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How a tornado brought a South Auckland community together

Multimedia reporter, NZ Herald

It was all over in a matter of seconds, but its effects will be remembered for a lifetime.

About 8.30am on Saturday, hundreds of Papatoetoe homes were suddenly hit with howling wind and lashing rain.

Roofing tiles and corrugated iron flew through the air, windows shattered, trees toppled, cars flipped. Had it been later in the day, dozens may have died.

But as quick as it came, the tornado was gone in about 30 seconds - leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

Tragically, the tornado's brief appearance was enough to claim the life of 41-year-old diesel mechanic Janesh Prasad.

Janesh Prasad with his wife Mala Prasad and children Ashley, 13, and Jesh, 10. Photo / Supplied
Janesh Prasad with his wife Mala Prasad and children Ashley, 13, and Jesh, 10. Photo / Supplied

The father of two had been working on a forklift at a Ports of Auckland container yard in Wiri where it is believed the tornado threw Prasad against a solid object, killing him.

The heartbreak felt by the Prasad family punctuated the overall sense of disbelief, anxiety and despair felt by hundreds of South Aucklanders who had suffered a second tornado in as many years.

Twenty-two of 251 affected properties are now uninhabitable and more than 100 people are in emergency housing. There is a round-the-clock increased police presence over fears of looting.

However, the tornado's departure brought an overwhelming tide of goodwill and generosity as residents and community groups came out in force to give essential food, water and supplies to those affected by it.

Neighbours were all too ready to help each other after the tornado. Photo / Alex Burton
Neighbours were all too ready to help each other after the tornado. Photo / Alex Burton

Community response

Dave Malcolm, 35, was reading the news on Saturday morning in his Fitzroy St home when he heard what he thought was just heavy rain.

"Then my wife screamed out to me from the lounge so I ran through and I recall seeing a piece of roofing iron flying down the road and at this point, the house started shaking," he said.

Taking shelter underneath a desk with his wife and 2-year-old son, Malcolm heard an "immensely loud noise" as the power went out and when he braved his front door, he witnessed "destruction everywhere".

Some areas of Papatoetoe looked akin to a warzone. Photo / Dean Purcell
Some areas of Papatoetoe looked akin to a warzone. Photo / Dean Purcell

Across the road from Malcolm, 36-year-old Andy Zhang even considered the possibility of an alien invasion as the tornado hit his home.

"I definitely thought I was going to die because I've never seen anything like that before."

His home has been classed uninhabitable due to extensive interior and exterior damage. Zhang, wife Kelly Huang and their two daughters are staying with family while they face an estimated six-month wait before their home could be liveable.

Property owner Andy Zhang contemplates how he will get his brick chimney off his work van. Photo / Dean Purcell
Property owner Andy Zhang contemplates how he will get his brick chimney off his work van. Photo / Dean Purcell

However, both seemed positive and were thankful for the many offers of food, blankets and help from neighbours.

"The community is doing great, we have free food, free blankets, people showing sympathy for us," Zhang said.

The Sikh community was among the first to aid Papatoetoe, delivering up to 1000 food parcels and deploying about 70 volunteers across Sunday and Monday to assist in the clean-up.

Auckland emergency management staff were onsite within hours, setting up welfare centres and information hubs.

The high winds saw this trampoline end up caught in some scaffolding. Photo / Dean Purcell
The high winds saw this trampoline end up caught in some scaffolding. Photo / Dean Purcell

However, one of the most crucial responses came from All in One Builders, which built most of its new homes in South Auckland.

After hearing about the extent of the damage, company head Sulendra Raju - more commonly known as Raj - armed his employees with tarpaulins, timber and nail guns to cover people's open roofs.

In total, Raju and his team used more than 100 tarpaulins to cover about 70 houses - at a combined cost of about $20,000 to his business.

Sulendra 'Raj' Raju moved quickly to source tarpualins to cover people's open roofs. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sulendra 'Raj' Raju moved quickly to source tarpualins to cover people's open roofs. Photo / Dean Purcell

A humble man, Raju refused to take credit and said helping others after natural disasters came naturally while growing up in Fiji.

"We just wanted to help people because back home [in Fiji], we get hurricanes and when we see a disaster like this...we just went and helped.

"That's how we live, at the end of the day, it's not all about money, it's just giving someone a roof."

'It didn't take three seconds for everything to be gone.'

Some Papatoetoe residents were lucky and escaped with superficial damage. Many were not.

About 80 per cent of Gurdeep Singh's roof was damaged, meaning his Puhinui St address was uninhabitable.

The 32-year-old truck driver has been unable to work this week thanks to the mess of branches and debris which cover his backyard from neighbouring properties' trees.

Home owner Gurdeep Singh surveys the damage from the aftermath of the deadly tornado . Photo / Dean Purcell
Home owner Gurdeep Singh surveys the damage from the aftermath of the deadly tornado . Photo / Dean Purcell

Told by his insurance company they would only pay for damages to the home, Singh was unsure if he could afford the excess and time off work for the clean up.

Don, a landlord for two homes on Fitzroy St, could only watch on Monday as clean-up crews took down a 70-year-old oak tree, planted by his mother who brought the acorn over when she emigrated from England after World War II.

"Of course it does [bring up emotions]," Don said, when asked whether it saddened him to see such history felled.

"Emotions as if somebody had been hurt."

With both properties significantly damaged, Don had rehoused his tenants but was now facing a hefty bill for repairs on the houses which he said weren't insured.

Umesh Prasad fears he may have to sell his rental property if his insurance company won't compensate for his loss in rent. Photo / Dean Purcell
Umesh Prasad fears he may have to sell his rental property if his insurance company won't compensate for his loss in rent. Photo / Dean Purcell

The walls and ceilings of Umesh Prasad's Puhinui Rd rental property of three years were sodden as rain poured through gaping holes in his roof following the tornado.

Fortunately, it was insured and the 49-year-old would be advised by his builder whether the property needed to be demolished.

In the meantime, Prasad was obviously unable to receive rent and he feared he may have to sell the property if his insurer did not compensate for the loss.

"After three years, it didn't take three seconds for everything to be gone," Prasad said.

Financial support

The Government was first to commit financial support to those affected - promising $100,000 for a relief fund. This was later doubled by Auckland Council.

Things it would fund included:

• Essential items such as food, clothing and bedding not already provided through other agencies

• Accommodation costs not already provided through other agencies

• Extra financial burden/costs due to the Papatoetoe tornado and displacement

• Family or personal crisis

• Utilities, reconnection costs and outstanding invoices.

The tornado created a mess at a Wiri container yard where a man lost his life. Photo / Dean Purcell
The tornado created a mess at a Wiri container yard where a man lost his life. Photo / Dean Purcell

Applications would be accepted until July 19, or until the fund was empty. The fund could be extended following a review on July 12.

To apply for the fund, head to the aucklandcouncil.smartygrants.com.au/AMRFweb address or call 09 301 0101.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff promised the fund would be flexible and apolitical, judged by impartial people with experience in assigning this type of funding.

Hardship was the key component in eligibility for the fund. While Goff outlined people receiving alternative financial assistance would have a lower priority, he said all applications would be considered if they demonstrated genuine hardship.

"I don't want to send the message out that if you're not insured then someone will come along and pick up all your bills, that won't happen," he said.

"But if someone, for example, didn't have their house insured and was suffering genuine hardship, we would look at that person to see how we could help."

Mayor Phil Goff (right) and Acting Minister for Emergency Management Kris Faafoi speak to media on Sunday about the tornado. Photo / Alex Burton
Mayor Phil Goff (right) and Acting Minister for Emergency Management Kris Faafoi speak to media on Sunday about the tornado. Photo / Alex Burton

Goff estimated the fund could be doubled to $400,000 if the need was there. He said the community suffered potentially tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.

On Wednesday, the Insurance Council of New Zealand confirmed some people had been approached by scammers claiming to be sent from insurance companies to gain access to their properties.

A police spokesperson said no burglary reports had been made as at Thursday and an increased police presence was still in place, to be regularly reviewed.

Goff sent a clear message to anyone furthering the problems of those hit by the tornado.

"[There's] zero tolerance of low life people who would take advantage of somebody else's misery."

Goff applauded those who rushed to help the people of Papatoetoe, while offering his sympathies to Janesh Prasad's family and all those still recovering.