Lottie Hedley

The year of silt

Twelve months on from Cyclone Gabrielle, many people are still fighting to return home. On February 14, 2023, floodwaters filled their houses with mud and destroyed possessions, memories, and livelihoods. Survivors were left virtually on their own to tackle the massive clean-up job—until a network of volunteers began digging out houses and supporting them through the trauma, forging unexpected connections along the way.

Written by       Photographed by Lottie Hedley

When the water came, just after 9am, John and Linda Hogan were standing on the deck of their house in Pakowhai, a fertile corridor between the Tūtaekurī and Ngaruroro rivers. They looked to their right and saw a previously non-existent river roaring through the truffle trees. Straight ahead, a wall of brown water was surging at them across the paddock.

John, 69, ran to alert their son, who lived in the larger family home at the front of the property with his wife and their two small boys, aged five and three. Meanwhile, Linda, who needs a cane to walk, grabbed the passports, her meds and her smokes. By the time John returned to get her, the water was up to their knees.

The whole family sheltered briefly at the neighbours’ place, but the water kept on rising. So they set out in two vehicles for a cottage on higher ground at the end of the road. To get there, they had to drive through a big dip in the shingle driveway that had filled up like a bathtub. The car carrying Linda, her son, her daughter-in-law and the kids made it through okay, Linda doing her best to convince the boys they were on a great adventure.

But John’s ute stalled deep in the dip. The water was halfway up his window, and his door wouldn’t open, and Linda was sure she’d lost him. Then John, by now numb, turned the key one more time and somehow the ute started; he put it in first gear and gunned it out of there. The family waited in the cottage with some neighbours, watching dead sheep and machinery drift by, until they were choppered to safety around 7pm.

John and Linda Hogan in the shell of their memory-filled family home in Pakowhai, near Hastings. “My poor whare,” Linda sighs on one visit—she still finds it hard to go inside. They are rebuilding the home for their son, daughter-in-law and small grandsons, who play “flood games” with their toys.

When John and Linda returned to their home the next day, they found it had been violated by a strange and arbitrary force. The water had blasted into their bedroom, smashing the furniture to splinters. In the spare bedroom, the mattress had floated towards the ceiling, the linens still dry and their cat perched on top, physically fine but borderline psychotic. The living room was piled high with apples, onions and pumpkins. Four bookcases of Linda’s beloved novels were destroyed, and fridges and freezers had floated away—but in the corner of the garage, they found the ashes of John’s brother-in-law (which they had been planning to scatter that weekend) intact in their boxes with his gold watch still sitting on top. And everywhere they looked, there was silt—clotted and slick, the colour of liquid shit. It suctioned their gumboots off as they walked; when they tried to pull furniture from the mire, the silt sucked it back again.

John and Linda couldn’t stand to be there—especially not in the family home where they’d hosted 31 big, boisterous Christmases and farewelled dead loved ones in the front room.

They’d lost nearly everything they owned. Linda’s 42 rose bushes—old, fragrant, irreplaceable varieties—had been obliterated. The birds, once riotous in the fruit trees, had vanished; instead, for months, John and Linda heard the floodwaters roaring in their heads.

John tried to make a start on cleaning up but, though he’d always been a hard worker, a hands-on guy who’d run his own businesses, he just couldn’t focus. Linda, who suffers from a degenerating spine and diabetes, got septicaemia from the floodwater and nearly died. “We were both not far from going over the brink,” Linda says.

Then, one day in March, a group of people in work gear walked down what was left of their driveway. “Can we help you?” asked one, a woman with dark hair cut short on the sides and wavy on top. Without waiting for an answer, she enveloped John in a hug. He was a little taken aback—“I’d never met her. I didn’t know if I should be hugging her,” he says. “But I really needed that hug, and she knew that.” The woman’s name was Peni Edwards, and she belonged to a volunteer group called River of Silt. They dug the silt out of both houses, levelled the driveway, and cleared more silt and debris from the grounds. When they managed to save a single grapevine from the many that once flourished along the shed wall, Linda burst into tears, overwhelmed by their kindness.

Kath Rodgers (left) and Sophie Connolly in the “coffins”—the narrow entry points the team creates in order to get under the floor. Other crew members are crawling on their stomachs beneath the floorboards and pushing silt towards the coffins with rakes. Once Sophie and Kath have filled the wheelbarrows, Alex “Moose” Connolly deposits the silt outside.

It was after the group’s first visit that John and Linda found they were able to return to their home, briefly at first, then a little longer each time. It helped to have someone else battle the muck and deal with its triggering, unwanted gifts—the children’s toys, the dead birds. And, somehow, having a group of complete strangers cheerfully crawl under your floorboards while blasting Rick Astley on a big Bluetooth speaker dislodged a tiny piece of the weight of what had happened. “That was the first time we felt a little bit of hope,” John says.

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Gabrielle was the costliest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. In Hawke’s Bay alone, it unleashed 12 million cubic metres of silt, caused billions of dollars of damage, displaced thousands of people and claimed 8 of the cyclone’s total 11 fatalities. And as soon as power and cellphone services began to return, an extraordinary volunteer ecosystem sprang to life. People offered spare rooms in their homes via Facebook and sorted mountains of donated goods, and marae transformed instantly into de facto Civil Defence hubs.

Next came the food teams, whose organisers included restaurants, the Sikh community, and Neela Neela, who’d moved to New Zealand from Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. At first she bought the ingredients herself and cooked in her garage, but then random ladies started arriving at her house asking to help, and soon Neela Neela was producing up to a thousand pad thai and stir-fries a day, distributed around the region by volunteer drivers. A laundry network washed the silt-sodden clothes of displaced families, returning them with handwritten notes. That first weekend, so many people were roaming hard-hit areas, offering assistance, that every Bunnings, Mitre 10 and shoe store in Hastings and Napier sold out of gumboots, except in sizes for small children or very large men.

On February 22, a woman named Zeb Jackson rocked up in an orange house-bus. Zeb (Ngāti Konohi) had acquired a large Facebook following the previous year livestreaming dispatches from the Parliament protest. She’d driven a circuitous route from Waihi, collecting donations of food and useful implements along the way—spades, rakes, gloves, waterblasters. She’d also flicked a note to a friend in Hastings, Peni Edwards, and with a few others they put together an impressive clean-up operation. Zeb would post that day’s work site on Facebook, and 70 or 80 people would show up to dig silt from homes and haul out piles of belongings. Donations allowed them to hire diggers, tip trucks and Portaloos; lunches were provided by the food teams.

Paul McKinley’s home and former apple orchard in the Esk Valley is hemmed in by mountains of silt piled up by the council’s clean-up taskforce. This is only a fraction of the nearly 1.5 million cubic metres of silt the taskforce has collected so far, with another 1.3 million cubic metres left. These particular piles were meant to have been removed by now, but the taskforce’s work has been interrupted several times when it has run out of money. It recently received another $10 million from the new government; officials have requested $60 million to complete the work.
Post and wire pulled out of Paul McKinley’s Esk Valley orchard.

Unlike the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which destroyed large swathes of the city, the damage from Gabrielle was intensely concentrated in a handful of communities on the outskirts of Hastings and Napier. Within a few weeks, the main urban areas had essentially returned to normal, while places like Esk Valley, Pakowhai, Omahu, Waiohiki, Puketapu, Rissington, Dartmoor and Pōrangahau remained little apocalyptic pockets, easily bypassed by those who preferred to avoid the mess. So it wasn’t surprising when, about five weeks in, the outpouring of volunteers began to ebb. (As one organiser observed, locals “wanted their weekends back”.) By then, the Defence Force was gone. After Zeb finally had to leave in April, her clean-up crew split into two groups. Peni Edwards became the coordinator of the smaller one, which named itself River of Silt, or ROS for short.

In early November, I met Peni at the Hogans’ house. I’d asked if I could dig in with the team, and she greeted me with a proper hug and a cheery “Mōrena!” Peni (Te Āti Awa) has a warm, throaty voice and the kind of enthusiasm that carries other people along with her. As coordinator, she liaises with owners, wields a shovel with gusto and wriggles under houses. Since she won’t wear a mask underground unless she absolutely has to, she’s come home more than once with silt stuck between her teeth.

Peni Edwards, a former support worker for the disabled, is now a full-time volunteer with River of Silt. She can tell you all about the people they’ve helped—not only what happened to them on February 14, although she knows those stories too, but their lives before the cyclone hit and the history of their land and homes.

Inside, Peni makes the introductions. Project manager TJ drove up from Wellington right after the cyclone, intending to stay a few weeks. Hilda Meier, a German grandmother, does massage therapy and healing. I am unable to meet Dan Rodgers at this particular moment because he is under the house, though I can see a bare foot protruding from the sludge, and I subsequently learn that he is a retiree from Pukekohe who doesn’t like wearing shoes. His wife, Kath, short and skinny with a springy mop of hair, is vigorously heaving the silt Dan has amassed into a wheelbarrow, assisted by her friend Glenys Webster, also from Pukekohe.

This is the fourth time Kath has joined the crew and the second visit for Dan, and both are in their 70s. “Our repeat offenders!” Peni beams. The loaded wheelbarrow is collected by a pallid, burly, bearded guy everyone calls Moose (real name Alex). Moose and Sophie Connolly are young newlyweds: they married two days before the cyclone, drove up from Levin to help, went on their honeymoon and came back. (There are two more you’ll meet later: Carol Wright, who is on holiday, and Jaxon Taunoa, the crew’s silent workhorse, currently invisible under the floorboards.)

Moose deposits another heavy load of silt outside a Pakowhai home on a hot Hawke’s Bay day.
By December 2023, the remaining silt under homes had become host to plant life and super-sized worms. This house was a comparatively easy job for the team: a fully removed floor, no mouldy insulation to remove, and silt dried into huge bricks that could be thrown into the wheelbarrows.

By now, the Hogans’ house has had the silt removed from inside, the GIB stripped to the waterline, and all the insulation, lining and carpets torn out. Today’s task is to remove the silt from below the floor so the house can be re-insulated. (If the silt is left there, it gets damp when it’s rainy and dusty when it’s dry.) It would be easiest to pull up the whole floor, but since the goal is to inflict minimal damage on the home, TJ cuts several access holes, revealing a second floor made of silt and cracked like crazy paving. TJ and Jaxon do most of the underground work, crawling on their stomachs and pushing silt towards the holes with their arms and legs, or performing complicated snow-angel manoeuvres with a rake. The others transfer the silt from the holes to the wheelbarrows with spades and by hand. It’s sweaty, strenuous work, but it was worse before the silt solidified. (“Like shovelling diarrhoea” is the most memorable description.) By now, Peni is a connoisseur of the silt’s geographical variations: in Pakowhai, it has congealed into bricks, like moist clay; in Omahu, it’s sticky mud; in Esk Valley, it floats through your fingers like fine sand.

What I’m most struck by is how many people still need help with the silt, 10 months after the storm. A visiting neighbour mentions that his place was cleared by a rugby club from Taihape, seasonal workers sent by their employer for the day, and “some dude in a Destiny Church T-shirt” (part of a large contingent from Man Up). Conspicuously absent from his list is any national or local government authority or major charity. I hear the same thing over and over again from residents of Pakowhai and Omahu and Esk Valley: the only people they could find to help were volunteers. “Without them,” one told me, “we’d still be knee-deep in mud.”

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Hariata Nuku Ereatara and her husband, Henry Ereatara, were in Palmerston North, where Henry was getting radiation therapy for the cancer in his lymph nodes, when their daughter called to tell them their house was underwater. It was three weeks before they made it back to the small settlement of Omahu, outside Hastings, where the Ngaruroro had inundated around 50 homes.

A former nurse, Hariata (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) isn’t easily overwhelmed. When we meet, she is forthright and funny, and glamorous in a black-and-white A-line coat and shades, with French-tip nails and her fine hair swept into a bun. But when she picked up the phone to investigate how to get the silt out of her house, nothing seemed to make sense.

The region’s councils had launched a clean-up taskforce, with $131 million from the government. However, the taskforce was only funded to collect silt and debris from the roadside, on the logic that insurance would pay for the more crucial task of removing it from homes. In reality, most people’s policies either didn’t cover indoor clean-up or only provided a few thousand dollars when contractors were charging far more. (Hariata was quoted $55,000 for their small house.) At the same time, insurers were instructing homeowners to remove the silt immediately to prevent further damage. Even if the home was a write-off, most contractors wouldn’t demolish it unless the silt was gone. But when the Red Cross finally opened applications for its $22 million disaster relief fund in April, it declined to support silt-removal efforts, to avoid “overlap”. “Silt cleanup is the responsibility of central and local government,” it concluded in a letter to the organisers of Cyclone Hawkes Bay Help, the main Facebook hub for those seeking help and those offering it. (Another sizable pool of money, the $11.7 million raised by a special Lotto draw in March 2023, still hasn’t been released.)

Henry (Ngāti Kahungunu and Tūhoe) was desperate to bring his wife home. He’d been a farm man, Hariata explains affectionately: “Up at 3am. If he sat down, it was on a tractor.” Seeing no alternative, he decided to remove the silt himself. Hariata begged him not to. “I’ve got to do something,” he told her. “What you can do is be here,” she tearfully recalls telling him. “I was so angry I could have killed him myself.” It took Henry nearly eight hours to smash a small hole in the concrete base of their weatherboard house, by which time he was too exhausted to crawl far in the narrow space between the clammy silt and the dank, sagging insulation. His immunity was already shot and he never really recovered; in July, he died.

Hariata Nuku Ereatara and her husband, “my soulmate,” Henry Ereatara, who died in July 2023, near the hole Henry smashed in their Omahu home in an attempt to remove the silt. Henry, who had been battling cancer, was fixated on bringing his wife home. ”I think he knew,” says Hariata—that he didn’t have much time, and wanted to do whatever he could to make sure she would be all right. Her home has now been repaired; she’s preparing to move in in February.
Hariata Nuku Ereatara and her husband, “my soulmate”, Henry Ereatara, who died in July 2023, near the hole Henry smashed in their Omahu home in an attempt to remove the silt. Henry, who had been battling cancer, was fixated on bringing his wife home. ”I think he knew,” says Hariata—that he didn’t have much time, and wanted to do whatever he could to make sure she would be all right. Her home has now been repaired; she’s preparing to return in February.

It wasn’t only the silt that was a struggle. Finding somewhere to live was, too—the inevitable result of a natural disaster colliding with a housing crisis. Rentals had been scarce and expensive before the storm. For those still paying mortgages on flooded homes, the calculations were brutal. Some burned through their insurance payouts—or entire savings—paying rent. As of December 31, there were 116 people in subsidised emergency housing under the Temporary Accommodation Service, with 28 on the waitlist. Those without other options, many of them elderly, had moved into makeshift housing on their properties: uninsulated sheds furnished with donated goods and chemical toilets, campervans of varying comfort levels, garages with timber framing and plasterboard thrown up to create rudimentary living spaces. “We’ve become a community of sheds and caravans,” one Pakowhai resident observed ruefully. And as winter set in, they waited to learn what would happen to their homes.

Two weeks after Gabrielle, local officials and government ministers met to discuss the recovery. “The Crown made it perfectly clear: this is going to be one of many devastating natural disasters,” said Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst—meaning the Crown wasn’t going to foot the full bill. It offered the region’s councils a take-it-or-leave-it deal: in order to receive the funding that they needed to fix the roads, they’d have to adopt the government’s plan for dealing with damaged homes.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet issued a set of categories for Gabrielle and future disasters. Category 1 meant you could fix your home and move back; 2 meant you could potentially return under specific conditions (such as improvements to flood protection); 3 meant that your land was deemed unsafe to live on. The government funded half of a buyout programme for Hawke’s Bay, in which category 3 owners would be compensated for the pre-flood market value of their dwelling and up to two hectares of land, minus any insurance payout they received. Owners of category 3 land could keep it, and it could still be used for commercial purposes. This wasn’t a bad deal for residential properties, but it wasn’t designed for the semi-rural areas hit hardest by Gabrielle: Small orchards, cropping fields or lifestyle blocks would plummet in value if owners could no longer live on their land, and this loss wasn’t covered by the buyout.

The government pushed the regional council hard to assess the 3000-odd affected properties by July—an enormous undertaking, given that the council was simultaneously conducting urgent repairs on the flood-protection system. Most properties were assessed without anyone visiting them. When owners were emailed their provisional categories in June, people struggled to understand why their house was a 3 while the place across the road was a 2, or why the buyouts only applied to areas damaged by Gabrielle and not all similarly vulnerable land, since future storms would hardly follow an identical pattern. An independent review described the process as “appropriate” given the time constraints, but noted that “experts applied judgement” in making assessments, without recording “specific details of their process and judgement basis for each location”. The report also identified “difficulty demonstrating what community input was considered, and how it was incorporated”.

Local officials maintain that the process was thorough—and, more than that, an achievement.

“We’ve been having storms here since 1894,” Hazlehurst said. “We’ve never had this opportunity to move people out of the most vulnerable areas.”

“We’ve done something incredible as a region,” concurs Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chairperson Hinewai Ormsby, though she allows that “we could have done a better job early on about communication”. The recovery, says Ormsby, whose own home was flooded, “overwhelmed all systems”. I asked Hazlehurst whether Hawke’s Bay had needed more government support, perhaps a Christchurch-style recovery agency. “I don’t think we could have done it any better any other way,” she said. “The new prime minister was incredibly impressed.” Two weeks before the anniversary of the flood, the council moved to make a sudden change to the buyout policy in which some owners would be required to pay for the demolition of their homes after the council had purchased them.

Like so much else, this process exposed a profound divergence: the institutions that cyclone survivors looked to for help didn’t seem to grasp what they were experiencing. “People just couldn’t process things,” says Jenny Dodds, one of the organisers of Cyclone Hawkes Bay Help. “We were seeing massive trauma, PTSD. The council had a helpline, but people didn’t have the capacity to actively seek out that information.”

Cynthea and Raymond Greene have been living in a motorhome on their farm for most of the past year. (Ray is scouting for deer.) The couple barely escaped the flood thanks to a high-risk helicopter rescue, and their home was wrecked. They recently bought a house in town. Cynthea says it’s only since the purchase went through that she doesn’t lie down at night and “see the water coming over my head”.
Raymond holds strips of photo negatives up to the light to see if any have survived the floodwaters.

Too often, useful services were fenced by red tape. To get Red Cross funding, you initially had to be registered as a charity, which excluded many of the most vital volunteer efforts. If you’d signed a tenancy agreement after the storm, you were ineligible for the Temporary Accommodation Service, disqualifying many who had their insurance cover a private rental for a brief period but then needed somewhere to live once it expired. In July, Hastings council paired residents with a “community connector” to help them navigate information and services. Some found this helpful; for many, it was too little, too late.

Once again, it was volunteers who grasped how the survivors were feeling: abandoned. In May, Jane Morgan started driving around Hawke’s Bay, distributing dinner invitations for people in temporary accommodation. “Anywhere I saw a caravan, I handed out a piece of paper,” she says. The Dinner Club meets every Friday at a church hall. On Monday, Jane hunts for discounts and plans menus, Tuesday she shops, and Wednesday and Thursday she cooks a three-course meal for up to 60 guests. The cuisine is “the sort of food they’d cook themselves, if they had a kitchen”—so, mostly meat and three veg. However, Jane also caters to vegetarian, vegan, gluten- and lactose-intolerant diners, as well as lesser-known dietary stipulations such as onion-free, celery-free, capsicum-free and “people who don’t like rice”. She sneaks in more exotic ingredients—quinoa—using an immersion blender. At first, her guests were “wound up to the max”, she recalls. “They would cling to us like a raft.” They were cooped up in cramped caravans, or motel rooms with only a mini-fridge and a microwave; making a decent meal was often beyond them. At the Dinner Club, they could eat at a table, with a tablecloth, served by Jane’s kind and attentive helpers.

From left, Shona Grace, Anita Madden and Leigh Clark, regular helpers at the Dinner Club, serve up a soul-nourishing meal cooked by volunteer Jane Morgan.

And, finally, they could talk to people who understood. People who also hated the sound of helicopters. Who knew what it was like to bury all your pets. Who’d lost friends and fallen out with family because they were sick of you talking about the flood. And who understood how alienating it was to cling to a tree or a fence or a Sky dish for hours until you were hypothermic or bruised all over, only to discover, after you were rescued and released in only a hospital gown, that the rest of town was more or less untouched, as if you were an interloper from an alternate reality. Which, in a sense, you were. After a few months of gatherings, Jane noticed that the hugs had become “less desperate”. “I’m not a hugger,” she says briskly. “I’ve had to learn.”

There were other signs of progress. In July, the Red Cross gave $280,000 to the Evergreen Foundation to further its support of numerous volunteer initiatives. These include the Dinner Club, ROS and the Hawkes Bay Clean Up Team—the larger group that emerged from Zeb’s original effort under the efficient leadership of Martha Taonui. The clean-up crews have worked on around 200 houses to date, with a similar number left to do. Dodds wonders what would have been possible if funding—from any source—had come far earlier. “We had such a huge volunteer workforce,” she says. “We could have done a lot with not much money.”

For instance, it was months before Hariata connected with clean-up volunteers—long after Henry’s disastrous foray beneath the house. A friend heard about the ROS crew and met with Peni, who asked about their homes, and what they needed, and how they wanted the work to be done. The crew came to Hariata’s house three weeks after Henry died. TJ and Peni did most of the work under the floor. They couldn’t see Hariata crouching by the hole Henry had smashed, clasping a framed photo of her husband. As they pushed through the darkness, she followed them around the house, holding his picture to the nearest grate, so he would know that “some angels had come” and she was going home.

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If there was one good thing to come from the cyclone, it was the way in which it brought people together—people who might never have met in their ordinary lives. You heard this a lot at the Dinner Club, and it was true among the volunteers too. Hundreds of people from all over the country had volunteered with the Clean Up Team—Rotary Clubs, church groups, sports teams, tradies, backpackers, motorbike clubs, retirees with campervans. Many have done repeat visits for weeks each time. And then there were the bonds being forged between the volunteers and the people they helped; the ROS crew, for instance, were now living in the Pakowhai community.

With the exception of Peni, Hilda and Carol, most of the crew were out-of-towners, and they had quickly found their way to the Silt Inn. The Silt Inn was a shed that a Pakowhai couple made available to volunteers early on. It had a dirt floor and no power; residents did their cooking in another building, an out-of-commission pet crematorium. In April, Peni moved to the Silt Inn in a caravan. Then, in August, a family offered ROS the use of two adjacent flood-damaged houses, which the crew made livable during days off. (As Moose observed, he and Sophie might never get to buy a house, so this was their chance to fix up a place.) The houses, dubbed the Junction, now boast power, an outdoor shower, Starlink and, most importantly, flushing toilets. In November, Hilda moved in—her rent was swallowing most of her pension, and this way she could spend more time volunteering instead of working odd jobs. Hers is the only room with carpet, laid by a friend.

Hilda Meier at the Junction. Originally from Germany, she has lived in New Zealand for about 30 years. Hilda likes to leave houses as clean as possible, removing wheelbarrow tracks and boot prints so the owners can come home to a fresh start; when other crew members are underground, they can often hear the precise sound of her scraper above them, smoothing out the surfaces. She also tries to save as much from the homes as she can, even collecting the nails in case they can be reused.

Relaxing at the Junction on Kath’s last day, she and Peni told the story of how Kath joined the crew. It started with a very basic Google search: cyclone Hawke’s Bay how can I help. In July, Kath and Dan drove down in their Mercedes Sprinter campervan, planning to stay two weeks. When they parked up at the Silt Inn, the crew, Peni recounts, was “off on one of our deep conversations”. These often circle around COVID—that the pandemic was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by governments and paid actors, or that the vaccine has caused millions of uncounted deaths. On this particular occasion, they were discussing geoengineering techniques which they’d heard were being used to cause natural disasters. That was when Kath realised that most of her new acquaintances were “Freedom people”—the loose movement of vaccine opponents, COVID deniers and various fringe causes that fuelled the 2022 Parliament protest. (Even the name River of Silt was a dig at former Labour MP Michael Wood’s statement that the most extreme protestors were a “river of filth”.) At the end of the evening, Kath and Dan went into the camper, looked at each other, and said, “Should we run?” But Kath and Dan had come to help, and they weren’t in the habit of breaking commitments. So they stuck it out. “They kept saying, ‘We’re just here to work! We’re just here to work!’” Peni recalls, teasing Kath. “Now we love each other to bits.”

As for the others, Hilda, who belongs to a local group called Freedom Lovers, has been digging in since day one with Zeb. (Zeb suggested that, given the physical labour involved, Hilda, who is 70, might want to do the cooking, to which Hilda’s response was, “F— no. That’s so not me.”) Moose and Sophie decided to volunteer with encouragement from their church. Carol, is a former care worker at a palliative facility who had to leave the job after declining to get vaccinated. She initially “felt a bit intimidated” about making contact. Then “everyone just welcomed me into the fold”, she says, and now Carol is an unstoppable force with a sledgehammer and the first to join Peni for impromptu dance breaks. Jaxon, a fencer and former philosophy student, found the team one night when his car broke down by the beach. Campfires dotted the shoreline like beacons, and he sat down by one to read for a while. But he couldn’t help overhearing the people at the neighbouring fire. “They were having a real in-depth, emotionally charged conversation,” he recalls. “It was a lot more intellectual and fascinating than my book.” After introducing himself, he decided to help out for a day—and that was that. Although Jaxon spends most of his time underground, he’s usually somewhere else entirely. He might be composing a poem—he has written 1000 of them—or “thinking about Gaza and Israel and Hamas and Star Wars, or some other geeky, nerdy shit”.

A convivial night at the Junction—the flood-damaged houses that the River of Silt crew have made into a temporary home. In the foreground, Kath is catching up with John and Linda Hogan, who stopped by to drop off some firewood. (The team does not get paid for their work and also prefer not to accept monetary donations, so people in the community contribute food, petrol vouchers or equipment instead.) On the deck, Sophie and Moose (left) are chatting with Peni (in the doorframe) and Jaxon (right).

And then there’s Peni, who holds the group together and throws herself whole-heartedly into every cause she adopts—mistreated pound dogs, the endangered toroa/albatross, rape and domestic violence, all of which have found expression in her practice as an artist, which blends public installation and protest. Her journey to River of Silt can be traced to the vaccine mandate, which she opposed. “I just thought, ‘Mana motuhake, I have authority over myself,’” she says. She’d known refusing the vaccine would mean she’d lose her job of nearly 26 years as a support worker for disabled people, but she hadn’t expected to feel “cut out of everything”. Craving connection, she found a new community in the shared isolation of other unvaccinated people. “We just made our own world,” she says. This was how she came to join the Parliament protest, where she was arrested for trespass (she filed a complaint documenting injuries she’d received; the charges were eventually dropped).

Peni had gone to Wellington to protest the mandates, but there were all sorts of talks and services on offer there—seminars on sovereign citizen theory, free haircuts (“I got the worst haircut of my life at Parliament,” she grumbles) as well as several anti-vaccine groups distributing information. Soon, she was holding up anti-vaccine placards outside Hawke’s Bay health centres. (This was how she met Zeb, who interviewed her group on Facebook.) When the cyclone hit, Peni says she saw something familiar in the victims’ plight: “I knew that feeling of being left to fend for yourself.”

What unites this eclectic bunch is the way they approach the work. It’s not really about the silt, Peni explains, but doing “whatever we can to relieve the stress and the pain”. Kath might spend an entire day painstakingly pulling nails from a house frame: “That’s one less thing the builder has to do,” she says, “so that saves the owner some money.” Hilda is drawn to wardrobes, which early on were filled with clothes stiff with silt, every dress a memory to its wearer, and therefore deserving of care. “You’re shovelling away their lives,” says Carol.

In January 2024, Cynthea and Raymond are still slowly sorting through their silt-encrusted possessions in their home between Waiohiki and Fernhill. Cynthea’s grandfather bought the land in 1919, her father farmed it, and she has lived in the home for nearly her entire life. The waters ripped through a shed containing fuel and chemicals, and after a year, mould has spread throughout the house. They can only manage about 20 minutes inside before their eyes start to sting.
Nick and Diane Slagter recently re-opened their fruit and vegetable store in Pakowhai and are living in the shed they previously used to sort raspberries. Here, Diane holds her wedding dress, which was sewn by her mother and was the item she was most thankful to have saved. Countless irreplaceable items of personal significance were washed away or destroyed in the flood—wedding rings and family photos being the most commonly mentioned.

It’s why the crew keeps checking on Paul McKinley, a 72-year-old orchardist whose home in the Esk Valley is surrounded by mountains of silt piled up by the council taskforce. Paul’s house, a category 3, will be demolished if he accepts a buyout, but he goes there most days, with nothing to look at but the silt. The crew visits regularly. They removed the silt inside and stripped out the rotting insulation. On Paul’s birthday, they brought a cake. And they’ve done “some trivial things”, someone remarks at the Junction, like digging out the Dublin Bay roses along the fenceline that were planted by another orchardist. “But that wasn’t trivial,” Jaxon spoke up suddenly. “They were his wife’s roses.” This kind of thing is why Kath now thinks of the crew as “my family”.

Like many people in the once-idyllic Esk Valley, Paul McKinley is a grower. With the arrival of summer, he is discovering some hardy nectarine trees near his house that are bearing new fruit, while apple trees are growing back from rootstock. Paul hopes to cultivate his land again when the silt is cleared. Since his property is currently concealed from public view by massive piles of silt, it is still being targeted by looters, a major ongoing problem since the flood.

I wondered what the locals first made of them. The residents of Pakowhai and Esk Valley are predominantly older growers and farmers who generally took a dim view of the Parliament protest, which several other crew members joined. Once, after a council briefing for Pakowhai homeowners, I got talking to orchardist Richard Lee. Initially, he said, some volunteers in Zeb’s team struck him as pretty unorthodox. (“I mean—anti-vaxxers!” put in another attendee, cutting to the chase.) But he was won over first by their work—“Zeb single-handedly had far more positive impact than the council in the early days,” Richard says—and then by their warmth: the big hugs he and his wife, Anna, received each morning, the genuine concern for their welfare from people who were sleeping in cars to be there. “They have an amazing set of values,” says Richard. This reassessment, he adds frankly, was “a big learning for me”. Geoff Downer, another Pakowhai resident, got to know the ROS crew when they were living next door at the Silt Inn. “They’re just beautiful people,” he says. “I don’t agree with their politics, but they have the biggest hearts. I’d like to think they’ll be friends for life.”

Peni saw other commonalities with the homeowners. “These are people who would never question authority, and they’ve been failed by the council and authority for the first time in their lives,” she says. And it was true that, in Pakowhai especially, there was a lingering anger. It wasn’t only the lack of assistance and the buyouts. Most of all, residents couldn’t fathom why they hadn’t been warned—especially since Pakowhai didn’t flood until some eight hours after Esk Valley residents started climbing onto their roofs, four hours after a local state of emergency was declared. In the absence of a satisfying answer, some latched onto darker explanations. Two theories in particular just wouldn’t die: that the real death toll had been higher and included a van of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers, and that the council had deliberately blown the stopbanks, flooding Pakowhai to save the more populated area across the river. Like most durable conspiracy theories, these had some basis in reality. A temporary morgue was established in case of higher casualties, sparking talk that it was full of bodies. And, according to the council, a digger was sent to open a section of the stopbank designed to funnel water into a spillway. In the event, the digger didn’t open the stopbank. But the official explanations couldn’t stem the flood of suspicions: a fundamental trust had been breached.

Somehow all these threads converged in the experience of Karen Eivers, a 55-year-old police officer who had poured years of hard graft into her lifestyle block on the Tūtaekurī. She had a California bungalow she’d bought cheap on TradeMe and renovated, a dressage arena and stables for horses Toby and Flirty (“my babies”), formal rose gardens she cultivated herself, a small orchard, a pigeon house, a chook house, and lush paddocks for her 80 sheep, 12 of which she’d hand-reared and could identify by their bleat.

On the morning of the flood, Karen hadn’t been worried by the relentless rain—until she heard what sounded like an explosion. (Logs pulverising a nearby bridge, she later learned.) She went to check the river, and when she saw white-capped water overlapping the stopbank, she was inhabited by terror. By 8.30am, she and her housemate Lindsay were on the bungalow roof, where they were joined by 10 other people, including a couple with a baby. As the water got higher, they scoped out trees in case they had to swim. Then Karen’s sheep started to drown. Lindsay sat under a tarp so she didn’t have to watch, and Karen scratched the insides of her ears till they bled, trying to block out their dying gurgles. For hours, choppers flew up and down the river, but never seemed to see the group frantically waving for help. For all Karen and the others knew, all of Hawke’s Bay was underwater. Finally, in the afternoon, a jetboat appeared. They sent the couple with the baby off first; the others were rescued around 5pm, after nearly nine hours on the roof.

Karen couldn’t wrap her head around any of it. “I’d lost my entire life,” she says. Her beautiful house was a wreck, and the river had heaved masses of debris onto her land, including a 20-foot shipping container, apple bins, furniture, firewood and her dead sheep. One day she saw people wading through the waist-high, silt-thickened water in her paddock, tying foetid carcasses to their own bodies with ropes and hauling them out. “I thought it was the regional council,” Karen says, “but it was volunteers.” She took leave from work; she could barely eat or sleep. Her horses, which survived, were about the only thing keeping her going.

But Karen was determined. As soon as she could, she moved back to her property to protect it from looters. For a while she was the only person living in all of Pakowhai, sleeping in a caravan, chasing 2am prowlers away in her dressing gown and “pissing in a bucket” till Zeb’s crew built her a composting toilet. Then Zeb parked her house-bus there so she wouldn’t be alone at night. (“We just fell in love with Karen,” Peni says.) That winter, Karen worked herself ragged to erase the physical evidence that the flood had ever happened, spending large sums to clear the land, plant new grass, re-fence and fix up a small cottage to live in. Then, in August, she got an email to say her property, which had been a category 2, was now a 3. “I went into a spiral,” Karen says. (After she appealed to the mayor, it was re-adjusted to a 2.) But it wasn’t until her house was demolished, erasing the most glaring reminder of that day on the roof, that she felt some sense of relief.

Karen Eivers with her horse, Toby. Toby protected Karen’s other horse, Flirty, by taking the brunt of the flood waters against his strong front legs. After the storm, Karen was wracked by guilt that she didn’t get her horses out in advance; she now has a plan in place to evacuate them when there’s heavy rain.

She and Lindsay now live in the cottage. They often sit on the deck and look out at the pristine paddocks, talking over the day of the storm, working it out of their systems. One evening Peni drops by for a glass of pinot grigio, and the conversation eventually turns to the rumour about the dead RSE workers. Peni is sure it’s true. “Honestly, girlfriend,” says Karen. “There are no missing people. I work in the coronial office and they have accounted for every single person.”

“But can you understand the trust issues I have?” Peni asks. “I go back to the vaccine, and there were so many people injured, and they covered it up.”

“I understand,” Karen says. “But the RSE workers out here all survived. Honestly, it’s bullshit.” Peni’s unconvinced, but it’s not a heated conversation—on an unspoken level, they’ve agreed to disagree. Then Karen puts on her pink fluffy dressing gown and Peni sticks around, two people the world might label a conspiracy theorist and a cop, enjoying a warm summer evening.

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What makes some people put their lives on hold to help a stranger, while others look away? One of the most active members of the various cyclone-related Facebook groups is Louise O’Connor. She’s 72 but her close-cropped hair and intense focus make her seem younger. A horrific accident in her late 30s left her paraplegic and blind in one eye, and she has spent most of the past three decades in the bedroom of her house on a quiet Hastings street. When the cyclone hit, she figured that, if she was breathing, she could find a way to help. So she opened her home to anyone needing a bed, and has since hosted more than 70 displaced people and volunteers. She also joined 1003 Facebook groups throughout New Zealand (town and city pages, churches, Woofers, cannabis groups—“if it exists, I belong to it”). Lying on her side, the only position that’s really comfortable for her, she posts detailed updates on all 1003 pages to raise awareness and make contact with more volunteers.

Louise was an educator with Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) when she had the accident that ruptured her life. She went from being a high achiever with a “thirsty mind” to “seeing hardly anyone”, she tells me in her room cluttered with medical supplies, her dog Monty snoring softly on the bed beside her. She picks her way through her next thought carefully. “My thinking in getting involved with the cyclone was this,” she says. “I wanted to know that there was some worth in me. And that, with whatever my life was, I’d reached outside of that. I didn’t just stay in my own canoe.” Doing this, she told me, “reawakened me to people”.

“In VSA, we weren’t allowed to use the word ‘help’— it suggested you were somewhat superior,” she went on.

“You are giving, but people who you think have little, they give back. They’re changing you, and you’re the richer for it. It’s the best of humanity out of the worst adversity.”

I had seen this during my time with the River of Silt crew. “It fills a need in you,” Kath told me, and I understood what she meant. Each day, no matter what chaos or pain was unfurling in the world or in your life, you got to help another person in a tangible way, and this generated a self-renewing energy. Especially once you came to know that person a little, over the crew’s lively shared lunches. (Moose usually does the karakia, holding hands with Sophie.) When they’re in Omahu, these are more like family gatherings, with Hariata and her friends Esmae and Rana serving feasts of fragrant boil-up, roast meat, salads, fresh-cut fruit and Rana’s otherworldly custard squares. Preparing for one such meal, Hariata, who will soon be back in her house, tries to describe what the group has done for her. “I just can’t,” she says. She takes a deep breath and blows it out, closes her hand in a fist and composes herself. “There are no words. Ask me another question.” After a moment, she continues. “Love is in everything we do,” she says. “We can’t express it in words, so we put it in other things.”

Hariata’s friend Esmae Hungahunga (Te Āti Awa) and Peni. Esmae reached out to the ROS crew in June, while they were still based at the Silt Inn. “I was really taken by how they were living,” says Esmae. “It took me back to my childhood.” The team has now cleared several homes in Omahu, including that of Esmae’s son.
This serene spot on the Esk River has been a popular swimming spot for local families for decades. One year after the flood, people are returning to its waters.

In December, I dropped by to see the crew on a gorgeous Hawke’s Bay day, the kind that was so unnaturally absent here through last year’s summer-that-wasn’t. The sky was cobalt blue; the birds were in full chorus. I found the team digging silt from under a house so it could be demolished, while its owner stripped paint in her shed, which she hoped to move into by Christmas. The plants in her garden that had survived the silt were now thriving. Citrus seems to do well, and roses; her raspberries had “gone ballistic”. It was the same in the other places visited by the flood. Some things were growing back exactly where they used to be, while others were sprouting in unexpected spots—especially pumpkins, offspring of the many that smashed in the storm and sprayed seeds everywhere. There are still onions all over the place, dried and shrunken, some dangling from trees like underwhelming Christmas baubles.

Inside the house, a 70s playlist is on the speaker, and Jaxon is shovelling and singing along to Stevie Nicks. He rests on his spade—he has something to say. “I think we should keep going after we’re done with the silt,” he ventures. They could help the owners fix their houses, putting up plasterboard and insulation. Carol thinks it would be nice to create something new instead of only dealing with destruction, and Hilda’s face lights up at that: she loves to paint. As for Moose, if it were up to him, they’d keep going for “as long as it takes”.

Peni comes to let the team know it’s time to pack up, but they aren’t quite ready to stop, and so for a while they keep working, and I’m reminded of something Peni told me the first day we met: “Once you start doing this, it’s so hard to leave. Your heart is in the silt.”

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