Cyclone Gabrielle

Melody Nixon

Photo © Chris Skelton/Stuff

According to Māori lore, the world was created by the bodies and efforts of children, who forced apart their parents – the earth mother (Papatuānuku) and the sky father (Ranginui) – to let the light in. We live in an in-between space created through destruction.

The night Cyclone Gabrielle hit, we were safe in our sixteenth-floor apartment in Pōneke Wellington, far above the waters, in the space between land and sky. But three hours’ drive to the north, a tsunami of rainwater roared down from the hills and mountains, pushing apart a bay. It submerged houses and swept bodies – down rivers, across flooded plains – all the way to the ocean.

The next morning (the sun) briefly shone and we didn’t see any damage. As we got our daughter ready for daycare in her raincoat and boots, my partner’s father sent us a video of the flood rushing across his lawn. A tiny stream – you can step over it easily, or race toy boats down it – had been transformed into a broad torrent, moving too quickly and dangerously for a rowboat. My partner’s mother’s sculptures, normally waist-high, peeked out of the water, three limestone heads watching the water advance. We asked if he was OK but got no response. Friends from the area messaged to say the power was suddenly out in Hawke’s Bay and there was no cellphone reception. We went through our day outwardly as if it were any other; in our pockets our hands were stuck to our phones.

In the Pacific the concept of Vā or Wā space connotes a place of in-betweenness; a relation between people, or applied to the ocean, between islands, or land and sea. The boundaries of the land, I’uogafa Tuagalu writes, are loose.

One resident of Esk Valley described the flood that came through her house as ‘like a tidal wave, big surges and the water would go up and down’. She and her family smashed out their windows to try to release the water. A mother and two children held onto a log for eight hours, waiting to be rescued. Another family used their son’s toy railway tracks to punch a hole in the ceiling to hide from the floodwaters in the crawlspace. For six hours, four humans and a puppy listened to their furniture bang against the ceiling below them, against a background of an immense, white-noise roar of rushing, expanding flow.

On 18 February, eight days after the cyclone, the official death toll stood at nine, with 3500 people still reported missing. Thousands were displaced. Search and rescue volunteers picked apart logs, forced open cars and dug through silt in houses. They talked of seeing bodies in the water that they were unable to reach. A temporary morgue was set up in the port of Napier. By 28 February, eleven people were confirmed dead and thirteen were still missing. Roadblocks were set up by police and local groups to deter looting.

We heard from my partner’s father 36 hours after he dropped out of contact. He had made it to a friend’s house with an internet connection. He was safe, and his house wasn’t flooded. The scale of our relief was unexpected; had we been holding on this tightly? He described the devastation: the families who sheltered on their roofs all night and listened to their animals drown around them; the fruit and vegetables strewn over the roads; the clear-felled forest washed into houses, cars, bridges. ‘It’s immense, it’s something you can’t quite comprehend, it’s total destruction,’ one resident said.

A two-year-old child was swept away as her family tried to flee. The water filled their Eskview home to within ten centimetres of the ceiling. Ivy was swept from her mother’s shoulders as she tried to carry her, pregnant and chest-deep in water herself, through the torrent. It was hard to sleep after we learned about Ivy. The space between earth and sky was closing again. When I did sleep, I dreamed of my daughter rushing away from me in a torrent.

Near Esk Valley, on a plateau called Tūtira, my partner staged a dance performance in 2020 about the ecological destruction in the region caused by farming. At the end of the piece a Māori dancer emerged from the ground, enraged, covered in clay. The image came back to me unbidden when I learned a woman was buried by the earth in a landslide at Tūtira during the Cyclone.

On 15 February, the day after a national state of emergency was declared, an earthquake hit us in Pōneke: magnitude 6.3, the epicentre only fifty kilometres offshore. I grabbed my daughter, called her grandmother into the narrow bathroom corridor – the only enclosed space in our open-plan apartment – to shelter. The initial jolt was followed by slow rolling. We watched the hanging plants in the apartment sway, the books and glasses shudder, and prayed the windows would hold, which they did. We stayed sitting for several minutes after the shaking subsided, unable to move.

Geophysicists have argued that the damaging effects of rising sea levels may include an increase in seismic hazard, as the greater mass of the ocean puts more pressure on the earth’s crust. The destruction in New Zealand, though immense, is dwarfed by the catastrophe in Turkey and Syria.

As the extent of the damage and loss from Cyclone Gabrielle became clear, and Pōneke reeled from the earthquake, the leader of the Green Party decried government inaction on climate change. But soon official talk turned to ways to help businesses rebuild, and to strengthen communities against future flooding. As though all of this, for all of us, was inevitable.

There is a video of a farmer calling to her herd of cows in Waipawa. Up to their necks in the Vā, they are disorientated, five hundred metres away, being swept by floodwaters towards a swollen river. They recognise the farmer’s voice as she stands on higher ground, calling out to them in a high-pitched plea: ‘Come on come on come on, come on girls.’ Her voice cracks but she keeps calling and they respond. Slowly they turn towards her, and as one they cross the flood, swimming.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.