Community fears are growing of multiple deaths in one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Gabrielle – with coastal residents of Napier’s Bay View claiming they saw several bodies washed away by raging flood waters.
One person has been confirmed dead in Napier, with a body being found among driftwood in Bay View. Further north towards Wairoa, another person died in a landslip.
And emergency services in Auckland searching for volunteer firefighter Dave van Zwanenberg – who has been missing since a house toppled on him in Muriwai – have today discovered a body.
As search crews in Hawke’s Bay continue to try and get to people stranded by the floodwaters created by Cyclone Gabrielle, residents of Bay View and nearby Esk Valley – which had areas decimated and parts of it remaining underwater – spoke of their fears of more fatalities.
One man said a relative had seen multiple bodies floating in water near Bay View.
Another – who lives in a property on the Bay View shoreline – said other locals had told him they had seen the same thing.
Eskdale resident and former Havelock North mayor Jeff Whittaker described the devastation Cyclone Gabrielle caused throughout Esk Valley. Photo / Neil Reid
And prominent Eskdale resident, former Havelock North Borough Council councillor and mayor and one-term MP Jeff Whittaker said he had grave fears for those trapped by surging flood waters in Esk Valley.
”I can imagine there will be some people lost in there,” he told the Herald. “There could be. I know a lot of people who live up the Valley. At Esk Park there is a housing [development] up there and we have no idea what has happened up there.
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”We can’t go up there [to check]. There is no phone or communications [up there]. There could have been [a few more swept away] ... it took so long getting to [the area due to conditions].”
Hawke’s Bay was hammered by Cyclone Gabrielle from Monday night through to Tuesday morning.
After a night of wild wind and heavy rain, Whittaker was alerted to how dire the situation was out in Eskdale and Esk Valley when a Civil Defence alert was sent to his phone about 5.30am on Tuesday.
Outside it was complete darkness.
”It happened so quickly,” he said of the rising flooding.
His house is up on Esk Ridge, and when he could see over the valley below he witnessed the devastation.
”The water was up to the roof of some houses,” he said.
”It was bank to bank ... if you looked across Esk Valley, literally from side to side it was just full of water. There were no vineyards ... it was just water, just like looking out across [a bay]. That was at 7am, Tuesday.
”We could see people on top of houses waving.”
Some residents had considered heading into the flood waters on jet skis, but were warned against it by first responders, he said.
An Esk Valley, Hawke's Bay, resident is plucked to safety by Defence Force personnel in an NH90 helicopter. Photo / NZDF
As Cyclone Gabrielle hammered the area, rescue helicopters were initially grounded due to dangerous flying conditions.
But when the winds died down, many rescue flights took off, saving people from roofs and other areas where they had managed to find life-saving sanctuary.
”They airlifted one lady out of a tree yesterday afternoon,” Whittaker said.
”She was in [serious] condition, they had her in the ambulance but then they couldn’t get her to the hospital [as the roads to Hastings were closed]. They got a helicopter out to the ambulance to airlift her to the hospital in Hastings.”
Whittaker said he felt for those who had been badly impacted by the cyclone, including those who had lost property and were desperately seeking information on their loved ones.
While like the rest of Napier he is without mains power, a generator installed four years ago meant he was still able to run appliances such as a fridge.
His property on the ridge had also not been badly damaged.
”We are up above the waterline on Esk Ridge, about 100 metres up. Fortunately, we didn’t have any slips, but everyone around us did,” he said.
The wait for power will be a long one for many locals.
Estimates vary between five days to potentially weeks until full power is restored in Hawke’s Bay.
Esther Robson, Daniel Munro, River Munro, 7, and Aeris Munro, 10, wade through floodwaters in Bayview, Napier. Photo / Warren Buckland
But like other residents throughout Hawke’s Bay, Whittaker is without the means to contact loved ones.
Cellphone communications are largely out in the region. Cellphone signals are few and far between.
For the majority of the time, locals can not send texts, let alone make a phone call.
But some are striking it lucky; including at a central Napier supermarket, a hardware store that remains open and outside a business centre in Ahuriri.
Sharing the views of countless residents in the region, Whittaker said it was tough not being able to check in on loved ones living in areas cut off by flooded roads or where bridges have been washed away.
”I have family up in the Tuki Tuki Valley and we can’t communicate with them up on the farm to see how they are,” he said.
“I have family in Te Awanga and can’t communicate with them.
”We just don’t know anything.”
Earlier today, Napier mayor Kirstin Wise urged people to stay off the roads for non-urgent travel.
She said the roads had to be kept clear for emergency services.
She also said the latest information they’d received from Transpower was that electricity was “likely to be a number of days away”.
”We’re communicating with them constantly to try and get some clarity around what that means,” she said.
Meanwhile, communications were “incredibly patchy” and Wise said the primary source of information is the radio.
”Cellphone coverage and internet coverage is pretty much non-existent,” she said.
”That lack of communication is really dire and it does elevate everybody’s feelings of anxiousness.
”If I’m completely honest we’re actually feeling pretty isolated at the moment and yeah I have been discussing that with the team this morning about how we can start accessing these [state of national emergency] resources at a national level because we don’t have the resources on hand here to be able to do it alone.”
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