For the Beca team that call the Hastings office in Te Matau-a-Māui home, the morning of 14 February dawned looking a bit battered and sodden, but it appeared at first glance that we’d escaped any serious damage. The power was off. I texted the team, and everyone replied to say they were ok. Then we lost cell coverage.
The bubble lasted into the afternoon, when the news on the car radio gave us a glimpse of the full picture. When the power came on in parts of Hastings on Wednesday morning, a few of us turned up to the office in search of wifi. There were hundreds of messages waiting for us from colleagues and family.
With roads closed and power still out in Napier, it took another two days to reconnect with the rest of the team to offer respite, food, battery packs and power to charge devices.
Our role in the response
It took a few days to come to terms with what had happened to our region, however, the team swung into gear quickly to support our communities. Within hours of the event, we had team members supporting the community in Civil Defence offices at Central Hawke’s Bay District Council and Napier City Council. We were also supporting Higgins and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency on the State Highway network, the Regional Council on the stopbanks, and were beginning to make contact with clients and partners across the region to understand the impact of the cyclone.
Lessons learned so far
After an event such as this, connecting essential services and transport networks is vital to communities’ ability to recover.
The initial response phase moved very quickly, as the impact was assessed and workable methods for reconnecting infrastructure to communities were identified. In that early stage, the response focused on restoring some level of service, fast. A cross-industry response is the only practical way to do that. The bigger, more difficult questions of what, how and if we rebuild come later (or even for true preparedness, earlier).
A number of our team took up roles in Civil Defence centres, supporting councils as members of incident management teams. Very early on, it became clear how unique and important the role of local government is during a localised emergency such as this.
Communities vary in levels of preparedness and resilience to deal with emergency events, and this event certainly tested every bit of planning that is done at a local and regional level. Communities naturally turn to local government for support, and in our region we are lucky to have so many passionate staff and volunteers who have dug deep to support to support them.
The local incident management teams we supported were focused on restoring connections with communities by any means possible, with an early focus on getting communications into remote areas.
The communication void really tested us all and this will be a significant lesson as we build greater resilience. We are so used to relying on social media and having information at our fingertips – we really felt it when this disappeared on the morning of 14 February.
The recovery phase
As we move into the recovery phase, there is an opportunity to think carefully about long-term resilience and the impact of the decisions we make now on generations to come, as well as insights that might assist improve our readiness in the future.
Factors in our recovery: the impact on Māori communities
Te Matau-a-Māui is home to many Māori communities (census data states around 27% of the Hawke’s Bay population is Māori, versus 17% nationally). Cyclone Gabrielle has devastated so many marae. This is significant because the marae is the centre of Māori identity and wellbeing and holds communities together, much like a cultural infrastructure. My colleague John Blyth (who leads Te Ahi Tūtata, our Māori business team at Beca) says that when a marae is broken or closed, it affects the wairua – the spirit – of that community.
Rebuilding or even relocation may be a reality for some of these communities, but it has to be approached with great sensitivity. As John puts it, while some hapū may be prepared to relocate (indeed, some will have already explored relocation options), for others, the consideration of moving off or changing the relationship to whenua is deeply traumatic and takes considerable time. Of course, for many Māori, this also has to be considered in the context of historic land loss and so it is critical that such conversations recognise the implications of processes that might be seen as fettering ownership rights and mana. All of this is even more difficult in the aftermath of such a devastating event – when people understandably want things to go back to ‘normal’.
The recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle presents an opportunity for Māori knowledge to be applied in decision making, and for a Te Tiriti-centric model to be employed. This means iwi must have leadership roles throughout the recovery phase.
Factors in our recovery: resilience
Cyclone Gabrielle has forced us to focus on risk and resilience, and has started inevitable conversations about how, where and if we build in areas susceptible to hazard. A question raised by our Group Director – Advisory and sustainability champion at Beca, Amelia Linzey, is how we move our conversations away from ‘better’ necessarily meaning more investment and bigger infrastructure, to a situation where better is more about ‘better able to repair’, ‘quicker to re-establish’ or ‘safer for residents to support themselves’ following extreme events.
It is a difficult conversation to get our heads around, and Amelia notes the key is thinking about what and how we can rebuild in a way that empowers local communities to be better prepared for recovery. As a conversation starter, she suggests this might even include a conversation about ‘building back worse’ (e.g. if it is a way that makes repair quicker for local residents). She suggests that concepts of ‘retreat’ should not just be about leaving land, but about where and what activities are able to be resilient to disruption.
Beca’s Business Director for Climate Resilience, Cushla Loomb, agrees that we need to think carefully about how we rebuild, including designing for flexibility and future relocatability of infrastructure so we don’t add to what is ‘at risk’ in the future.
These are conversations that take time and as Amelia and Cushla point out, ideally they take place before events such as Cyclone Gabrielle. Perhaps this thinking applies to all of New Zealand, beyond our local region.
A shorter version of this article was first published on The Profit and has republished with permission.