‘I still haven’t cried’: Cyclone Gabrielle survivors return to valley laid waste

Crouched in the dark, gripping the slick corrugated iron, Michael and Kelly McKendry hauled themselves and their daughter on to their rooftop. A few feet below, the flood moved in a seething brown mass, roiling under the gutters. “I couldn’t feel anything, I was just doing,” says Kelly. “As we went out our kitchen window, we heard a woman go past in the water screaming.”

Almost a week after Cyclone Gabrielle hit New Zealand, the couple have returned to find the green valley where they made their home a moonscape. Orchard vines are stripped from the wires, cornfields are flattened, and everything is coated in a metres-thick layer of iron-grey sludge. Motorhomes and caravans lie tossed across the landscape, windscreens smashed, metalwork caved in, some upside down and stacked on top of one another, others submerged to their roofs in the mud. The railway line running through the valley has buckled in on itself, twisted into looping ribbons. One house has been carried almost a kilometre from its foundations, logs impaled through walls shredded like damp cardboard.

This is Eskdale, a thin, fertile valley that carves throughthe Hawke’s Bay region north of Napier. A small, tight-knit, semi-rural community, the area is known for its white wine vineyards and apple orchards. Today, it is also becoming known as one of the areas most devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle, in a region among the worst hit in New Zealand’s North Island. Seven deaths have been confirmed in Hawke’s Bay, a toll officials say is likely to rise.

‘It’s apocalyptic’: locals faced with cleanup after New Zealand’s Cyclone Gabrielle – video

The destruction has been almost total. Mixed with the debris are surreal, untouched fragments. In one destroyed kitchen a pavlova has come to rest on a tide of mud, the meringue still intact inside its packaging. At the entrance to the valley, an eggshell blue house is submerged in water, the “for sale” sign still attached to the fence. Suspended above the railway, overlooking the mud and shattered trees, a couch is perched atop a pile of debris. Its upholstery is clean, the television remote control nestled on the tufted cushion.

The mangled railway line.
The mangled railway line. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

On Friday, a few residents returned with spades and trowels, to dig any belongings from the debris. The McKendrys pluck their daughter’s violin from the sludge, and slowly clear the mud from between the strings. “I think we’re in shock,” says Kelly. “I still haven’t really cried.”

When the family woke in the early hours of the morning, the water was already calf-deep. Kelly remembers trying to wade across the yard to a neighbour’s two-storey home. As the water reached her shoulders, she realised she was beginning to drift in the current. “I realised we couldn’t swim to safety,” she says. “There was no getting out.”

“See there, that dent?” Micheal says, pointing to where the guttering of the house has bent downwards. It marks where a man being swept past in the flood had grabbed on – the corner of the McKendrys’ roof the first thing he had managed to keep hold of. He had been swept down from a caravan park more than a kilometre up the road.

Max Robertson
Max Robertson remembers a woman screaming and thinking ‘at least it means she’s not dead’. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

Eventually, the family and those near them were rescued. Their neighbour, Max Robertson, spent the night with them on the roof after evacuating his father and dogs atop a floating picnic table. Sitting through the night, he heard the same woman as Kelly McKendry, screaming in the distance. “I remember thinking, at least that means she’s not dead,” he says. When dawn finally came, he spotted her arms gripping the metal-frame roof of an industrial greenhouse. He swam out to help and eventually bundled her up in a makeshift nest of greenhouse netting and plastic until a rescue boat arrived.

“We’re alive. Nothing else matters,” says Kelly. But mixed with their relief is fury at the lack of evacuation warnings or emergency alerts. An evacuation order – sent to every mobile phone in the area – came through at 5.24am. At that point, the family were already climbing through their kitchen window as the waters rose over their kitchen table. “Where was the warning?” Michael asks. “To have gone through this, when we could’ve been staying at Grandma’s.”

Map of New Zealand’s North Island where Cyclone Gabrielle caused most destruction

When the Esk River burst its banks, it was not just water that went roaring through the valley, but huge quantities of silt and a thick stew of debris known as forestry “slash”. Containing enormous logs and felled trees that had been left on the hillsides, the slash was propelled like missiles through the floods.

Philip James, picture with his wife, Sarah Johnson, says: ‘The noise is what really got me – the noise of it.’
Philip James, picture with his wife, Sarah Johnson, says: ‘The noise is what really got me – the noise of it.’ Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

“The noise is what really got me – the noise of it,” says Philip James, standing next to what remains of his house. “You had the surf pounding, the cyclone. You had the darkness and the rain and the noise of the water. And just the fear of it all.” James spent Monday night huddled on the roof with his family after the waters rose to the ceiling of their home. “The noise of the logs smashing the house. I thought the house was going to smash up,” he says.

“We’re alive, which is the main thing. I thought my brother was dead for sure – I couldn’t see him on the roof.” His brother and his family were ultimately rescued from the roof cavity of their home – trapped inside after breaking his way through the ceiling using a wooden Thomas the Tank Engine set.

The fatalities

As the week has drawn on, the task of firefighters and search and rescue teams has turned increasingly grim – transitioning from rooftop rescues to the recovery of bodies. By the side of the state highway, the Urban search and rescue team leader, Ken Cooper, has stopped to check on some colleagues.

‘I don’t think people get how bad it it is,’ says Urban search and rescue team leader, Ken Cooper.
‘I don’t think people get how bad it it is,’ says Urban search and rescue team leader, Ken Cooper. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

“I don’t think people get how bad it is. This is not just flood water. This is a tsunami of water and,” he says, gestureing at the enormous logs and debris spread in every direction. “Every bit of the coastline is covered with slash. The beachfronts don’t lie.”

Behind Cooper, a car has been embedded in the upper wall of a house, filled to the brim with silt and branches. Concerned about a possible victim inside thevehicle, the firefighters chain the frame to a digger and drag it out to the sound of screaming metal. The car is empty.

“What we’ll do next is called delayering – we’ll get a digger and a special team and we’ll take that building apart,” Cooper says, looking at the house. “So if there is a body in there to be sure they’re back with their family.”

Members of Urban search and rescue check a vehicle embedded in the wall of a house in Esk.
Members of Urban search and rescue check a vehicle embedded in the wall of a house in Esk. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

So far, teams have focused their search on houses – checking the attics and roof cavities. “Because we know people climbed up there,” Cooper says. But there are likely to be fatalities beyond the homes, out in the valleys, caught in the piles of logs or buried under silt. “I am confident there will be,” Cooper says.

On Saturday, they will bring in teams of sniffer dogs from Wellington to search through the mud and debris.

The cleanup

In the small, neat 1920s church off the side of the highway, Linda Paterson has been trying to save what she can, packing up flower arrangements and arranging pew cushions to dry. She pushes open the chapel door, and light filters gently through the windows, unbroken in the storm. The stained-glass face of Jesus looks down at a huge, oak altar, flipped by the tide of water. The church pews are jumbled in a pile, and inches of thick grey mud lines the floor.

‘A building isn’t as important as people’s lives,’ says Linda Paterson.
‘A building isn’t as important as people’s lives,’ says Linda Paterson. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/The Guardian

“This church has meant a lot to a lot of people,” Paterson says. “I got married here, I was a bridesmaid three times here … My mother played the organ for years.”

“It’s just a building,” she says, looking around. “A building isn’t as important as people’s lives.”

Asked to describe what has become of Esk valley, Paterson pauses for a long time. “It’s apocalyptic,” she finally says. “Scene after scene of just carnage. The whole valley is gone, this beautiful, beautiful valley, that was so full of fruit, and wine, and amazing people. It’s all gone. It’s unbelievable.”


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