Four months after Cyclone Gabrielle ravaged parts of Te Ika-a-Maui, LawTalk speaks to practitioners on the ground to understand the real impact to their clients and communities as they grapple with the long term recovery.
On Tuesday 14 February 2023, a National State of Emergency was declared in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Between 12 and 14 February, the devastating power of Cyclone Gabrielle saw parts of the country recording rainfall amounts of 300 to 400mm, wind gusts of 130 to 140km/h, and waves recorded as high as 11m along some coasts.1
The cost of asset damage from both the Auckland floods earlier in the year and Cyclone Gabrielle has been estimated by the Treasury at between $9 billion and $14.5 billion.2
Across the motu, Māori communities were among some of the worst hit and were right on the frontline of the Cyclone response. As Dr Claire Charters, Professor at Auckland University School of Law, wrote, “the response of marae-based communities in many ways defined our national response to Cyclone Gabrielle. Manaakitanga, respect and care for others was placed above all else.”3
Māori communities and iwi organisations wasted no time in providing essential support and resources to those who needed it. From this catastrophic event, we have witnessed the strength and resilience of Māori shine through.
Stormie Waapu is a Senior Solicitor at Oranga Tamariki, Hastings, providing legal advice to social workers and managers. Originally from Napier and having worked as a barrister in family law and the youth court in Auckland since 2003, Stormie made the decision to move home in January to put the knowledge and skills she had gained over the years into practice for her own people.
“I had only been working here for three weeks when we were hit by the flood. Though I work in Hastings, I live in Napier. At that time I was living with whānau as we were still looking for a home for myself, my three kids and my partner.”
Aware of the warnings about Cyclone Gabrielle and of previous flooding in her mum’s area, Stormie packed bags for her family and located the evacuation centre in preparation. At around 7am the following day, they lost all power and communication.
“The first time I was able to communicate was when I went to our local Pak’nSave and they had their Wi-Fi on for people. And that’s when we were able to see the devastation that had occurred.”
Stormie’s family living in their papakāinga in Ōmāhu were at the forefront of her mind. The newly renovated house that has been in her family since the 1960s had been completely flooded.
“My aunty, uncle and cousin live in the big house, and there’s a bach in the back that my other aunty lives in… They had just moved in last year around January, and we had all been renovating that house… it looked the best it’s looked and felt the best it’s felt for me, in over a decade.
“It was probably waist-deep the water that went through… So I was just gutted, the silt wasn’t as bad as some houses but there was mud all through it.”
The majority of Stormie and her partner’s furniture and belongings that they had been storing there whilst looking for a new house were unsalvageable.
“The day I got in, we were told the local hapū had arranged for all our stuff to be collected. So it was a bit of a mad dash to just chuck everything. Unlike some places down here where they were waiting weeks, within a week all our stuff was gone. We had help from our local marae and hapū, people just throwing it into trucks.
“It was really, really tough to see our whole life laid out on the road. And because it happened so fast, any box that was completely wet just got chucked. And it’s only now that I wish I had gone through those boxes… I lost all of this whakapapa.”
Stormie reflects on the “people-power” demonstrated and the humbling way her local community and Ōmāhu marae have supported each other.
“It has brought our local community closer because the marae was open pretty much every day. People were encouraged to go eat, shower or just sit, and just be together.
“And there were just so many donations… There were people from the Sikh community who came and dropped off food, and other people were dropping off water.”
Stormie commended the Treaty settlement entity for Napier, Mana Ahuriri, for their proactiveness in providing food, water and gas bottles for members of that iwi and the wider community.
“Even where my family come from, everyone is still quite positive and upbeat. It just comes down to our resilience. Even here [at work], we’ve just all banded together, we give each other support. I know a lot of the social workers who work with families have given their time and made sure that those families are getting the help they need.”
Preparing for what is still to come
Marree Kereru is the Kaupapa Māori Lawyer at Tairāwhiti Community Law Centre, covering the geographical area of Tuai all the way to Potaka along the East Coast. Marree is also the current interim Co-Kaitakawaenga and Co-Chair of the Māori Caucus for Community Law Centres o Aotearoa.
The initial impacts of the Cyclone – being without power, internet or phone coverage, and road closures – meant the Community Law offices in Gisborne and Wairoa were closed for around two weeks and they were unable to provide legal advice remotely.
Once back up and running, Marree says, “Our Kaupapa Māori team mobilised quickly, ensuring we were across all areas of advice and support being offered to communities, so we were in a very good position to respond when we started getting Cyclone-related enquiries. We have since provided legal education to Kaumātua on Cyclone-related issues and will continue to be there to support the most vulnerable in our community.”
In those initial weeks of reopening, the centre produced communications following queries they had received around landlords continuing to charge rent and demanding payments from tenants. They also worked with people who had been displaced and were now entitled to accommodation assistance from Work and Income.
In her day-to-day work, Marree and the team run legal clinics, provide legal advocacy and legal wānanga (legal education), covering important topics across the legal spectrum, from family law through to wills, enduring powers of attorney, ACC, trusts, care of children, employment, and property. All of their services are free to members of their community who meet their criteria of not being able to afford legal advice elsewhere. The ongoing State Highway 35 road closures have prevented their Coast clinics from going ahead.
Requests from whānau and community groups to re-engage via outreach clinics has steadily grown as communications and roads are re-established.
There has been a sharp increase in employment related matters along with increased demand for wills and enduring powers of attorney over the last few weeks.
Marree explains that the need for more phone advice has been difficult for both herself and her Māori clients, who prefer kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) appointments, valuing the ability to shake hands and be in each other’s space to have that kōrero. Many clients have chosen to wait until they can travel to meet in person.
“My focus has shifted to freeing myself up in order to deal with the influx of Cyclone-related legal issues that we expect to start coming in”.
“We are well aware that many in our community are still displaced, moving silt, cleaning up and just haven’t had the time or energy yet to seek legal advice on matters.”
Adding to injustice
Whilst the effects of the Cyclone have been felt by communities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, the pre-existing issues of inequity, access to justice and other disparities for Māori have been further compounded.
Marree says it was already difficult for East Coast whānau to get to Gisborne to attend hearings because of the road conditions, and they now can’t get here at all. Ongoing issues with phone lines being down and patchy reception mean the communication avenues they relied upon to contact lawyers just aren’t there. She also noted that before the cyclone, many in her community couldn’t afford legal services that weren’t supported by legal aid. Now, many in the community are under even more financial pressure and those issues have compounded, making services like those of Community Law even more important to closing the ever growing gap of access to justice for the most vulnerable in our comunities.
Marree also notes that for Māori, justice looks different to what the Crown deems justice to look like. “From a Māori perspective justice is about the future, being able to access good mediation services where everyone’s mana is enhanced, where relationships are important and there’s a restorative process for all parties involved”.
She acknowledges the work Kiritapu Allan (Ngāti Ranginui/Ngāti Tūwharetoa) has done wearing her three ‘hats’ – member of parliament for East Coast, Minister of Justice and the regional lead minister for the cyclone recovery. “She’s been awesome,” Marree said of Minister Allan, adding her role as Minister of Justice and regional lead minister means she has a unique insight into the challenges people in Tairāwhiti are facing in the legal space.
Speaking on the flow-on effect for her own community, Stormie Waapu says, “a lot of our whānau… were already living in poverty, and now they have this additional stress, insured or uninsured.
“The local school was also decimated; they’re going to have to start again and rebuild. So that’s tamariki that are displaced and will have to go to other schools. The local kōhanga is the same.”
Resourcing the first responders
When reflecting on the response to Cyclone Gabrielle, it is clear who should be acknowledged for jumping in to provide immediate and urgent support.
“Māori have shown time and time again their strength and resilience following these events… Marae whānau went back to gathering kai to feed the multitudes, many reached into their own pantries to feed them and New Zealand saw first-hand the manaakitanga that Māori practise so well.
“Community Law recently filed submissions to the Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Bill in support of Marae/Māori organisations being recognised as first responders, for the purposes of being better resourced to respond immediately, following these national disasters,” Marree Kereru says.
Moving forward, we know further impacts of climate change and natural events are inevitable. Ensuring those resources are there and that we have the knowledge to prepare will be vital.
“Tangata Whenua are disproportionally impacted by these natural events and climate change. The Crown has an obligation to ensure it honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi by giving Māori the right to determine their own response and recovery,” Marree says.
“Māori and Indigenous people hold a lot of the answers and a lot of knowledge in relation to climate change and the environment. I really do think that governments across the world should be consulting with Indigenous peoples in relation to policies that are being created.”
Stormie Waapu explains that historically, a lot of areas where communities are being or have been created used to be wetlands. Thoughts around moving away to prevent future generations having to go through the same experience her community has, are met with financial reality.
“A lot of our families can’t afford to move homes or go and buy land up on maunga like where our ancestors used to live. There’s a lot of challenges for us to face moving forward.”
The beauty of coming together
Thinking about future responses and the current recovery period, Marree Kereru reflects on a meeting with Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier at Community Law’s Wairoa office.
“We were taken back with how caring he was in his efforts to assist during the recovery phase. I do believe that others working in spaces for cyclone recovery could take a page from his book and get out to the communities affected and sit with people and just kōrero about the assistance we need and how they can best help us, instead of assuming what we need.
“It is often during the aftermath of these events that the rest of the country gets to witness the real beauty of Māori communities, the coming together and support for each other, no matter who they are.”