One month on from the Whakaari/White Island eruption the thoughts of Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner often turn to those who lost their lives while locals in the coastal town say it is busy but not as vibrant and jolly as usual. Katee Shanks reports.
The Eastern Bay has experienced its fair share of natural disasters.
Flooding and debris flows have left their mark but the events of December 9, when Whakaari/White Island erupted taking lives and inflicting horrendous wounds, will be imprinted in the region's history forever.
The eruption left a community reeling and, for many, the grief remains. But from disaster comes resilience and the Eastern Bay has that in spades.
One month on from the Whakaari/White Island eruption the thoughts of Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner often turn to those who lost their lives.
Especially locals Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi, both White Island Tours guides who died as heroes, helping visitors on the volcano with water and gas masks in the moments after the eruption.
"I think about them and I think about their families and how things have changed," Turner said. "Also not ever far from my thoughts are the people who were on the island and who are now recovering in hospitals both in New Zealand and overseas."
Turner said it was perhaps a blessing the Christmas/New Year period followed closely after the eruption as it allowed locals to be with their loved ones while reflecting on how many families would never be the same again after December 9.
"At this stage, we are in the process of establishing an independent panel to manage our share of the $5 million given to us and to Westland for business recovery. The panel will also set the criteria and process the applications that come in."
She said the fund allowed positive opportunity to regain lost financial ground for some local businesses.
Admitting uncertainty still surrounded the future of tours on Whakaari/White Island, Turner said she didn't believe complacency had crept in regarding taking people to an active volcano prior to the eruption.
"For 30 years we have taken groups out to the island without incident, I've been out there myself and I was highly impressed with the procedures that were followed. But I think the events of December 9 will make us double-check ourselves around adventure tourism.
"It has been acknowledged we will need some sort of national tribute to those who lost their lives and Ngāti Awa are very keen to lead that. I have also been contacted by people wanting to acknowledge the number of people who acted particularly outstandingly on the day and that's definitely going to happen.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again, Ngāti Awa were outstanding supporters of our community during this entire process. I am personally very grateful for the way they led the grief process in a way that was very helpful.
"The overseas visitors said they often didn't understand a word that was being spoken at the marae gatherings – but they got it."
Turner said she was also chuffed about the respect people gave the rāhui.
"Going forward, I think that because of what we've been through with other disasters, with Edgecumbe and the like, we have developed quite a higher-than-most-communities, level of resilience. We have learned the ability to bounce back."
Ngāti Awa tohunga (learned person) Pouroto Ngaropo said the Eastern Bay was a community still in mourning but agreed the town would get through it together.
"Since the eruption, I believe there has been a huge emotional impact on our community," Ngaropo said.
"Something like this has never happened to our town before and we are still reeling while under the spotlight of the world."
Ngaropo said there were many people still trying to come to terms with what had happened and were still healing.
"People are still confused about what happened and why. There is still a lot of pain and emotional trauma lingering.
"There is also disharmony within the town. Disharmony over the 17 dead and two who have not yet been found and also disharmony about the most recent drowning. People are wondering what is going on and why.
"To this I say give it time. Continue to mourn and reflect.
"Whakatāne is a strong town and now is a time to lean on others or let others lean on you. Together we will get through this."
On Whakatāne's streets yesterday, residents were reflective but hopeful.
Sue Drower said that for about a month it was very eerie, quiet and silent.
"People didn't make a lot of noise," she said.
"Now, I find it's a little bit picking up. People are open to speaking about it. I notice they are still going and putting flowers down there so the thoughts are still with them, with the people missing still. It's still like we haven't got that closure yet.
"It's revitalising itself but it has been quiet."
"I think there's still a bit of stunnedness. It's not as vibrant and jolly as it was but the town is still as busy as it is [normally] at this time of year."
Roy Mann said he felt many people were still stunned, as the town was not as vibrant and jolly as it usually was at summer.
Trevor Mills also noticed the town had been a lot quieter than typical summers and the death of a swimmer in Whakatāne on Tuesday compounded that.
"It's been ... a lot more sombre, given the tragedy that happened [Tuesday] at the river mouth, it's not a nice thing to have to happen.
"It's just not as it was."
Linda Taylor said although people had been grieving, they were now finding their way back "to some semblance of normality".
Whakatāne District Council tourism and events team leader Nicola Burgess, said it was very difficult to measure economic impact as a result of the eruption "at this stage".
"However this is our priority and as soon as we have access to data [we rely on Government statistics] we will collate that information as soon as we can," Burgess said.
"We do know that 80 per cent of our tourism market is domestic – people coming to holiday at Ōhope Beach, and we don't expect that to be impacted."
Burgess said the peak international visitor season was February-March so there would be a clearer picture following those months.
"For the future, we will be looking at new products and ways of marketing ourselves as an attractive destination."
Diveworks Charters Fishing and Diving owner Phil van Dusschoten said the visitors coming to Whakatāne were upbeat but also curious about Whakaari/White Island.
"If they can see White [Island] when we go out they ask if that is the volcano and also how close we will be getting to it," van Dusschoten said. "But it is great to see many of the people who had pre-booked with White Island Tours still are coming to Whakatāne and finding other things to do.
"This morning I had a group from Australia who were in that category."
Gibbos Fresh Fish co-owner Nicole Gibbons said, as a community, Whakatāne was still in mourning.
"I believe for a lot of people, sadness still remains and the most recent [water death] has perhaps bought those feelings to the fore again."