It’s been nearly four months since Cyclone Gabrielle showed up on our shores, an uninvited guest. For us, like many on the East Coast of New Zealand, the recovery from her handywork continues (and will continue for many more months, even years).
We farm at Pongaroa, very southern Hawke’s Bay, and on the morning of February 14, we found we had not escaped the wrath of Gabrielle.
Initially, I was devastated about our own situation. All the blood, sweat and sacrifices to develop our farm over the last seven years, are gone. We asked ourselves if it was worth it, if we wanted to go through it all again.
Should we sell and go elsewhere?
As the true scale of the devastation was revealed I then felt immense guilt for being upset about our farm. Compared to many, we got off lightly. New Zealand has many chapters of disasters and tragedy in our history, but never have I felt one so deeply in my heart. I guess I had never actually been affected personally. I cried for my beautiful home region of Hawke’s Bay, my family and friends. I worried about my family and if they were okay, and I felt utterly helpless. In the end, my husband told me to stop watching the news and looking at the images. It was incomprehensible, like a bad dream.
I felt unspeakably sad. I felt anxious. I actually asked my husband things like, do you think it’s possible our house will slip off this hill? And I was deadly serious.
I went to do Rural Exchange and all we talked about was the cyclone for two shows. I think I held it together on air, but mostly after we finished each interview I would cry between guests. I felt completely emotionally spent. I’ve been a journalist for 15 years. I’ve done daily news and seen things people should never have to see. But somehow it is different when it is actually happening to you.
I find it funny how cyclones are given names, like people. Bola seemed appropriately named, as I always imagined it bowling everything in its path. For some reason when I think of Gabrielle, I think of that horrendous sea monster in the Little Mermaid movie – Ursula the sea witch. That’s how I imagine Cyclone Gabrielle.
Growing up on a sheep and beef farm in Hawke’s Bay, I was three when Bola hit. I don’t remember it, but it has always seemed like this mythical yardstick by which every other weather event on the East Coast is compared. I feel like Gabrielle said Bola, move over, let me show you how it’s REALLY done.
Many older farmers who farmed through Bola and other weather events said to us in the immediate aftermath, the land will heal, the slips won’t always look like ugly scars on your land, and you will be okay. To start with, I didn’t want to hear that (I guess it’s a bit like not wanting to listen to your parents when you’re a kid), but the benefit of experience does win out, and now we’re a few months down the track, I realise they were right.
I was riding my horse around the farm this morning, and though the slips are still raw like someone has taken a giant claw and raked down the hillsides, gouging huge holes, I don’t really notice them much now. They just are. Already the tails of slips are grassing over. The waratahs and netting patching up fence after fence just seem a normal part of the scenery, nothing remarkable.
Most of my sadness now is reserved for Hawke’s Bay. My mum and I took my daughter to the aquarium in Napier two weeks ago. We drove through Omahu, where the once solid concrete cemetery walls have been crumbled like dust and people’s sodden discarded belongings and memories still sit in piles. We drove down Korokipo Road and through Waiohiki, past Napier Golf Club, where there are towering mountains of silt and mangled vehicles still sit in paddocks where the flood water deposited them. I was blown away and all I could think was, imagine how much worse this looked three months ago. I still find it absolutely incredible more people were not killed.
I haven’t even been to areas like the Esk Valley or Dartmoor and I can’t imagine what those people are going through, how they feel living in limbo, not knowing what the future holds. I want those people to know they are not forgotten.
Gabrielle took everything from some families, and those are the people my thoughts rest with. Yes, I am still sad about our farm, and I’m entitled to be upset. But it’s not the end of the world. My family are all okay, we have our homes, we have our pets. We can still make a living from our farm; we just have to approach things a bit differently right now.
I’ll leave you with a few things I have learned (so far) after a cyclone. It will be different for everyone, but these are my personal learnings.
You’re stronger than you think you are.
Shitty things happen in life. At some point, you will probably be on the receiving end, and that’s just life.
With a bit of time and perspective, things often don’t seem as bad as you first thought.
Legendary humans will offer to come and help (some of them you won’t even know!) It is not weak to accept help. You would do the same for others.
Make a plan and break it down into achievable tasks.
On hill country, some fence lines just are not meant to be there – don’t fight it.