Taking a break during flood recovery mahi at the Waiohiki Marae hub in Hawke’s Bay. Denis O’Reilly: “How those with the least to give, and those who are consistently denigrated, labelled, and ostracised” respond in times of crisis, is an important indicator of social cohesion. (Photo supplied)

Denis O’Reilly, who lives in flood-devastated Waiohiki, Hawke’s Bay, on post-cyclone lessons, Stuart Nash, the hype on lawlessness, and reading the room.


We can learn many lessons from the recent cyclonic destructive events and how we respond socially, organisationally, and politically.

I’ll try to tease out aspects of these themes with particular reference to Hawke’s Bay, because I have first-hand experience there.

For a start, I believe that in Aotearoa our society is healthy and resilient. As a group, New Zealanders are kind, generous, and resourceful. When faced by a common crisis, we respond as one without begrudging.

A special litmus test of social cohesion in times of crisis occurs on the social periphery. How those with the least to give, and those who are consistently denigrated, labelled, and ostracised, respond in these times, is an important indicator.

In my observations, we’ve passed with flying colours. We deserve a High Distinction in my view.

Organisationally, we have several areas to reflect on, repair and improve. Civil Defence is one. Again, I believe I can comment with some insight.

In September 1995, I was the manager of marketing and communications for the Department of Internal Affairs. Civil Defence came under our purview. As interesting as my life history may have previously been, a volcanic eruption was outside my experience. I went to find the manual, the Standard Operating Procedure.

If I recall correctly, the first level of response when Ruapehu erupted was to ring the senior constable in Taumarunui. Dear Lord! Communication then was a weak point and remains so — as we saw during Cyclone Gabrielle and in the preceding drama in Auckland.

In the Hawke’s Bay event, some first responders from the New Zealand Defence Force ignored the instructions from Civil Defence to go to Dartmoor, because their frontline colleagues were telling them, in real time, that a greater disaster was unfolding in the Esk Valley.

They made an on-the-spot decision and undoubtedly saved lives. Their senior officer has since applauded them for using their common sense derived from good training and field experience.

Similarly, and I only know this as an anecdote, I have heard that a Fire Service commander, having lost contact with his crew in the Esk, concluded that something was wrong. He took a water tanker out to search for them. He took the water tanker because he reasoned that the weight of the water in the vehicle would act as ballast.

True or not, it makes for a bloody good story of cause-and-effect thinking, which, of course, is the fundamental platform for success.

My whanaunga who lives next door to the Waiohiki Arts Village told me that, around 4am on the day of the flooding, he and his mum and whānau realised they needed to evacuate. According to him, a Fire Service vehicle was parked outside the arts village. They went to flee to higher ground at Ormlie Lodge on Omarunui Road.

It was a dynamic situation. They were turned around and told to go up Links Road where they were subsequently struck by a freshwater tsunami and were lucky to escape with their lives.

They’ve laid a formal complaint. The point of such a complaint is not so much to apportion blame but to discover and resolve system failure and operational glitches.

As a related matter, I found that during the Covid response, Civil Defence were disconnected from the marginalised communities that I serve, and that too needs to be addressed. I’m confident that Kieran McAnulty, the minister responsible for emergency management, is competent enough to solve these operational weak points. At the same time, I thank and applaud the on-the-ground Civil Defence team members for the courage, tenacity, and competence they demonstrated in our rohe.

And so, to the political. It features a Labour minister, Stuart Nash (who’s my mate, and everyone’s mate), and an exhibition of what political journo Luke Malpass refers to as “big-dick-politics”.

I was stung, pissed off, when Stu responded to allegations, after the cyclone, that there were hordes of gang members looting, and that some of them were intimidating workers at traffic control points. Stu reckoned that gang members should take their patches off and help the response effort.

In fact, that’s what the majority of them were already doing — and not as members of a gang but as members of whānau and community.

In times of crisis, good leaders find the facts and guard against panic. And there was panic. There was no power, no cellphone coverage, and poor communication.

People were isolated and confronted by an apocalyptic situation. There was widespread fear. And this was exacerbated by statements from the mayor of Napier about lawlessness, and Stu’s ill-informed rhetoric.

As soon as the allegations started to fly — and were so profoundly different from the scale of disorder observed by frontline police — the deputy commissioner, Wally Haumaha, came up to see for himself.

Thankfully, the core police service are grounded in reality and are prepared to withstand the brickbats from those who trivialise sound community relationship building as “having cups of tea with gang members” and so forth.

Within the week, a specialist team of police liaison officers had engaged with the bulk of the leadership of the two major Indigenous gangs in the region, the Mongrel Mob and the Black Power.

A hui was organised at a church hall with the pastor acting as the facilitator. The kōrero was frank and challenging. The ladies preparing kai in the kitchen probably heard language not usually used by their fellowship.

Yes, tea was consumed. And the assembled leaders committed to ensuring that, if any of their own members were engaging in looting or intimidation, the law of the street would be applied as well as the law of the land.

“At Waiohiki, I saw New Zealand citizens of many races using the marae as a place of refuge. The rain fell on us all.” The Waiohiki Marae hub, after Cyclone Gabrielle, welcoming anyone in need of help. (Photo supplied)

Let’s probe a little deeper into the politics. The editorial in yesterday’s Dominion Post was headlined: “Nash reads room but not manual.” Nicely put.

The room is apparently intolerant and grumpy. Attempts at achieving social equity are being interpreted as race-based. That scion of social sanity, Winston Peters, with his masterful use of hyperbole, described the then Ardern-led government at a New Zealand First hui as pursuing “woke, virtue signalling madness”, and a “separatist agenda” driven by “malignant paternalism” and “inverse racism”.

Picking up on the feeling in the room, there’s a current campaign by Julian Batchelor claiming that elite Māori are aiming to take over New Zealand through co-governance. He describes efforts towards equity as apartheid.

A broadcaster who knows something about apartheid, Heather du Plessis-Allan, has similarly asked if “we want to be two distinct camps of tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti or all just Kiwis”?

Mike Hosking, in response to cyclone relief funding for marae, asked if these were “race-based flood funds?”, and “Does the rain fall differently on Māori? Does a flood affect you differently depending on your race?”

And here we come back to my friend Stu’s “reading the room” while talking with the same Mike on the mic. I’m not sure that the room is anything like the one being described. At Waiohiki, I saw New Zealand citizens of many races using the marae as a place of refuge. The rain fell on us all.

At Waiohiki, I heard Willie Jackson caution fellow Māori not to expect some great handout and to realise that this terribly destructive cyclone had wrought havoc on tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti alike.

I read yesterday, in an article by columnist Janet Wilson, that many researchers are suggesting that racism has gone underground, thriving within our lack of compassion, and that it’s “Time to shrug off apathy and engage”. True, sister, true.

Calm the farm. Have a contest of ideas not egos. We can choose to be together in what seems to be a volatile and uncertain world, or we can pick at scabs and spread the contagion of hate and division.

I reject the claim that the government is soft on crime, and propose that it’s being smart on crime.

Yes, there is productive dialogue with pro-social community leadership of various ilks, affiliations, and congregations.

And, yes, at the same time, there is hard-arsed policing, including use of deadly force, and an unwavering campaign to control organised crime — Operation Kōtare being a case in point. True, I look forward to the day when, as an act of equity, we might see “Operation White Collar” or “Operation Service Club” that focuses on the upside of town rather than the poor, brown and marginalised. That would produce bigger yields for proceeds of crime, although I accept it won’t be such attractive fodder for talkback radio and Lord Hawhaw Hosking.

When we’re in trouble together, then stick together. You might be surprised who comes to the rescue. “Are you guys the navy?” Nah. Just three Māori boys in a boat.

Mauri ora. Tihei Aotearoa.


Denis O’Reilly lives at Waiohiki, Hawke’s Bay, and is the chairman of the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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