Long, muddy road back for small Hawke's Bay businesses

Much of Hawke’s Bay has been devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle.

1News reporter Logan Church and camera operator Phil Melville spent a week in Hawke's Bay reporting on the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle.

"Don't forget to wipe your feet," jokes Chris Friis, as he shows us around the house on his Hastings kiwifruit orchard.

Or, more accurately, what's left of it.

He jokes because many for many on the East Coast it's a choice between that or crying.

The floodwaters came through here just over a week ago like a fast-moving tidal wave. Chris' tenants were able to escape.

Every neighbour has an incredible story of survival. Some were rescued by boat or helicopter.

We hear of one man who braved the floodwaters to rescue a group using the bucket of his front-end loader. The water had burst through the back wall of the hall they had been sheltering in and they were floating away.

As Chris takes our camera operator Phil Melville and I through the house, we wade through about 30cm of slushy mud. Countless apples bob on the surface.

What remains of Chris’ rental.

Inside looks like a war zone. Mud blankets everything — the water at its peak was twice our height. Part of the ceiling had collapsed. The fridge was thrown across the room. The lounge was barely recognisable. A stuffed toy unicorn lay half buried in the sludge.

Read more: Cyclone Gabrielle: The impact in video

"We spent $60,000 on it eight years ago to turn it into a nice rental," Chris explains.

Part of the roof collapsed when the floodwaters rose above the ceiling.

"This is not nice," he muttered, climbing over a piece of overturned furniture. I think it was a couch or chair. It was hard to know.

Outside, Chris' kiwifruit orchard is not faring any better.

He's been here for decades, and clearly poured a lot of love into this place.

What remains of the kiwifruit orchard yard.

Everything is still under a thick layer of sludgy mud — walking along what were driveways and paths was now precarious. Some of his colleagues were there too. Everyone held each other for balance.

The water line reached the top of most of the sheds. The contents of a shed where the chemicals needed to run any orchard needed was gone. It was probably mixed with the mud we were working through.

Perhaps saddest was the kiwifruit orchard itself. Just over a hectare of kiwifruit trees are suffocating under about 30cm of silt.

"Whether the crop survives we don't know at this stage," he said.

And what that means for his future here, not even Chris knows. Try and repair? Get the silt off trees? Give up and walk away?

No one knows.

The orchard is covered in a thick layer of silt.

As we walk back to the main road a Zespri representative arrives. The company has been assessing crops to try and figure out what had been lost, and how to support the affected growers.

"It's devastation really, it's almost like a war zone," Zespri's Brad Ranui said. He'd been up in a helicopter surveying the damage from above.

"It's been really good to see and talk to Chris as he's been one of the last growers I haven't been able to contact."

As we talk, we're interrupted by a ute with a trailer on the back driving past. It's full of dead sheep recovered down the road.

Later some neighbours start trying to remove a dead cow that had been lodged in a house. The roof of the house is littered with apples.

The work is grim.

Caravans were found in trees throughout parts of the region.

For many who lost their homes, returning was not easy.

We were invited by Waiohiki's Huia Te Kanawa to return with her to her property for the first time since she left.

On a phone call the night before our visit, she describes a harrowing story of escaping through the kitchen window, wading through chest high floodwaters to large shed on their property that houses their small painting and decorating business.

The long ladders they owned probably saved them — she was able to climb to the roof and wait to be rescued. That rescue eventually came in the form of a truck.

She managed to get to the truck, telling me she was hauled onto the back in a very "un-ladylike fashion".

No-one, including her, would have given a toss.

Their sanctuary was the Waiohiki marae. It usually stands proudly on the top of a hill. Within hours it was an island with no escape until the army turned up late the next day.

We returned with Huia and a friend of hers for support almost a week later. And it was a harrowing walk up to her property.

What remains of Huia’s lounge.

All her neighbour's properties were destroyed, most of their belongings strewn in piles across their front lawns.

The only positive we could find is the big letter 'C' spray painted on the front of their homes, left by Urban Search and Rescue. That meant there were no bodies inside.

As we approached Huia's front gate, she stopped and gasped. It was unrecognisable. Most of the structures were in the same place. They were now covered in mud and dust. Her gardens were gone.

Walking along the driveway her car was stuck in piles of silt.

One source of income for the family was an Airbnb out the back.

The flooding had pushed all the furniture against a wall. Again, all covered in mud. The weather had also been hot for a couple of days and it was starting to reek.

The Airbnb was an important source of income for the family.

The house was in a similar condition. We go into what was the lounge to look for some precious taonga that had hopefully survived.

There were sad reminders everywhere of the family that once called this place home. A line of TV remotes that had somehow managed to stay on the table. Underneath a glass dome was a cake Huia had baked on Monday, the night before the flood.

"I don't want to live here again," she said, looking around.

Clambering down the hallway, past ruined bedrooms and a bathroom, we entered a small room where portraits of her mother and grandmother hung on one wall.

"I quickly said goodbye to them, I said see you later," she said, reflecting on the day of the flood.

Picking them off the wall and stowing them under her arm, we all carry what we can and leave the house.

Out the front is one of Huia's neighbours, relentlessly attacking the rapidly solidifying layer of silt and mud with a spade, trying to force a path to the front door of the home.

"We've got a lot of work to do here," he said, beads of sweat running down his forehead.

Huia also took us to see the shed — the roof of which quite possibly saved her life. Inside is a lot of the painting equipment her business needs. The van outside too — she had recently travelled to Wellington to buy the van and more gear.

What remains of the shed.

Standing at the entrance she stopped and stared. Their livelihood was now under a layer of silt. We tried to get into the shed to look at what might have survived but could barely go a few steps before the mud became too sticky and deep.

We could only get as far as a large billiards table that stood wrecked near the entrance.

Huia's main priority was getting the small business up and running, as apart from the new purchases, a new employee had started with them the day before the flood.

"Working can get us back to some normality, some income, and some mana."

She's very concerned about delays to insurance payouts for essential items needed to get the business going again — and when we interviewed her almost a week after the flood, she had been given no sign when that money would be coming.

It was money she was entitled to under her insurance policy which she had been paying for as long as she could remember.

"We are only a small business but we make a difference."

On our travels around Hawke's Bay, we saw communities coming together. There were countless "hero" stories. Of people turning up to help clean their neighbour's properties. Of offering shelter or rooms for flood refugees.

Piles of clothing was donated to people who had lost everything.

There was also a big effort to get the economy moving again.

Hawke's Bay lives and dies on its horticulture industry — but hundreds of hectares of orchards have been destroyed.

That, however, left hundreds of hectares of orchards more than that with trees laden with fruit that needs to be picked — harvest season was ramping up as the cyclone hit.

Craig Betty, of T&G, took us through one of their major packhouses that had just got power restored.

Four hundred bins of freshly picked apples had arrived and were being packed ready for sale.

"This is our first pack post cyclone," he said.

The first apples processed in this packhouse since the cyclone.

For the first time in a week workers are back on the line, grading apples, and sorting them into boxes ready to be exported, sold domestically, or juiced.

The next day we visited an orchard that supplied the T&G packhouse, and workers were back picking.

"We can't stop, we lost the week to the wind and rain, and everything is ripe to pick now," Maurice Winder, T&G East Coast operations manager, said.

"If we stop then a whole lot of other things stop — trucking, pack houses," he said.

"If we stop the impact is huge."

And nowhere is that felt more acutely than at Napier's Port.

We visited on Tuesday, and it hadn't been long since mains power had been restored. The port had been running off generators. Its staff said it could do that almost indefinitely, but operations would be limited.

One of those limitations was the power needed for the refrigerated containers needed to send produce out by cargo ship — everything from apples to beef.

And even though exports could get out, there were still ongoing issues facing the port — and they weren't going to be quickly resolved.

"Our biggest challenge is getting access to the port over the road and rail network," Napier Port chief executive Todd Dawson told me.

"Shipping is fine, but it is the road and rail access going in and out of the region that will be critical to keep things flowing."

I asked him what effort would be needed to get that access back to normal, and his answer was frank.

"It's going to be a long and arduous process."

Expensive too.

Some treasures were found amongst the devastation.

As I write this there are many still unaccounted for, and all of them have families desperate for answers.

It's going to be a long time before anyone fully knows the extent of the damage caused by Gabrielle.

But what is certain, is that this is a community that knows how to come together.

Almost everyone I interviewed I asked simply; will you get through this?

The answer?

A resounding yes.


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