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The calibre of the community

Screenshot 2023 03 06 at 10.18.37 AM

Wairoa contractor Darren Hill and son Connor thought Cyclone Gabrielle had let them off lightly as they stood in the doorway of their Glengarry Place workshop enjoying the sunshine and a cuppa.

The next thing a Fulton Hogan truck roared into their yard asking for tractors to rescue people from Ruataniwha and Waihirere roads. “We didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening until we started driving there and the rising flood waters were coming halfway up the tractor engine.”

The Hills carted out around 30 people - rescuing them from roof tops and verandas. “The adrenalin was pumping; we knew what the tractors could do so we just got on with it. There wasn’t really time to think, it was just about getting people away from their flooding homes.”

Darren said the word got out and Wairoa Federated Farmers Wairoa Chairman Allan Newton turned up and started ferrying people out in his tractor and trailer. Regan Hedley, who was on his way to work in a Mana Logging Hiab truck, pivoted to saving people in wheelchairs – “Regan was up to his shoulders in water rescuing people.”

“Local Council workers Hira Campbell and Brett Craft were on their jet skis and there was an emergency response boat. Anyone we couldn’t get out by tractor or water was helicoptered out.

“It all happened really quickly, it was just about getting people out of there – and most of them were pretty stoked to see us. People were scared, we rescued one man from the kaumātua flats where he was standing on his kitchen table, it was a frightening time, especially for the elderly.”

The Hills described the rising floodwaters as a torrent. “You couldn’t see where the road was, it was so deep you just had to hope you didn’t drive into a drain or culvert. We were being told what address to go to, but we couldn’t see the house numbers as all the letterboxes were under water.”

They estimate the floodwaters rose to around two metres at Takitimu Marae and Te Rato Road.

The operation was collated by local FENZ and Search and Rescue with volunteer fire fighter Terry Thomas controlling the situation using two-way radios. “Big ups to Terry, he did so well, the situation was constantly changing, and he just rolled with it.

“There were a lot of people involved. It just shows the calibre of the community. No one questioned anything, we just all worked together and did what we needed to.”

For Darren it was deja vu as he performed the same rescue mission during Cyclone Bola in 1988 – although said this time around there was a lot more water and it came up a lot higher.

“I can still recall attending a meeting held a year after Cyclone Bola when Hawke’s Bay Regional Council said they would put a stopbank around the A and P showgrounds to stop this happening again. At the time I was playing rugby league and the showgrounds was our home ground, it’s a shame the regional council forgot about its promise - this could have been avoided.”

Once the rescue operation was complete, Darren and Connor headed back to their workshop, only to find it knee deep in flood water. Darren said he was pretty gutted as he had been storing his 92-year-old Dad’s furniture and it all had to be dumped. “Dad lives with us now and after I told him what had happened, he was pretty stoic saying ‘it is what it is’.
Over the past week or so Darren and Connor have been clearing silt, opening up driveways and generally helping out. “We know these people, we’ve grown up with them, it’s our home, it’s just what you do.”

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said while the volunteer rescuers wouldn’t want to be called heroes, that is in fact what they area.

“This group of people formed their own community-collated rescue operation and saved hundreds of Wairoa people from rising floodwaters. There are people from that impacted area of town who are elderly and vulnerable and without the actions of these few men, we could well have seen some very different and sad outcomes and even fatalities.

“Well done to you all, and on behalf of those who you rescued, thank you so much.”

Photo caption: Connor and Darren Hill drove their contracting tractor to rescue more than 30 people as flood waters rose in Wairoa.

For more information about our Cyclone Gabrielle response, click the button below.

Cyclone Gabrielle

6 March 2023

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