Gabrielle – one cyclone to terrify us all

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    Twelve hours into Sunday’s pre-storm power cut and with an ex-tropical cyclone hurtling down upon us, I finally took down the gleaming brass hurricane lamp (ransomed from a city yacht-chandlery at a low moment during Covid lockdown) that’s sat on a shelf beside my small collection of leather and gilt bound books on a high shelf. With kerosene from the shed – its blue dye long since turned to orange – and an ancient matchbox with five unpromising sticks in it mercifully morphed it into a functioning light-source.

    A week of storm preparations and eerie waiting was over but by the time my own power cut was repaired, half the rest of the country was living in lonely, dark and fearful circumstances.

    Meantime, Cyclone Gabrielle had literally bounced off the battered Aotea Great Barrier and Coromandel coastlines and appeared to head off to the east, giving us a brief, unnatural calm. It was illusory.

    Cyclone Gabrielle was winding herself up to a storm force greater even than 1988’s Cyclone Bola, spreading a violent mantle of pulverising winds and tropical rain from Northland to Muriwai, cutting off whole towns like Dargaville and even Whangarei from road or air access, while flooding the whole of the east coast from Whangarei to Tolaga Bay and the coastline south of East Cape.

    Most of the north and east was lying under unthinkable sheets of water, cleaved by heaving rivers and with its roading network torn out.

    The government stepped up with an admirable,  whatever-it-takes response, stepping over the parochialism and blame-gaming of previous large scale inundations in recent years.

    Such an enormous calamity was already bringing out the best in us, demonstrating again that citizens are essentially competent, generous and kind in a thousand ways.

    Food parcels were being assembled. Heroes drove heavy machinery through flood waters and wet and exhausted volunteers dug through rubble in all-night rescues. The plight of farm animals, food crops and vineyards was raw and inescapable. The scale of isolation across enormous swathes of the country left in the cold, wet and windy dark with no cellphone or internet coverage – perhaps for months in some places – seemed shattering.

    After the Anniversary Weekend floods two weeks ago, it seemed as if our collective civil defense response was not especially reassuring. 

    A sequestered bureaucracy responding without any depth of collective knowledge of a small and uniquely challenged offshore island with sudden and severe access issues was no help.

    However, a truly vast disaster rather changes the perspective.

    Suddenly there is money and political will to get everyone out of this honourably. It would be good to think that rebuilding can be done on a generous scale, restoring access for small towns starved of roading and, better still, rail access which can empower local financial security as well as industry and food production. As the Dargaville train line once did.

    And Auckland’s climate crisis can be tackled with more honesty than its draft annual budget has been foretelling. Soon to be out for public consultation, the draft shows little beyond a few targeted rate funds that can apparently be plundered at will by its self-serving bureaucracy.

    Now’s the time to think sweeping, meaningful changes to both its planning and its flood and resilience preparedness and a reversal of proposed city council cuts to its annual budget which has been drawn up to address that chimeric $295 million budget hole that was so vehemently denied before October’s election.

    Forest and Bird’s regional conservation manager Carl Morgan said this week that the budget drawn up before Christmas does not match with the council’s climate plan. “It’s shocking that this budget would slash funding for stormwater management. It’s the last thing Aucklanders need after enduring devastating floods,” he said.

    The draft budget comes out for public submissions later this month and a resounding message back to officials that the council needs to stick to its promises on tackling climate crisis issues, flood water mitigation and a more wholesome commitment to retaining green spaces.

    Trees are our best protection and will do the job for us if we ruthlessly curb the greed for easy infill housing profits. Nature is doing its best and the city’s greenspaces exemplary if we can save them from fly-by-night developer schemes.

    We are far too familiar with officials stalling political will with the iron fist of specious budget constraints.

    This is a time to stay large-minded. • Liz Waters

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