“The mud has spilled into our homes and polluted taonga and possessions. Some whānau have lost everything. Many, perhaps most, whare will be condemned to demolition.” Denis O’Reilly, who lives in Waiohiki, Napier, on the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle on his community.
I began this kōrero at Waipatu, Heretaunga, in Hastings, in the early morning hours of Saturday, February 18, 2023. The sun had not yet risen, but it will. Of this I am sure. While darkness is the current reality, te rā will bring light, and we will see more clearly the road ahead.
Today, with whānau and friends, we will survey the damage at our little kāinga of Waiohiki, Ahuriri (Napier). This process will be occurring across the motu as our nation comes to terms with the enormity of the events that our land has recently endured.
In my human arrogance, I had considered that where we had built our settlements would be safe from anything that nature would hurl at us. The kāinga was relatively undamaged during the 1931 earthquake, and our seemingly elevated geographic position gave confidence that the waters of the Tūtaekurī would not lap over us.
No fool like an old fool. Decades of so-called river management and flood control were rendered impotent. The filling in of swamps and rivulets to enable “productive” use of land meant Papatūānuku’s natural devices to handle Tāwhirimātea’s sullen and angry moods had been compromised.
Disregard for Tāne meant that forestry slash — the detritus produced by primarily foreign-owned companies exploiting this absurd economy of “carbon credits” — streamed down the Tūtaekurī and, assisted by man-made structures such as a shipping container, piled up against the piers of the Waiohiki bridge as if a jumble of pick-up sticks.
This created a barrier. The Tūtaekurī River has a memory longer than any of us and, momentarily blocked from its journey to Tangaroa’s domain, it made a right-hand turn to the south and found its old course in the channels of the Tūtaekurī Waimate.
The four papakāinga that we have collectively worked so hard to construct, bringing our whānau warm, safe, dry housing with affordable rents and security of tenure, are now surrounded by cesspits of sludge and sewage.
The mud has spilled into our homes and polluted taonga and possessions. Some whānau have lost everything. Many, perhaps most, whare will be condemned to demolition.
As the floodwaters rose, we sought refuge. The areas where the old people had built were generally unscathed — little islands of green dry grass. So too was the location of our newly constructed whare, Hau-Te-Ananui, fittingly named after Tangaroa’s house.
The “we” were whānau and otherwise strangers, people who had more recently settled at Waiohiki — tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti alike. There were Māori, Pākehā, Sāmoans, Germans: a virtual United Nations.
In that sense and shared experience, we were a united nation. We were caring for each other, sharing what we had, improvising meals without access to electricity, making sure the young ones felt safe even after traumatic experiences. Entertaining them.
There were tales of close calls and extraordinary bravery. Individuals whose humanitarian instincts rose to the fore and saved others who they had never previously met. We saw the raw courage of parents determined to ensure the survival of their tamariki and the continuation of whakapapa.
And, when it seemed we might be alone and ignored, the New Zealand Defence Force arrived in a fleet of Unimogs. They triaged those whose physical condition and need for medications meant that their circumstances were life-threatening. In an orderly and professional manner, they assisted our now diverse community into the trucks and proceeded through still raging waters to take the people to safety.
Our Waiohiki whānau, Ngāti Paarau, were welcomed at Waipatu by their whanaunga from Ngāti Hori, Ngāti Hawea. Ngahiwi Tomoana told us that, when these hapū were previously living at Pakowhai and the waters rose, they canoed to safety. And, when they reached a spot where the wai had stopped, they settled. That’s Waipatu.
Last night, led by Te Rangi Huata, we gathered in the church of St Matthew at Waipatu, and sang and prayed. There were prayers and songs in te reo Māori, in Sāmoan, and in English. We gave thanks for survival and thanks for each other’s love and support.
Having addressed the metaphysical, te taha wairua, we then turned to planning the physical, the tangible, the temporal.
Now, predictably, te rā has risen. The whānau gathered in the hall at Waipatu and, as we concluded last night with prayer, the young leaders at Waipatu, steeped in their Māoritanga and tikanga, first brought us together in karakia and waiata. Beautiful, spirit-lifting song.
Then the organisational kōrero began. We were led by our hapū chairman and Napier City councillor Chad Tareha, my son Laurie O’Reilly, and Te Kaha Hawaikirangi. Te Kaha’s sister Hinewai Ormsby, who is the chair of the marae, is also chair of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, and so her responsibilities were wider than the needs of the kāinga.
Isn’t it fantastic to have such a leaderful Māori community? Take comfort that our nation is going to enjoy the benefits of the investment in the capability of young Māori leaders. They’ve been well-trained, are qualified, professionally competent, and culturally grounded.
So, Te Kaha began the briefing. Nigel Bickell, the CEO of the Hastings District Council, brought with him his team of specialists who ran through the process to be followed in clearing mud and clearing the masses of household goods, now polluted and effectively detritus.
The insurance brokers explained the need to photograph rooms and goods before they were removed. We were told to remove treasured items before the assessors came through to determine if houses were safe or inhabitable.
Chris Tremain, representing Ngā Hoa Pākehā, tangata Tiriti, committed the support and practical contribution of a well-equipped team he had assembled. And so, we kicked into action.
Yesterday, late in the day, my spirit drooped. I saw Jacob Scott, and the efforts of 30 or 40 years of developmental dreaming and scheming and planning flashed before me. I saw the now-departed faces of these efforts — Para Matchitt, Paris Magdalinos and his son Nicky, and Tipu and Hugh Tareha — and my emotions welled up before me. Jake said: “Never seen you wordless before, brother.”
You can’t and shouldn’t run from grief. Embrace it. Those faces have come from the spirit world, te hunga mate, to visit us in te hunga ora as encouragement to keep on trucking.
That moment of grief evaporated. Now here we were working away. Teams of workers assisted by machines. Members of the Magpies, the province’s representative rugby team, side by side with my young Black Power brothers and sisters. Māori, Pākehā, Tongan, Sāmoan, tangata whenua, tangata Tiriti.
Hemi Baxter said: “It will take more than talk, to make this a country where the men who were treated like slaves work for things other than money.” And that was what I saw today.
Tihei mauri ora! Tihei Aotearoa!
February 19, 2023: Around 9am, I was sitting in my car under the walnut tree at the Ngāti Hinewera papakāinga at Waiohiki when a car came up the drive. Then another. And this was followed by a stream of people, predominantly Pākehā tangata Tiriti families, mums and dads and children big enough to carry a shovel. They had spades and rakes and wheelbarrows and brooms. I knew none of them. “Hello, I’m Brian, this is my wife Marilyn. Where do you want us to start?”
This sort of exchange was repeated up and down the 10 houses of the papakāinga. The same thing at our whānau homestead next door. It was a veritable army of volunteers. Some were members of the Napier Golf Club with whom the Tareha whānau have a special relationship. One family had driven from Palmerston North.
There is something dispiriting about emptying out your own home and digging out mud and crap from your rooms. And away they went, lifting that burden from my shoulders. My foot hurt from a gumboot blister. I was dehydrated. “Away you go, we’ve got this,” they said.
I went over to the marae. An Indian whānau arrived with a huge pot of curry and another of rice. They had watermelon cut into pieces. “Please sit down,” they said, as they laid out a table of kai. “Please eat.” I was ravenous. All along Waiohiki Road, teams of friends and whānau and complete strangers were cleaning out sodden furniture and carpets into big piles to be picked up tomorrow by the NZ Defence Force.
In Māoridom, reciprocity is an intergenerational currency. In the same way, we Pākehā might refer to discretionary effort as “social capital”. In such ways, strong and resilient communities are built, and resilient communities are the bedrock of a successful nation.
Ōna mano tāngata
Kiri whero, kiri mā,
Iwi Māori, Pākehā,
Nei ka tono ko ngā hē
Māu e whakaahu kē,
Kia ora mārire
Denis O’Reilly is a writer, social activist and consultant. He has a master’s degree in social practice, and lives in Waiohiki in Ahuriri Napier.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.