over. It was classic Hawke’s Bay. Thank you; we made good use of those days. Because we in Hawke’s Bay trust and rely on the sunshine. It sustains us. It’s not just who we are – it’s where we’ve come from.

Our very temperament is built on generations of it: our orchardist grandparents were already steeped in it. Those whose roots here are much deeper than mine – their tīpuna would have known it best of all. To be from here is to have a sunny disposition: to laugh at the bullshit and to smile in the face of a bit of bad weather. I’ve heard that exact laughter in the past few days; I’ve seen those smiles.

We’ve told each other stories that would horrify you, but that always end with a cheerful “but we’re here, and we’re dry”. We have an incredible store of sunshine-fed strength, and it’ll get us through, I promise you.

Thank you, New Zealand. Thank you for understanding that when we in Hawke’s Bay look at you and say ‘but we’re dry,’ our eyes aren’t always dry.

We find it hard to say, but we’re grateful from the bottom of our she’ll-be-right hearts for help that we did truly need. We lived a blessed life for so long, you see, and this is new for us. Thank you for seeing that.

Thank you for sending us your food, your gas, your fuel, your aroha.

Thank you also for seeing what we’ve been through as isolated communities, but for understanding that Gabrielle presented us with a problem for which the only solution is unity.

The only way forward is to put on our old Blundstones, or our donated gumboots, and get out there: to share lollies with the children, to talk to our neighbours, to check in and to care. To find ways to be thankful for what we had all along, and for the tools that’ll be most important to us as we face an uncertain future together.

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.​ (What is the most important thing in the world? The people).

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