Abe Dew has lived in Muriwai for 24 years. Six months on from the devastation wrought by Cyclone Gabrielle, residents are still picking up the pieces and battling to try to get back the life they once had.
Around 4.30 on the afternoon of February 13th Cyclone Gabrielle swung around to the southeast. An atmospheric river heading over the cliff above us turned a fire hose of horizontal high-pressure rain across Auckland’s west coast communities and directly into our home. Blasting the ranch sliders with salt spray from the raging Tasman a kilometre away.
We’re used to heavy weather on the coast. As housewarming gifts, I’ve given out boxes of Universal Candles, receiving thank you texts months later when the lights went out. But this was nothing like what I’ve seen in 24 years living in Muriwai. Normal rain storms roll across the water like big fuzzy balls and blow over us onto Auckland. Six hours later, the driving rain was unabated, penetrating through the frame of our eldest son’s bedroom window. Grinding away on the video game Call of Duty, he was oblivious – until the power flickered out just after 10.40pm and our home went dark.
Moments before blackout we heard something like the Herculeses that regularly buzz Muriwai from Whenuapai out over the Tasman and back again. This seemed only feet above our roof. The roar of turboprops about to collide with the hillside – followed by silence. It wasn’t a plane crash. It was an expanse of old-growth coastal rainforest the size of a football field slewing off the cliff. A sodden slurry of twisted tree trunks and boulders, crushing three homes and killing two volunteer firemen trying to divert water from a home when the hillside cracked.
Insurers calculate risk on the basis of normal rainfall but this was only normal by biblical standards. What is normal anymore? Normal life ended the moment our undamaged home was red-stickered by Auckland Council as “uninhabitable due to imminent risk’” Red means entry is prohibited – a limbo that befell over 100 other, mostly undamaged, Muriwai homes. Others have navigated alternating yellow and white stickers that are just as confounding.
That night the surf club felt like Noah’s Ark with hundreds of locals seeking refuge as six more major slips happened across Muriwai. Families huddled, dripping wet with frightened pets in cages. Many fled with their kids past crushed neighbours’ homes or left without cats and dogs. Some pets were never found, with owners prevented from returning for them. For weeks afterwards, local community page posts implored drone owners to drop food off in case they were still there waiting. More have died in the months since, the trauma of dislocation too much to handle.
Devastation laid bare
Irish author Samuel Beckett said: “It’s darkest before the dawn, but dawn is when they shoot you”. Dawn on Valentine’s Day brought little cheer. The community ventured out from the surf club to find our beautiful coastal village laid waste. Dazed locals swapped notes on damage and escapes. Slips continued rumbling along the cliff as my eldest kids and I headed home for the cat, chicken and school uniforms. Our neighbours could not return - “It looks like our place is gone.” She, a nurse, and he, a teacher of paramedic first responders; their home was erased and deposited across Motutara road. Almost all their belongings, photos, clothes, sports gear, sentimental family items - buried.
On the 14th, Cyclone Gabrielle wrought its havoc across the east coast – destroying communities and a far greater area of Tai Rawhiti and Hawkes Bay. Despite the national scale of the damage, no local community received more red-stickered households than Muriwai.
With Auckland Council’s focus squarely on Anniversary Day flooding damage from a fortnight before, the west coast communities of Piha, Karekare, Aniwhata, Te Henga and Muriwai were already off the radar.
The squeaky wheel gets oiled and no one would hear us unless we stood up and told our story. Our communities created a resistance of our own. Fighting not to be overlooked. We waited as the Council barred us from our homes, but still sent rates bills demanding overdue payments. Muriwai Stickered Residents Group lobbied central and local government. For months ministers, councillors, bureaucrats, task force leaders, technicians and journalists were guided through the cordon to help them understand – Muriwai is broken and we need help to heal.
Almost all of this work is done by local volunteers. Balancing day jobs with writing official letters to ministers, chairing weekly teams calls with council representatives or co-ordinating and analysing research to present hard data on the hurt and vulnerability in our midst. Resisting the insouciance of authority takes its toll. Those carrying this burden are bone weary with the stress of what they’ve seen, the friends they’ve worried for, stories they’ve heard as others worse off release their sorrow, loss and uncertainty about starting again as we wait in limbo.
What I realised
A few days on from the cyclone, I stood in Waimauku Fresh Choice and cried. I do most of the cooking, but I was overwhelmed by meal options I didn’t know how to prepare for our family. Our cupboards contained spices for any combination of cuisines, the freezer was full, the fridge bulging with leftovers that would rot in the coming weeks. What could I improvise without a tin opener? What could I cook it in when all our pots and pans are in a home we’re barred from re-entering? The fabric of routine that makes life with four kids manageable had been ripped apart.
Food is love. It’s how Mum, who died a month before Cyclone Gabrielle, nourished her family. Shared meals, conversations and laughter around the dining room table bound us together into friends. Dad could make porridge, but that’s all. He loved us just as much, but in different ways. The kitchen was Mum’s, so it drove her crazy when he started re-organising everything into places she couldn’t find. Dementia is forgetting the memories that weave us into our lives. Dad wasn’t hiding things – he was just frightened of losing control over who he was.
You have to swallow a lot of pain to forget a life you loved. Red and yellow stickers separate us from domestic routines and rituals we spend years creating around ourselves. Stripping us of places and objects that remind us who we’ve been and who we are. Hundreds of local households are forcing themselves to forget sunsets on the deck, roaring surf, looking forward to flirting kereru, kowhai and pohutakawa blossom. It takes effort to be positive for kids trying to understand they left home in the dark and may never go back. Forgetting, to keep yourself sane, is enough to drive you crazy.
Some aren’t coping well – initially, you could see it in their eyes, the trauma of that night still there. Paying a mortgage on a home you can’t live in plus renting a place you’d prefer not to be in leaves people feeling hopeless. Watching equity diminish as interest payments hike on unsaleable homes.
What I learned.
Like many Kiwis I’d thought buying a house was the foundation we build a life on. Home ownership as the rite of passage from carefree youth to all grown up. Our domestic economy depends on us believing the banking and insurance industries will help us into homes then keep us safe in them. It’s a lie. One red sticker proves that safe as houses is no safety net for climate change.
Home and contents insurance I’d paid for 24 years cannot be claimed if the house and belongings are undamaged. EQC only applies to an 8-meter radius around your dwelling. When we buy, it’s a title to a property and the land we’ll pay rates on. Buildings or ‘improvements’ are add-ons. Yet insurance only relates directly to them. Boulders from the beginning of a new slip that sit perched in trees up above our home are outside that perimeter so insurance will not protect us from them.
The insurance industry isn’t fit for purpose for the climate change related property damage future atmospheric rivers will visit upon us. Calculations of ‘normal rainfall’ are meaningless. Worse, for Muriwaiians with a Section 36 on their title, Auckland Council may wash its hands of responsibility for consenting their homes and insurers are already opting-out of paying out on their policies.
What I know.
We were really lucky. Within hours, the local community gathered around us. I love the energy of this landscape but the strength of community makes this place special. By evening on the 14th, we’d been given a two-bedroom unit in the neighbourhood by a family we’d never met. For over a month our community helped us secure ourselves, empty our belongings into their barns and help us get the kids routines back. As I stumbled out of Fresh Choice, a friend gave me a hug. Muriwai Community Association, local heroes bearing bread and hot meals, New World Kumeu and the fishing club have all rallied to feed us, take donations, build websites, establish a trust, distribute emergency funds, clothing, just listen and remind us we still belong.
Muriwai’s community is the safety net that broke our fall, working tirelessly to find soft landings in warm and dry places. Red, Yellow, White or unstickered – it’s been a wet and stormy winter for us all. We’ve looked after and lobbied for each other. Auckland Council and MSD have been brought into the community to hear our story, receive our requests for assistance and shown that we’re still hurting. Progress has taken months longer than the initial assurances we were given. We’re unsure how soon any offers will be made, to whom, on what conditions or for how much.
Muriwai and the coastal communities like us are different. Out on the fringe where life is lived in the teeth of climate change there is no more normal. Yet, we may also be the new normal for many communities across Aotearoa that need to plan for the threat of getting messed up like Muriwai.
Abe Dew has lived in Auckland’s Muriwai for 24 years.