OPINION: Three toothbrushes, still standing on the vanity and partially buried in silt, serve as a poignant reminder that this broken shell of a house in the Esk Valley was once someone’s home.
It’s been nearly six months, half a year, since this once idyllic Hawke’s Bay valley was dealt the cruellest hand by the unstoppable force of nature that was Cyclone Gabrielle. In one fell swoop this family’s home, winery and vineyard were destroyed. And they are one of so many to lose so much.
A team is painstakingly clearing the silt and belongings from the house, readying it for demolition. The owner is on his way back and I wait to see if he will speak with me.
I am told that houses have been photographed and filmed without the permission of owners, causing distress in what is already a horrific situation for these people.
The owner returns and he does not feel like speaking to the media today, but gives his consent for me to take photos and some video footage. Even so, as I step inside the house, I feel guilty, like I am trespassing on their trauma and standing on their belongings, although they are buried in metres of silt.
We make our way through the house, the office, a child’s bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen and living areas. The scummy water line remains, just centimetres from the ceiling, and we are standing on several metres of silt, now hard. It is a strange feeling, almost claustrophobic, standing on silt that is so high, I can touch the ceiling in every single room.
Outside I look around and see every other house on the street, exactly the same. There is nothing green here, just brown, clogging silt as far as the eye can see. Across the road, Hukarere Girls’ College is empty. The school was established in 1875 and relocated to Eskdale in 2003. The students will not be returning.
The lady leading today’s clean-up team tells me she came for two weeks - she’s now been here for five months, living at the Bay View campground. I ask if she is okay. Then I ask what motivates her to stay and she replies simply, we’re saving lives.
I wonder why go to the trouble of removing all the silt if the house will be demolished? She explains the demolition cost is significant and it’s calculated on weight. Silt weighs a lot.
Further up the road, a billboard declares “120,000 Yummy fruit trees used to grow here”.
There’s nothing growing here now.