Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Group controller Ian Macdonald was on leave for a tramping trip in the South Island when Cyclone Gabrielle hit the region.
The region’s preparedness for the severe weather event and the swiftness of Civil Defence’s response has come into question in the weeks since.
Eight people in the region died and hundreds of others had to be rescued from rooftops as water and debris pouring off the hill country burst stopbanks and flooded homes across Hawke’s Bay.
The cyclone landed on the evening of Monday, February 13. Macdonald had taken leave at the time to walk the Routeburn Track in Fiordland.
His trip “was booked in mid-2022″, Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Group told Hawke’s Bay Today in a statement that also confirmed he was “out of mobile coverage” for most of the trip.
Macdonald had no contact with other Civil Defence workers from Thursday February 9 until late on Monday, February 13.
“Ian checked in with the Group Office team prior to losing mobile coverage on the Thursday and then again at the earliest available opportunity on Monday evening,” the statement continued.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council interim chief executive Pieri Munro said in the days following Cyclone Gabrielle that the event that hit Hawke’s Bay had “exceeded everyone’s expectations”.
But residents in Esk Valley, in particular, have expressed disquiet and anger at Civil Defence’s organisation of evacuations on the evening of February 13 in the weeks since.
Macdonald did not arrive back in Hawke’s Bay until February 15. A state of emergency was declared across the region at 4.31am on February 14.
“He was due to fly back to Hawke’s Bay on Tuesday morning, 14th February, and made it as far as Wellington, where he spent all Tuesday afternoon and evening below ground in the Beehive at the National Crisis Management Centre,” the Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Group said in a statement.
“Ian caught the next available flight and landed in Napier on Wednesday morning and began his shift at the Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Hastings just after midday.”
Cyclone Gabrielle has been described as a “slow onset event”, meaning emergency management staff had a period of days to plan for its arrival.
A request to interview Macdonald was declined, with a Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Group spokesperson saying: “Ian has nothing to add to the statement.”