Hikuwai Bridge on the state highway linking Tokomaru Bay to Gisborne. (Photo: Kiri Allan)

Tokomaru Bay, about an hour and a half north of Gisborne, is one of many small coastal communities which were isolated and cut off by Cyclone Gabrielle.

It’s the seventh major weather event to hit the settlement in the last two years. The repeating cycle of crisis means that those who live there are increasingly taking charge of their own response.

Lillian Te Hau-Ward, who leads the local response and Civil Defence there, spoke to Connie Buchanan on Wednesday, after the storm.


We’re completely isolated right now. We’ve been cut off on both sides.

We had a bridge drop out at Hikuwai on our state highway south to Gisborne. And the road going north to Te Puia Springs and the hospital succumbed to the river, then was blocked by slips.

The good news is we’ve got Kuru’s Contracting and his roading crew pushing up to Te Puia Springs to clear a one-lane road from Tokomaru.

This morning we airlifted out two of our whānau who needed urgent dialysis. Proper routes in and out by road will be a very long way off.

I hate to say it, but we’re used to this. This is our seventh major event in 18 months. It’s definitely climate change and it does frighten me.

I was in Wellington when I heard Gabrielle was coming, and straight away I knew I had to go home. We started getting messages to our whānau, telling them to stock up and get gas for cooking. Every time there’s a weather event, we lose power. We’ve been through it so many times that our whānau listen, they adhere, and they prepare themselves. So we were ready for it to hit.

In Tokomaru, we’ve got roughly 258 residents in the township. I lead the Akau Warriors hapū response and Civil Defence here. We’ve been door-knocking morning and night. We know all of our people with medical conditions. We know all of our pākeke, our elderly.

We’ve got a Ngāti Porou Hauora nurse as part of our team. Our marae are our evacuation centres. We’re using our local fire brigade station as our Civil Defence base. Tokomaru Bay United Sports Club is our hub and where we provide hot drinks and meals to all of our volunteers and contractors. Contractors who are working on the roads get lunch delivered by our team regardless of where they are.

Last night, we evacuated all residents along Mangahauini River and either relocated them to marae, or to whānau on higher ground, because there was a slip that had blocked off the river and everything was backing up against it. This was the second consecutive night that we evacuated residents.

By default, I end up also advocating and coordinating for Te Puia Springs and Waipiro Bay because they always get cut off too and often don’t have communications. I’m part of a wider hapū network on our coast which we stood up for ourselves during Covid, while the health authorities were still trying to sort themselves out.

We have hapū leads up and down the coast. We know each other inside out — we’re like sisters. During Covid, we educated our whānau, got them to plan for what was coming, and supported them when they were in isolation. All voluntarily.

During the March floods last year, our hospital water supply got cut off, so we were sending water up there, and we had awesome whānau, who are also all volunteers, doing crazy things to get food in to Waipiro Bay.

It’s most definitely mana motuhake in action. That’s how we roll. We’re stubborn.

When I think about whether we can sustain a future here, I know we just have to, because a lot of our whānau have got nowhere else to go. A lot of the land around us has been sold to forestry. All the good land has gone into carbon sink farms or has been eaten away by the constant flooding.

I was really clear when the National Adaptation Plan for climate change came out last year. I said: “We’re not going anywhere. Our whenua is buried here. Our tīpuna are buried here. Our whānau have got nowhere else around here to go.”

So, as a community, especially after this cyclone, we’re thinking hard about doing even more ourselves to mitigate flooding. If we need to fundraise to lift up houses so that water goes straight underneath, then that’s what we’ve got to do. Because, in all honesty, there’s not a lot of other options for our whānau.

Forest slash along the Hikuwai River: “The slash is what’s taking out the bridges during storms, and it’s causing havoc in our rivers and on our takutai moana, our foreshore and seabed.” (Photo: Kiri Allan)

Tolaga Bay, East Coast. (Photo: Ūawa Civil Defence)

Life isn’t easy here at the best of times. When our whanaunga visit from the cities or overseas, they have a wonderful time because we roll it out for them.

But life is hard. The closest supermarket is an hour-and-a-half drive into Gisborne on a really rubbish state highway. The state of that road just compounds the expense of petrol for our whānau — they’re wrecking their tyres, they’re wrecking their vehicles, and that’s supposed to be a state highway. It becomes very expensive to do food shopping in Gisborne. After the flooding last March, a lot of us dedicated ourselves to support our local Four Square and shops as much as possible, to ensure they can stay open.

We have one resident doctor to service the entire coast. Our health provider is a Ngāti Porou Hauora service, and as we know, our hauora providers receive less funding than mainstream. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why that is, because workers from those hauora providers will actually walk into our homes and they will work around the clock to support our whānau. They don’t sit in a building and wait for whānau to come to them.

Throughout Ngāti Porou, on all of our beaches, there’s been that forestry slash there for the past three years. But we’re out of sight and forgotten, and nothing gets done. The slash is what’s taking out the bridges during storms, and it’s causing havoc in our rivers and on our takutai moana, our foreshore and seabed. Unfortunately a lot of our refuse stations are on the banks of those rivers. So this is the third time that we’ve lost our dump. Everything’s gone into the sea.

Our pātaka kai, our food sources, are just covered with sediment and mud and everything else. Our sea life is dying. A lot of our crayfishers haven’t pulled out their quota for the past three years, but nobody has listened.

It’s going to be really hard for our whānau up and down the coast here to recover from this cyclone.

One of our marae in Tolaga Bay, Puketāwai, was under water, and they’d just finished a huge upgrade from their Provincial Growth Fund money. It’s heartbreaking. In Kahungunu, most of the whare tīpuna are filled with water. That brought tears to my eyes last night.

Tangoio Marae wharenui, north of Napier. (Photo supplied)

We’re very lucky in Tokomaru that we didn’t have flooding in our homes this time. So to anyone concerned about whānau here in Tokomaru, we’re fine. There are other communities on the coast, and in Te Karaka and Ngāti Kahungunu, who are worse off than us. It’s important that I acknowledge the losses they’re facing. A lot of our Anaura and Ūawa whānau, who were also affected during the last seven weather events, now have silt everywhere again.

So many don’t have insurance. It’s too expensive. We found in Tokomaru that it’s actually a hindrance having insurance, because while you’re jumping through hoops to try and access what you’re entitled to, there might be money from the Mayoral Fund or Ministry of Social Development — but only for those who aren’t insured. We’ve got whānau still trying to figure out their insurance claims from flooding in March last year. So it’s kind of a damned if you do, and damned if you don’t situation.

As a lead responder, you need to stay positive because once your hope has gone, people around you start really panicking. I stay positive and cope with everything by retreating in at the end of the night, where it’s nice and quiet, and I lie down on my bed and cuddle up next to my darling, and have a big cry.

I also think about my mokopuna. I’m cuddling the youngest one right now. She’s eight months old, and she’s got a big smile on her face. Although we both live in Tokomaru, I haven’t seen or cuddled this moko for five days. That’s why we do what we do, for our mokopuna and the next generations.

I do think central government needs to do more to enable local communities and councils to respond to their own populations. Hand over power, hand over resources, leave us alone to get on with it.

We understand that Te Manawanui Navy Frigate is on its way. I’ll be sorting our local crayfisherman with the biggest cray boat, and his team, to meet it and receive supplies for Te Puia Springs and Waipiro Bay. Our volunteers will ferry essentials up to those whānau on their farm four-wheelers.

Tomorrow, we’ll go back to checking on all of our residents, especially our pākeke, our elderly and those with medical conditions. We’ll get supplies out to those who are isolated in our rural areas, and we’ll carry on feeding all of those roading teams who are here to restore our access.

It’s how we always roll. If people do come in to support us, we’re going to manaaki them. We’re going to show them what mana motuhake looks like.

As told to Connie Buchanan and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.



Manaaki Matakāoa:

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Porou:

Donations will be turned into kai and essential items and delivered through our Whānau Oranga people who are on the ground:

Acc Name: Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou
Acc Number: 01-0641-0232397-00
Ref: Cyclone Gabrielle or CG – “Your Name”

Ngāti Kahungunu:

Ngāti Kahungunu is also welcoming koha to help support communities. Funds will be distributed to affected communities across the tribal rohe.

Direct deposit: 02-0644-0117140-00. Ref: KOHA.

Te Taura Whiri list of hāpori Māori fundraising pages:



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