If you’re sitting on your chuff while the rest of your world is being hit by the worst disaster in 92 years, and you’re inside with a hot coffee when others have no electricity or water, it’s not hard to think you should be out there with a shovel.
Morning radio hosts Adam and Megan, of NZME’s The Hits Hawke’s Bay, felt such pangs of helplessness, but when all they’d said was done, they realised they were part of the wheel, on a task as important as almost any other.
When Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked its havoc in Hawke’s Bay on the Tuesday of February 14 last year, Adam Green and Megan Banks became a lifeline for thousands of listeners in the region, many of whom had little other way of knowing what was going on.
No electricity, no phones, no internet, and sometimes no practical way of touching base with family, friends, and even close neighbours.
In what seemed like a throw-back to a bygone era of broadcasting they became the crucial link between Civil Defence Emergency Management and the community as lives were being lost, hundreds of homes and livelihoods were being destroyed, and their regular 6-9am stint expanded to a 6am-4pm run as the station went 24/7 for several days broadcasting the crucial messages.
Adam and Megan, or Megan and Adam, in studio reflecting on the day all hell broke loose in Hawke's Bay a year ago. Photo / Paul Taylor
They reflect, after a recent back-to-normal breakfast show with the weather outside a more genuine Hawke’s Bay summer, that they started with little idea who or how many were listening or were even able to.
Practically all of Napier was without electricity for days, until a Friday night flickering of lights amid the memorable clapping and hooting that broke out in some streets.
The Tutaekuri River Bridge on the Hawke's Bay Expressway during the cyclone vs what it looks like on a normal day. Photo / Paul Taylor
Their station’s diesel-driven generator kicked in when power cut soon after 7.30am on Tuesday, February 14, enough to keep the station operating, and in the outside world there were others also fortunate enough to have generators so long as the fuel held out.
But most relied on candlelight or gas cookers, kept phone and radio use to a minimum to conserve battery power, if they even had reception, or ran outside on the hour for news bulletin updates on the car radio.
The role Adam and Megan played was “brought home” in being able to relay to emergency services the plight of one woman as she was trapped on a rooftop, unable to get phone reception to call, but able to text-message her location to the radio hosts.
“There were lots of calls, and messages, but this was different,” Megan says. The woman was rescued and later thanked the morning crew.
“But there were a lot asking why we were weren’t telling them that the Waitangi Bridge [State Highway 51 near Awatoto] had collapsed, or about the hundreds of people who were missing,” says Megan, noting that, while they didn’t know for sure at the time, the bridge had not collapsed, cars hadn’t been tossed into the river, and there were not hundreds swept away in torrents or slips.
It was stressful, in the interests of responsible broadcasting, making the calls on what to air and what not to air, unless it was verified.
But they were also ordinary Napier people, but who had gone to work with no idea of what was ahead.
“I was driving in from Taradale and thinking we’ve survived the cyclone if that was all it was - a few trees down, a bit of surface flooding,” said Megan.
It was about 5am but sunrise (6.37am) brought a social media surge with images and news of the reality around the outskirts of Napier, rural areas and communities Eskdale, Rissington, Puketapu, Dartmoor, Eskdale, Waiohiki, Pakowhai, Awatoto and more distant parts of Hawke’s Bay.
Megan worried about her mum in Links Rd, unable to make contact but having to keep working, while she was being rescued.
“We didn’t know what was going on, whether she was still alive, we didn’t know,” she said.
“We were trying to build a picture of what was really going on,” Adam says, recalling wondering how long they could remain on air in the increasingly crucial circumstances, knowing there was only limited fuel left for the generator.
“It was really getting pretty desperate,” he says. “So we put a call out on air for diesel. People started just turning up with cans, and then we were contacted by a guy who had been on [diesel] deliveries in Napier. He was stuck in Napier, he wasn’t going anywhere, but he had drums of diesel on the truck.”
Roof rescues took place across multiple parts of Hawke's Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle - Adam and Megan helped facilitate one who texted into their show while on a roof.
That one contact became the source for fuel for many, including some of the services’ needs, but also highlights some of the roles behind the scenes.
As Adam and Megan wondered whether anything they were saying could be heard by anyone, veteran technician Duncan Pimm, who goes back to the days of the NZBC and radio 2ZC in the 1970s, was the man who had to get the transmitters sorted, with one site, at Pākōwhai, destroyed, and another, at Mt Threave, inaccessible.
Some of the stations were thrown off air, and Adam and Megan were switched frequencies, Pimm saying word of mouth got around and people found which frequencies to turn to.
“In times [like this],” he said, “you have to use the power of the people. Adam and Megan did that really well.”
Doug Laing is a senior reporter based in Napier with Hawke’s Bay Today, and has 50 years of journalism experience in news gathering, including breaking news, sports, local events, issues, and personalities.
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