Neighbors pick up the pieces in New Zealand | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Neighbors pick up the pieces in New Zealand

Residents continue to rebuild two months after the country’s worst cyclone

People stand on a rooftop of a home near Napier, New Zealand, waiting to be helped to safety by helicopter after Cyclone Gabrielle struck. Associated Press/New Zealand Defense Force, File

Neighbors pick up the pieces in New Zealand

Lizzy Burns started moving books to the top shelf and placing household goods higher when meteorologists warned Cyclone Gabrielle would hit Gisborne, in New Zealand’s North Island, earlier this year. Burns’ house and property lie only 100 yards from the Taruheru River on the east side of the subtropical island. Burns said meteorologists predicted peak flood stage at midnight, Feb. 13. By 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 14, a logjam at the bridge downstream had turned the Taruheru into a lake that lapped at her sandbagged doors. Without power, and with muddy water seeping between the cement slab and the bottom of her house walls, Burns and her husband knew it was time to go.

“I was firing kids out the front bedroom window because I didn’t want to freak them out by opening the doors and having a bunch of water rush in,” she said. The internet didn’t work, and their cellphones were useless, but they made it to a neighbor’s house on higher ground before two feet of water filled their home.

The cyclone prompted rooftop rescues of more than 300 people, displaced 10,000 more, and killed 11. Authorities didn’t lift the national state of emergency until mid-March, a month after the cyclone hit. It is only the third national state of emergency in New Zealand’s history.

While thousands of residents wait for answers from insurance companies and struggle to return to normalcy, they’re also aiding other storm damage victims. Neighbors help neighbors gut their houses and bulldoze feet of silt from their yards. Churches join forces to find those who fall through the cracks. The storm is bringing unity to a region divided during COVID-19 restrictions.

In March 2020, New Zealand instituted one of the world’s strictest pandemic responses, closing borders and keeping the country in various stages of lockdown for more than two years. Residents largely supported the measures until the omicron variant arrived. Even with high levels of vaccination, those who wanted to continue the restrictions found themselves at odds with those who wanted to open the country. The country reopened for travelers in July 2022.

When Gisborne residents Mike and Vicki Miller learned about the impending cyclone, they moved their herds of Angus cattle to higher ground. The cyclone did relatively little damage to their 230-acre farm. Trees and other debris blocked a few of their culverts. A significant mudslide, called a slip in New Zealand, cut them off from most of their property. Mike used his equipment from his earthmover business to restore access to his farm and internet providers’ satellite dishes. He started his business after Cyclone Bola hit the area in 1988.

Lizzy Burns' kitchen the morning after the cyclone hit Gisborne, New Zealand

Lizzy Burns' kitchen the morning after the cyclone hit Gisborne, New Zealand Photo courtesy of Lizzy Burns

Until this year, Cyclone Bola held the record for the Southern Hemisphere’s costliest cyclone, causing $123 million in damage. Cyclone Gabrielle caused at least $8.4 billion in damage, but many people’s homes and crops were uninsured. Those residents will have to restart from scratch.

Two weeks after Gabrielle, an unnamed storm hit the already saturated area, dumping twice as much rain in a few days than usually falls in a whole month. Thousands more people were displaced overnight. The Millers’ house didn’t sustain any damage, but the rushing water ripped 100 fence posts out of the ground and deposited them a football field away. The water ruined $1,300 worth of hay the Millers had stored in their barn for winter feeding.

Even while the storm raged through their barn, one of Vicki’s hens nested atop the hay bales. Three days later, in the midst of the devastation, Vicki saw that nine chicks hatched, a reminder to her of God’s mercy and protection.

After completing a few necessary cleanups on his own property, Mike began checking on regular customers. He said he’ll likely be cleaning up from these storms for the next five years. The Millers have their own sources of power and water. They welcomed people to do laundry and get clean water at their house after the storm damaged the town’s water main. Vicki said the storms brought people together after the long-term effects of being separated during COVID-19. “It could have been way, way worse,” she said. “Though, some of the young people thought it was worse than COVID because they didn’t have internet for five days.”

Repairing damage to the Miller's farm outside Gisborne, New Zealand, 2 weeks after the cyclone

Repairing damage to the Miller's farm outside Gisborne, New Zealand, 2 weeks after the cyclone Photo courtesy of Vicki Miller

Between downed communication, blocked and caved-in roads, and broken water mains, New Zealand’s North Islanders will likely take years to recover fully from these catastrophes. Mike Pudney works with the outreach team at the Reformed Church of Hastings and said the storm couldn’t have hit at a worse time. Apple and grape crops were at their peak of harvest. Even if the fields weren’t covered in silt and could be harvested, highway closures complicate transporting the produce. What used to be a three-hour coastal trip south from Gisborne to Hawke’s Bay now requires a seven-hour inland trek.

Local Christians are combining their efforts to help. Teams from churches that rarely interacted before now meet weekly to discuss and coordinate recovery efforts. “Just to have that unity in Christ has really been amazing,” said Beccy Gulliksen, an administrator for the joint group. “It has refocused us on what is really important. What matters is sharing the gospel in sharing Christ’s love.”

The effect of ruined crops and soggy walls will pass. But Pudney and Gulliksen are starting to see the catastrophe’s long-term fallout. Besides connecting people with food, housing, and government assistance, the team refers people to counselors. “It’s been really, really traumatic for these families, especially for those who had to get rescued. But also just dealing with the loss of all of their worldly life,” Gulliksen said. “As the initial adrenaline starts to wear off, that’s when people start needing emotional support a lot more as well.”

The interchurch recovery group is committed to continuing to assist families for years, and Gulliksen said that means they need to work at a sustainable pace: “It’s just one day at a time, one week at a time.”.

Two months after fleeing their home, the Burns family still lives with friends. Trash bags held their belongings until another friend donated chests of drawers. The road to recovery has been harder—and longer—than they expected.

Lizzy Burns returned to work after helping others on her street who sequestered themselves during the pandemic. She’s learning to accept help as a way of loving her neighbor, even those she doesn’t know. “I’ve learned to say ‘yes’ to all the meals because, whilst it’s not only saving me time and energy and having to cook, it’s their way of saying ‘we’re here,’” she said.

Amy Lewis

Amy is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Fresno Pacific University. She taught middle school English before homeschooling her own children. She lives in Geelong, Australia, with her husband and the two youngest of their seven kids.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

Sign up to receive World Tour, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on international news.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...