20 FEB 2023
PM Chris Hipkins to give update on economic support, national state of emergency. Video / NZ Herald
They were 10 days without power and seven days trapped, yet the remote valley community knew others had it worse and help would eventually arrive.
At least here, in an almost forgotten corner of Northland,
everybody was alive and well even if the landscape was scarred with enormous slips that had swept away trees, blocked rivers and roads and cut them off from society.
For the dozen or so homes on Takitu Rd, a satellite connection or functioning road is needed to reach the outside world and those links have been less than certain for more than a week.
The power went out Saturday a week ago. The night Cyclone Gabrielle struck – Monday – saw the slips come. Like other isolated valleys in Northland, this one is only just reconnecting with the outside world.
The Herald walked up Takitu Rd to find those cut off from the world and discovered a community in robust spirit that had worked together to overcome the challenges they could.
The one-way bridge leading into the valley was standing but a huge slip on the northern side meant vehicle traffic was impossible.
On foot, beyond a few corners and a decent rise, was the home of John and Linda Alloway. “We’ve got no power and we can’t get out,” she said. “Last Sunday the road came down and we’ve been stuck ever since.”
As we visited, a helicopter dropped off Northpower lines staff atop a clearing next to the Alloways’ long driveway, touching down in a freshly-mown circle marked with red spray paint.
“We knew sooner or later a helicopter was going to come over and need a place to land,” she said. The first visitors arrived by helicopter on Saturday – Civil Defence staff checking to see if people were okay.
When John Alloway told his wife the power was coming back on, Linda gave a “whoop” and started talking about a hot shower and a cold fridge.
It was a hint of normality after a surreal 10 days. And as further visits were made to neighhours up the valley, word was spreading of the possibility of a temporary road out through forestry blocks to the North of the valley.
“It was like a train all night long,” said Linda Alloway of the storm. The wind blasted one way then another, “whipping around like a mini tornado”. “It was a whole year worth of rain,” she said when told a nearby neighbour measured 373mm of rain between Sunday evening and Tuesday.
That was Valentine’s Day. The Alloways rose, had a special breakfast, then greeted neighbours visiting to check they were okay.
“There was no way out and that’s when it started hitting home.”
Wednesday saw John Alloway and a neighbour load up a wheelbarrow with fuel containers and push it down the road in the hope of finding someone who could get them to a petrol station. That was an all-day job but it kept the generators and chainsaws going – and there were a lot of trees to cut to clear roads.
And last night they hosted a neighbourhood barbecue – daily bursts of generator power with precious fuel was only going to keep the meat edible for so long.
Up the valley neighbours were touching base, swapping stories and seeing if anyone needed help.
“Everyone has been helping each other,” said Denyse Daniels, who works at Countdown in Dargaville. There was no way to get to work this week and if the forestry route does open she faces a two-hour commute.
“I’ve lost my job,” said Les Vincent, who lives further up the valley. “I was doing kumara and they’re all under water now.”
His return to the valley was harrowing. Last Monday he was heading back through heavy rain, facing the prospect of forging through ever-deeper floods across roads.
Feeling lucky to have made it through one he was confronted with a road that completely disappeared, so deep a stock truck that braved it had water washing across the bottom of the trailer.
He reversed up a driveway and spent the night there, returning to Dargaville at dawn. It was Wednesday morning before he walked up the driveway at home and wife Marliese Vincent burst into tears at the sight of him.
By then, a message had been passed to say he was safe but seeing him return to their battered valley brought an overwhelming rush of emotion. Since then, she said, it’s been impossible to let him go anywhere alone.
“I feel like we’re still in survival mode,” she said. A friend who visited the outside world the other day had to stop and sit, she was shaking so hard.
If there’s a common theme through the valley – aside from neighbourly decency – it’s anger and frustration with forestry.
Leftover over logs – known as slash – choke the rivers and create dams. There were forestry roads without silt traps to stop water undercutting hillsides. Shallow-rooted pines in soil on bedrock slid easily once water worked under the trees, causing cascading chaos downhill.
The impact of the storm could be seen across the pine plantation. Young trees twisted and whipped by wind, older trees snapped mid-trunk, old trees not felled from earlier forests fallen across roads and powerlines.
While Takitu Rd remains cut off, the roads leading to it have only just been cleared. The road leading to the valley was cleared on Sunday where Neal King and daughter Stacey were still trying to comprehend the scale of the damage to their property.
Huge slumps created yawning cracks in the hillside, some three times the height of a person. After 20 years on this land, Neal King can point across the river at the shape of the landscape to where previous storms have brought down the hillside many decades before.
“Everything is sitting on top of bedrock and it’s sliding off. This slip,” he says, pointing at the collapsing hill, “is what our barn is built on.” Above the collapsing hillside is the converted half-round in which they live.
“It’s our home. We got absolutely bloody hammered. What do you do? Give up?”