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'It is really rough up there': PM Chris Hipkins on the task ahead

Feb 17, 2023

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has provided an update on the government's response to Cyclone Gabrielle, after today visiting areas devastated by the storm.

Hipkins visited Napier, Esk Valley and other areas of Hawke's Bay today with Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty, MP for Napier Stuart Nash and MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti Meka Whaitiri.

"To put it really simply, it is really rough up there. There is still no power in Napier but every effort is being made to restore it as soon as possible."

He said he saw trapped floodwaters with nowhere to go "making new lakes out of farmland and settling to destroy orchards and crops".

The prime minister said there was still a huge way to go in response, with some small communities still cut off and isolated. He said food and other supplies were making their way in through road and sea, and connectivity was returning - better in some areas than others.

"I saw first-hand today though just how much Cyclone Gabrielle is going to affect the whole country. We do need to prepare ourselves for the fact that it's going to disrupt some parts of our food supply."

He hammered home just how long New Zealand will be dealing with the effects of the cyclone.

"We now know that eight people has lost their lives as a result of the cyclone and out emergency services continue to hold grave fears for others."

Hipkins said the government needed to focus on prioritisation.

"That doesn't mean we are not going to do things, it means we are having to carefully think about where we deploy resources and what order we deploy them in so we can get to the most urgent needs first."

He said that was essential in any emergency response.

Speaking to media earlier this afternoon, he said there was is no question Cyclone Gabrielle is a "major catastrophic event".

Before heading back to Wellington, Hipkins told reporters in the area it was one thing to see the effects of the storm in photos and video, but seeing the true extent up close and hearing from people whose lives have been turned upside down "makes it very, very real".

"There is no question this is a major catastrophic event, and it is going to take us some time to get through this immediate emergency response phase - some parts are going to get through the emergency response faster than others," he said.

"This is undoubtedly the biggest natural disaster that we've seen probably this century. The scale of the damage is considerable: because it covers such a large geographical area we know that it's going to take some time to really get a handle on exactly the extent of the damage and how long it's going to take to fix that damage.

"We've got the Navy here, we've got two naval ships on the coast at the moment, we have the potential to get them doing return trips, we've got the potential to add more to that. The Air Force are doing a lot, support as well - you would have heard helicopters buzzing over while we've been here - a real focus just on getting people and things where they're needed.

"We will bring in Hercules, we will do whatever we need to do in order to make sure we're getting people in the right place and things in the right place."

Priorities in Napier

In Napier, the priorities were clear: power, communications, finding places for those who had been displaced, restoring transport links and of course reaching those remote communities who were still isolated.

"Even with a big group of people and there are a lot of people out there at the moment, you can't get to everybody at the same time so we are getting to people as fast as we can," Hipkins said.

"They are working around the clock, we're flying people in, we're flying crews in, we're flying equipment in, we're getting everything here but I can't provide guarantees in terms of what the timing is there."

He said there were two big challenges in getting electricity to Napier: restoring the transmission lines, and secondly getting the local network - damaged by wind as well as water - activated again.

"The longer the power is out, the longer the communication is out, the more the pressure grows. I absolutely felt that today on the ground and all I can say is everyone is going as fast as they can to try and get things reconnected."

He said telecommunications was better in Napier than some other areas. Work was progressing on reconnection, and creative solutions were being found including delivering flyers of information to isolated areas.

"My message to people who just want to know what's going on at the moment the best port of call if you're cut off - so if you don't have cellphone coverage, you don't have power - [is] if you can find an AM/FM radio."

He said he understood people were frustrated that the roads were being prioritised in some cases, but they needed to be kept available for critical supply lines.

"It's for a reason," he said. "It's because we're trying to get supplies to where they need to be. There are tankers coming with more fuel, there are refrigerated trucks coming with more supplies for the supermarket and so on. So, we are working really hard to make sure we can get that stuff through."

Warning against misinformation

The official death toll from the cyclone now stands at eight.

Hipkins said people need to be prepared that there will be more deaths, but at this stage, he is not aware of anymore others that have not already been reported.

Response turns towards recovery

He said with the response still going on in many places, now was not the time to be retreading the initial response.

"There'll be time to have a look at those early hours in due course, what I do know is local teams have been working absolutely around the clock - to try and provide people with rescue, to provide them with food and shelter, to deal with the basic necessities of life - for several days now and the reality is there's probably several days more to go in some areas in terms of the work they've got ahead of them.

"In any event like this there will always be lessons to be learned, in reality though right now the focus has to be on making sure that we are providing the immediate support that people are looking for."

As some areas look towards the recovery phase however, there will be difficult questions being asked about what to do for those who have been displaced.

Hipkins said there would not be a single answer for all those people.

"Some people will be able to return to their homes once they're given the all clear to do so. Some of those homes might have only been moderately damaged or not damaged at all ... on the other hand there are people who have lost everything. They have lost their homes, they have lost everything that they had.

"We will make sure that we're supporting them through."

It would be complicated, however.

"That's a complex picture because you've got to deal with insurance, you've got to deal with government support - it's a puzzle that will need to be assembled, we will work with them to make sure that we're assembling that puzzle though."

Main image (RNZ/Tess Brunton): Prime Minister Chris Hipkins visited the Hawke's Bay Emergency Coordination Centre in Hastings on 17 February.

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