When Senior Constable Wayne Churchouse went to help during the flooding two weeks ago, it was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
Having been in search and rescue for a few years, both as a volunteer and with the police squad, Churchouse, known as Mouse to many in Dannevirke, has seen his fair share of incidents.
But the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle was on a different scale.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
The day the cyclone hit Hawke’s Bay, Churchouse got the call to help out and headed north.
Just south of Waipukurau, he encountered flooding and began warning other drivers of the water.
“We had people coming out to go sightseeing.”
He was then told by someone from the fire service that the water was less than half a metre away from coming over stopbanks.
Going over the bridge to Waipawa gave him a couple of scary moments.
“This is one of these moments, you think, if the bridge goes, how do we survive this? It was a bit like Huka Falls, but muddy and it was pretty high up.”
Once he got to Hastings, he was sent to Pakowhai Rd but had no idea how bad it was, only that the water had gone through the township.
The water level was the height of the houses.
“It was just incredible,” he said.
When a civilian turned up in a jet boat, Churchouse jumped on.
“It was just amazing. I had to duck to go under the power lines.”
He said some houses were completely under, while others had barely a metre to spare between the water level and the roof.
What worried him was not knowing if there were people trapped in those houses. One resident told him they had got up to the attic but weren’t able to break through the roof, and had only about six inches of space (15cm) to breathe.
“It sort of caught everybody out. Nobody realised how much or how quickly it was going to come up.”
There were many stressful moments during the day, but one of the things that made Churchouse emotional was seeing the fear in people’s eyes.
He recalled going to rescue an older couple with their grandchildren. While the man told him there were others across from them who also needed help, Churchouse waved down a helicopter and he set about getting them off the roof.
“I was holding one little kiddie and I went to put the child I had into the helicopter, then went to grab the other child. I looked across and saw the first child - absolute terror.
“It will be with me for a while.”
He realised he should have put the woman in first and then taken the children, as from the children’s perspective, the whole thing would have been quite traumatic.
There were other things to worry about as he worked through the day to rescue others, especially when trying to get through the floodwaters, not knowing what was in the water.
“You couldn’t see anything [in the] dirty water. There’s all sorts of objects. Sewage and chemicals, and the glass, logs, sticks, all manner of objects floating in the water.”
On day two, Churchouse went up to Esk Valley and was overwhelmed by the scale of devastation.
“It was just, where do you start? The place was just annihilated.”
The residents there were just happy to be alive, thinking others had it worse.
“They were worried about us. Quite a number of people said: ‘How are you? How are you coping?’ This was from people who had lost everything.”
One man even managed to find a little humour in it, even among the mud and the silt, telling Churchouse to look at the positive.
“‘I don’t have to mow the lawns this weekend’,” he recalled.
Despite advance warnings of the cyclone and messages about being prepared, Churchouse felt a lot of people got caught out, thinking it wouldn’t happen to them.
“We take it for granted that we’re always going to have power and water,” he said.
Communication was also a big issue; many people were unable to get in touch with their families.
He found it particularly hard being unable to contact his family in Dannevirke, believing the storm was about to hit the township, but thankfully he could rely on his police colleagues to help where needed.
As overwhelming as it was to see all the devastation, from the broken railway lines to the houses taken off their foundations, he was grateful to all the teams out there helping including the helicopter crews, those in the rescue boats and all the volunteers.
Even the goodwill of people and the community spirit, he said, from neighbours looking after each other, those who had lost everything to those dropping off food and supplies.
“I’ve seen the best of people in the worst circumstances.”