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Unsung heroes over troubled waters

Cyclone Gabrielle arrived in Aotearoa on February 14 – the Valentine’s Day gift nobody wanted.

The once-in-a-century weather bomb has stolen lives and livelihoods, left thousands homeless, practically dissolved roads and bridges, and knocked out power signals – cutting off whole towns from the outside world.

As I write this, 11 people are dead, thousands remain uncontactable, and tens of thousands are without power.

Watching the devastation unfold has been sobering. The images of toys peeking out of the mud, cars bobbing like corks in the floodwaters, growers and farmers openly weeping will stay with me for a while.

And if it’s hard for us to watch from relative safety, it must be unbearable for those in Northland, Auckland, Tairawhiti, Hawke’s Bay and east of Masterton – who have lost so much.

For the rest of New Zealand [and our politicians], this is a wake-up call. Covid was hard – but during lockdown, many of us could still boil the jug and check on loved ones via text. The roads were open, our supermarket shelves were [mostly] full, we had safe drinking water. When our critical infrastructure lacks resilience, the results are catastrophic.

What has not lacked resilience, however, are New Zealanders themselves. Heroism is everywhere – and not just the daring rescues and acts of generosity. As always, it is the regular, every-day folks, just showing up for work, keeping our society together.

The first responders, medics, and defence force, certainly. But also – the linesmen, working around the clock to restore power. The roading contractors, clearing slips and miles of debris. The NEMA and council staff, battling patchy internet access to deliver crucial safety information. The Indian and pizza restaurant owners feeding their neighbours for free. The helicopter pilots, who plucked young children from their own rooftops.

Not to mention the unpaid labour. The local civil defence centres, Urban Search and Rescue, the surf lifesaving clubs. The Marae cooking for stranded whanau, and the iwi delivering generators to isolated communities. The volunteer firefighters – two of whom paid with their lives.

The quiet, unassuming types – who see the task at hand, and get on with it.

Covid was the same. Our essential workers – the caregivers, supermarket workers, long haul truckers – didn’t have the stereotypically “glamorous” careers. They may have seemed, on the surface, unremarkable. And yet, these ordinary Kiwis were the ones that offered us a sliver of normality when everything was falling apart.

As a society, we don’t quite have our priorities straight. As humans, we love the sparkle. We’re fascinated by celebrity. We admire prestige and status. We seek to be entertained, preferably by staggering talent – or a good scandal.

This all has a place. But, it’s not our sports stars reconnecting cell phone signals, inspecting bridges, or loading whole families into inflatable dinghies. It wasn’t our TV personalities making sure we had enough to eat during lockdown, or donning layers of PPE to check on their clients.

They are, however, the ones raking in the dollars. While retail workers, in-home carers, and FENZ staff have had to fight for even the smallest pay hike.

One pandemic and several natural disasters later, we still have it backwards.

As a friend from Tinui put it, “The cyclone has pulled everyone back to what matters. Whanau. Community. A warm bed. Food and water. Electricity. Redbands.” So often, it takes calamity to reveal the things we take for granted.

And the last thing we can afford to take for granted are people. That “unremarkable” figure you ignore in the street could be hauling you to safety when the next emergency hits.

To everyone struggling in the wake of Gabrielle…you’re not far from our thoughts. Look after each other. Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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