Hawke’s Bay Today photographers Warren Buckland and Paul Taylor drove into the unknown on the morning of February 14, not realising they would find themselves surrounded by furious flooding and history. This is their story, as written by Warren.
In the days leading up to Cyclone Gabrielle we asked ourselves - are we prepared for a significant event?
But what does ‘significant’ actually mean? We didn’t really grasp the meaning of the word before Gabrielle.
Another fizzer, Paul thought. Judging from past experience, I agreed.
It was only when darkness faded into the light of the morning that we realised: this is real.
I awoke to strong winds and heavy rain battering the Havelock North house of my wife and I.
When our biggest tree hit the house I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this storm is going to be big’.
I had made plans with editor Chris Hyde to head out early in the dark to check on Te Awanga, as we had interviewed a Clifton camper a couple of days before about preparations for the storm coming.
But I didn’t make it to Clifton - the approach to the bridge at Te Awanga was under metres of water.
Paul was sleeping in his Hastings campervan and was rocked awake by the increasing ferocity of the wind and rain.
About 6.30am he thought he would go get some breakfast when he got a tip that Links Rd near Taradale was flooded and evacuations were underway.
He raced out in a company car through Pākōwhai, which would be underwater in a matter of hours.
“It’s bizarre thinking about it now,” Paul says.
“I drove over Chesterhope bridge - no flooding around Pākōwhai - and got to the chocolate factory on Links Road and, wow.”
Immediately Paul could see a car floating in the middle of a raging torrent coming down the road.
The orchard beside the chocolate factory was underwater. He could see rescue workers in IRBs and cops doing their thing. He picked up his camera.
Communications were still working and he rang Chris to describe the scene while sending through photos that would make the front page of the next day’s NZ Herald. There would be no Hawke’s Bay Today that day.
Leaving Te Awanga, I headed for Napier but the road was closed between Clive and Awatoto - more flooding.
Around through Pākōwhai was the best chance, I thought. The Ngāruroro and Tūtaekuri Rivers were very high but I was able to get through and made it over the Expressway bridge.
The bridge shook and groaned as massive trees and other debris were caught up against the structure.
Water was only centimetres below the top.
People were gathering on the stopbank talking quietly, looking at the scene.
I stood beside a policeman as we watched a series of massive trees smash into the bridge.
“Have you thought about closing the bridge?” I asked.
As Paul took photographs he was aware the water was gradually rising and inundating the Silky Oaks chocolate factory.
One of the policemen on the scene came up to him and said, “Mate, we’ve got to get out of here now or we’re going to get trapped”.
As Paul drove the company Yaris down Links Rd he was surprised that he could no longer see the Expressway and Links Rd roundabout - it was now underwater. He was trapped.
He abandoned the car at the highest point he could find and caught a ride on the back of a truck with about 20 rescued residents.
The truck stopped at the bridge. Thinking about the weight of the truck, and the height of the water around the bridge, Paul decided to get off and look for other transport.
He took pictures of the truck crossing the bridge and thumbed a lift with a lighter four-wheel drive.
“The water was lapping the bridge and it was freaky. Crossing that river it was so scary. We drove in silence.”
About that time, I had made my way to Otatara Rd, where I was told by a resident that flood water was flowing through EIT.
As I walked closer to EIT the water got higher and I photographed a Lowther Pl resident whose home had been flooded.
I felt a surreal airy calmness wading through the almost waist-deep muddy warm water.
It seemed like time was moving slowly.
People seemed to display a strange mix of being and slightly dazed and quietly happy.
There were no birds chirping - it was deathly quiet.
Pushing against the torrent of rushing water I got to EIT and started documenting things.
There was already a distinct foul odour you notice when there is a flood - wet, mouldy and muddy.
The strangest scene of the day that I saw was teenagers running full speed into the flood water with boogie boards in front of the admin block.
It felt like I was in a strange sort of movie.
My aim was to get to where the water was flowing from - that felt like the place where money shots would be.
As I walked around buildings and got closer to the Redclyffe Bridge I noticed several policemen guarding the area.
One shouted to me to get out.
I said I only wanted to take a few quick pictures and told him that it was a historic event, but they weren’t joking around.
“If you don’t move I will arrest you,” he told me.
I was only metres from the bridge but I had to turn around and take a walk of shame down Gloucester St in the direction of Taradale shopping centre, shadowed by a determined and cautious officer.
Paul, meanwhile, stood on the Taradale side of the Tutaekuri expressway bridge, expecting it to collapse, also surrounded by police.
He heard on one of their scanners that a stopbank was about to go, and that Taradale needed to be evacuated.
He made the call to leave the bridge to photograph the evacuations and thumbed a lift with a bystander.
That would be the rest of his day - carless, thumbing lifts, photographing whatever people would let him see.
By the end of the day, both of us were trapped inside powerless Napier, all bridges closed, away from our homes and families.
We relied on the generosity of friends for accommodation and then woke up the next day to do it all again.
That was our life for roughly two weeks.
In my long career, I don’t remember photographing any weather event this bizarre, alarming or terrifying.
But the thing that impressed me the most, from almost everyone, was people’s unwaveringly positive attitude towards their fellow flood victims.
They seemed to not be defined by their part in the story - whether it was victim or helper - everyone just seemed to care more about others’ plight than their own.
It was a truly humbling experience.
Warren Buckland is the chief photographer for Hawke’s Bay Today. He and fellow visual journalist Paul Taylor have more than 50 years experience in the industry between them.