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Eighty-eight-year-old widow Gabrielle Mei smiles as she reveals she shares a name with the cyclone that gutted her Wairoa home on a “beautiful sunny” morning minutes before she evacuated it.
The born-and-bred Wairoa local jumped in the car of a neighbour at 8am on Tuesday and proceeded to lean over the driver to honk the horn and yell through the streets of the now mud-drenched Hawke’s Bay town, warning fellow residents of the approaching flood waters.
“How did I cope? I was alright because I wasn’t here for [Cyclone] Bola so I didn’t panic. But one of the girls down the road... she came to tell me that the water was coming. I looked at her and I said ‘hmmm, it’s a beautiful day. Where was the water?” Mei told the Herald on Sunday.
The banks of the Wairoa River that runs through the town of 9000 people broke shortly after 8am after a deluge from Cyclone Gabrielle overnight on the surrounding Hawke’s Bay mountains.
“I thought afterwards if she hadn’t come to get me I would have drowned,” Mei said.
“[I was] shocked. To me it wasn’t a storm, it was the water. Because there was hardly any rain, you know. And to be told the water was coming, that’s when the shock [came]. You didn’t believe it until you saw it.”
The mother of six has been living on her own in her house on Crarer Street since her husband died eight years ago.
Mei’s was one of the houses worst hit by the 1.5m floods that flowed through the Wairoa streets and left houses filled with muddy silt.
Civil Defence says there are 100 yellowed-stickered houses in Wairoa and two red.
Mei sat in her backyard today eating a packet of chips, casually retelling the story of her escape surrounded by friends.
One neighbour points out while laughing that it’s “inappropriate, I say” that all this damage was done to Mei’s home by a cyclone that shares her name.
But Mei, who was born here and worked in a “wee dress factory” in town when she was younger, seems unfazed by it all five days on.
She was somewhat prepared anyway.
“I didn’t panic. Because I had already had my things packed three years ago for the earthquake,” she says.
“[Mei’s neighbour] said ‘get your things’. So I just grabbed my bag that I always had at the back door and took it out. Then we went down the road, and she tooted all the way down the road yelling to people to get out.
“She had her two children with her. We went to warn people.”
In the punishing sunny rays today, around 50 cheerful locals had been coming through to help Mei clean out her house of mud with wheelbarrows and shovels.
The house itself was one of the worst-hit in this section of Wairoa - which has been completely cut off from road contact by slips since Tuesday morning.
Mei says, “I’ve had my cries” at the state of her home which has no furniture left and had “12 inches of slush” above the floor - which was already raised off the ground by a metre.
The same community effort is under way at numerous properties along Crarer Street which is clogged with a constant rotation of diggers, trucks and utes operated by almost a hundred locals keen to help.
Half a foot of mud still covers most front and backyards, and there are piles of ruined furniture, mattresses and white goods plonked in piles outside properties along the silt-covered road.
There are metallic fences crushed into distorted rubble being manipulated by diggers, and dozens of utes transporting people to and fro.
Across the road from Mei is Kathy Skipper-King, 59, who also escaped the floodwaters by hanging out the side of a tractor that came by Tuesday morning offering to help her.
“When I saw the sun I thought ‘yes we’ve been missed. But the water raised up real quick,” Skipper-King says.
“A big-ass tractor came in and got me my kaumātua, she stayed with me the night before, she lives here [next door], but she stayed with me. Luckily she did because her flat got wiped out.
“We just hung on until we got down the road...
“I had to go swim out and get my dog. She was in that kennel out there and her head was just above water. I swam out and got her and put her in the house. The rest is history - I didn’t see it.”
Around 20 family members of Skipper-King were today working diligently, dragging out soggy brown furniture and belongings.
“This is the house I was born in… There’s mud all though,” Skipper-King says.
Kids scrap the dust and a group of adult cousins banter in a small section of front yard shade while taking a rest from the clean-out effort.
“It’s bloody awesome, they’re all whanau,” Skipper-King says.
A little future down the street, Amiria Te Amo-Mitchell, 41, is with a large group of family helping clean out her 84-year-old grandfather’s house.
“My elderly grandfather and niece were evacuated 7 o’clock [Tuesday morning]. It was pretty scary the water was coming up pretty fast. The flood was about a metre and the silt was about 30cm right through the house,” Amo-Mitchell says.
“It was pretty freaky. The other side of the bridge so I was trying to get over to see if they were alright because I didn’t know where they were.
“It’s pretty devastating for the whanau around - everything’s gone.”
But Amo-Mitchell hasn’t let Cyclone Gabrielle and the massive clean-up effort totally interrupt her life.
On Monday she is set to head up to Auckland to perform in a Kapa Haka national festival.
Her community group Matangirau, consisting of 14-year-olds upwards, is set to compete and Amo-Mitchell is adamant they’ll be getting there.
“Hopefully either by vans or flying from Gizzy. Thirty-six strong team,” she says.
“We have to do it for our town.”