More than two weeks after Cyclone Gabrielle battered Auckland, angry residents in the decimated beach settlement of Karekare remain cut off from the outside world and say they feel “forgotten” and left in “limbo”.
The picturesque but isolated west coast settlement - 40km from Auckland CBD - is still reeling from the killer storm.
Shell-shocked locals said they have no idea when roads connecting Karekare will reopen or if their community is even viable now given the scale of the disaster.
Karekare stalwart and former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey has laid into the official response. He said a lack of leadership and ineffective communications have created uncertainty, adding to residents’ anxiety and trauma.
He feared for the mental wellbeing of those who remained trapped and called on authorities to step up.
“These guys are close to New Zealand’s biggest city. They’re 40 minutes from downtown Auckland for God’s sake. I think it’s outrageous that they feel isolated.
“They need certainty. They need an answer.”
Huge piles of rubble lie on the sides of Karekare’s roads where houses were swept down hillsides and destroyed by powerful landslides.
Locals say they endured nearly a fortnight without electricity, internet or running water until power was restored on Sunday.
Officially, the main roads in and out of the settlement remain impassable due to boulders and slips, some of which have carved out huge chunks of the tarseal.
Unofficially, those who need to get out have been using four-wheel drives to navigate the precarious Karekare Rd which is littered with debris and deep ruts, despite warnings from Auckland Transport about the extreme danger.
“When you live here, people have to get out,” Karekare resident and photographer Ted Scott told the Herald.
Scott has been documenting the storm’s aftermath and helping those who remain to rebuild their shattered lives.
Karekare had been “devastated”, he said.
“It was such a beautiful place and now it’s covered in rubbish. It’s appalling.”
Auckland Emergency Management (AEM) says about 100 households are believed to be still in Karekare. But Scott estimates the population has shrunk to about 25 and said about nine homes are completely destroyed.
“But there’s lots in really perilous states. It’s the steep side of the valley that copped it. It’s the hillside slipping away.”
Huge mounds of debris on Karekare Rd were still awaiting collection and starting to smell, Scott said.
Helicopters were using his back paddock as a landing pad to drop emergency supplies of food, water, fuel and medicine.
There was huge uncertainty about whether life would continue in Karekare as it had in the past and whether people would be allowed back to hillside properties.
“Everyone’s putting on a brave face but I can see the question marks hanging over their heads. Are authorities going to close the whole place down? Will the road reopen and how long is it going to take? It’s a big uncertainty.”
He said people needed information as they navigated the weeks and months ahead.
Asked how people were coping, Scott replied: “It comes and goes. There’s moments when I see people break down and other moments when everybody has a laugh and mucks in.
“I went really downhill after the event.
“The worst thing was not having any power, no communications except radio, no internet. At nighttime, you’re cooking with a bloody torch and sitting in this gloom with no television.”
Residents came together last week for a community barbecue.
Scott said people were relieved to “get out of their little houses, their isolation” and swap stories with neighbours.
People were smiling and happy.
But the scale of the disaster and the task ahead is sobering.
Scott and other residents feel the official response has been undercooked.
“We feel like we’re at the end of the queue,” he said.
“The frustrating thing is as a community you feel like you’re forgotten about.”
Harvey, who has lived in Karekare on and off for 61 years, called on council and transport leaders to front up and provide answers.
“We have to listen to people who feel betrayed by the system. They’re looking after each other and I’m so proud of their resilience and courage. But I’m terribly concerned for their mental and physical wellbeing because they seem to be in limbo.”
Harvey said he’d spent his life in leadership “and that’s what’s missing”.
People were becoming desperate and at their wit’s end.
“Tempers and stress are starting to show. They need certainty.”
Harvey said the reality and long-term futures for Auckland’s west coast communities like Karekare, Piha and Muriwai hit hard by the cyclone may not be good, but residents deserved answers to they could get on with their lives.
“Our life is rarely pulled apart and this has pulled apart our lives.
“Right now the uncertainty is deafening.”
In a newsletter to residents, Auckland Transport said it was working hard to restore road access. Work was underway to repair Lone Kauri and Karekare roads, including geotechnical assessments of stability around slips.
“We know you want your road open and back to normal as soon as possible. Sadly, the damage to Karekare and Lone Kauri roads is extensive, and it will take a while for us to fix them for you.
“Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts we can take to get them opened quickly. Realistically, it will take months to fix the damage.”
AT promised to be upfront “about what we find and what implications the findings may have for the community”, including worst-case scenarios.
The agency also pleaded with locals not to carry out their own roadworks or use the damaged roads for their own safety.
AEM said Karekare remained cut off due to land instability and the potential for further slips, though access had been partially restored by air for emergency access via helicopter.
Building inspectors had carried out 124 assessments. Ten properties had been deemed uninhabitable and red-stickered, 16 had been given yellow stickers and 97 white stickers.
Daily helicopter welfare drops were taking place, delivering emergency supplies like fresh produce, water, baby food, nappies, hearing aid batteries, pet food and hay bales.
Twenty drops had already occurred, delivering 40 tonnes of food and 2000 litres of fuel.
“Auckland Emergency Management is acutely aware of the psychosocial needs in the area. We have also been undertaking welfare missions, including trauma counselling.
“We know how important this support is right now and will continue to be in the coming months.”
A Givealittle page is raising money to help the shattered community recover.