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Year In Review: February 2023

The Times-Age looks back month by month on what made the news this year. In February, we continued reporting on Trust House’s rent hike u-turn, and the appointment of a new chief executive, and covered Cyclone Gabrielle’s destructive impact on the region and the ongoing road to recovery.

February 1

Wellington Free Ambulance [WFA] announced a $7 million state-of-the-art ambulance station for Wairarapa. The planned facility will be built on the corner of Queen and Russell streets in Masterton and will be the permanent base for the more than 30 emergency response crew, patient transfer officers, and rescue squad members who serve Wairarapa. Fundraising and communications manager Claire Carruthers said the station would be funded by WFA, a Crown contribution and community fundraising.

New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ reshuffle catapulted Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty into Cabinet and landed him two new ministerial roles. McAnulty was promoted to Minister of Local Government, having previously been associate minister to Nanaia Mahuta in the portfolio. He also picked up Minister for Rural Communities from Damien O’Connor.

February 2

Community housing provider Trust House put previously announced rent increases for some of its tenants indefinitely on hold. Trust House made the announcement in an eleventh-hour press release detailing its change of heart. In a subsequent explanatory email to the Times-Age, Trust House chief executive Charles Kaka explained that some of the proposed rent increases would be on hold, although they would still go ahead for other tenants.

Wairarapa mayors threw their support behind a $608 million joint budget bid to improve rail services across the lower North Island. The bid would double peak services on the Wairarapa line from three to six each morning and afternoon, and add off-peak and weekend services, using tri-mode trains that would emit eight times less carbon than current diesel locomotives. Masterton Mayor Gary Caffell, Carterton Mayor Ron Mark, and South Wairarapa Mayor Martin Connelly joined other regional leaders in penning a letter to Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Transport Minster Michael Wood supporting the Lower North Island Rail Integrated Mobility proposal.

February 3

Queues of traffic lined the Remutaka Hill Rd all the way to the 50kmh sign in northern Featherston, after a logging truck broke down on the Wairarapa side of the hill. The traffic jam left Ed Sheeran fans anxious they would miss his Wellington concert and holidaymakers fearing planes and ferries would leave without them. The hill re-opened at 4.30pm, having been blocked at 1pm, but traffic backlogs remained for hours.

February 4

After unprecedented flooding in Auckland, the Times-Age examined how our region would cope with a natural disaster. Over 800 properties in the region were at risk in a one-in-100-year flooding event: About 590 properties in urban Masterton, 130 properties in urban Greytown, and a further 120 properties in “upper Wairarapa”.

February 6

Despite significant backlash on the proposed selling of Kahutara’s St Francis of Assisi, the Anglican Church said it still wanted to divest itself of the asset. Wairarapa church sales have become routine in recent years, with many denominations grappling with ageing assets and lower priest and parishioner numbers. But, the battle lines were drawn in Kahutara, with the formation of the Stop The Sale of St Francis Church committee and an online fundraiser launched ‘to retain our church’.

February 7

One person was killed, and three people were seriously injured after a head-on collision in Clareville. Emergency services, including two rescue helicopters, responded to the fatal crash on State Highway 2. Police confirmed that one person had died en route to the hospital. A second person suffering serious injuries was taken to Wellington Hospital.

February 8

The revelation that up to 23 more farms could become permanent carbon forests was a growing concern to rural communities who have watched the growing trend of farmland to forestry conversions with trepidation.

February 9

Opposition to the recent speed reductions imposed by Waka Kotahi NZTA on SH2 received a rev up at a public meeting. The meeting featured presentations from Transporting New Zealand chief executive Nick Leggett and National Party transport spokesperson Simeon Brown, followed by questions from the audience. Speakers called for the speed reductions to be reversed, as well as for significant upgrades to the road network.

February 10

The Government’s decision to hike the minimum wage by $1.50 to $22.70 from April 1 received mixed reviews in Wairarapa. When announcing the rise, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins argued that in “tough times, it’s critical to support those who struggle the most to make ends meet”. According to Business Wairarapa’s general manager Nicola Belsham, however, the desire to provide some relief to the households hardest hit by the cost of living crisis could have unintended consequences.

February 11

Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle was forecast to hit the North Island, with recent modelling of the storm’s path suggesting Wairarapa could be directly in the firing line. According to Weather Watch forecaster Phillip Duncan, it was likely to be “one of the most serious storms of the century” for New Zealand. Niwa said: “At this point, the worst of the weather looks to be in Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and potentially Wairarapa.”

New data obtained from Waka Kotahi NZTA under the Official Information Act found poor handling and inappropriate speed were the most common contributing factors to crashes on the Remutaka Hill Rd. The data showed there were 188 crashes on the hill from 2018 to 2022. Poor handling – the most common factor – contributed to 73 crashes [39 per cent], while inappropriate speed – the second most common – contributed to 58 crashes [31 per cent].

February 13

As the destructive force of Cyclone Gabrielle blasted the top of the North Island, severe weather warnings were issued for Wairarapa, including heavy swell warnings for coastal areas. Across New Zealand, more than 20 watches and warnings were in place.

February 14

Wairarapa social housing provider Trust House confirmed chief executive Charles Kaka had resigned, effective immediately. The organisation and the former chief executive had been under fire for a decision to significantly increase the rent of its social housing tenants.

A Wairarapa resident arrested after an international tipoff denied possessing and importing child sexual abuse material. Jonathan Ignoacio, a Filipino national, appeared in Wellington District Court, pleading not guilty to two charges of possessing and importing objectionable publications that depict the sexual abuse of children and chose to have a jury trial. Each charge carried a maximum penalty of 10 year’s jail time.

February 15

The investigation into a fatal mid-air crash at Hood Aerodrome came to an unexpected close after the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] withdrew all charges. In a surprise move, the CAA said it would not proceed with its prosecution against skydiving company Sky Sports Limited and its director Martin Lloyd for alleged breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. The decision followed the receipt of defence expert evidence. Lloyd and his company faced three charges of “exposing individuals to risk, harm, and illness” following a 2019 crash that killed two pilots – Joshua Christensen, 20, an employee of Lloyd’s Skydive Wellington and Wairarapa pilot Craig McBride, 66.

Wairarapa took a battering from the “most significant weather event New Zealand has seen this century”, with communities cut off after Cyclone Gabrielle hit the region, and Wairarapa Emergency Operations Centre activated. Emergency management controller and Masterton District Council regulatory services manager Steve May said the activation helped councils connect on a more formal level. He said a briefing was held for the three councils and expected staff would work into the evening. Wairarapa MP and Civil Defence Minister Kieran McAnulty declared a national state of emergency, which included Tararua but not Wairarapa.

February 16

Wairarapa residents were cut off from the rest of the region and still without power and cellphone reception 48 hours after Cyclone Gabrielle hit. Tīnui residents first lost power in the early hours of the storm on February 14. Powerco said the Tīnui substation had sustained significant flood damage, with footage posted on social media showing floodwater up to the windows of the Tīnui Cafe and Bar. “Backfeed options are being explored, and a tree needs to be removed before crews can restore power,” Powerco said. White Rock and Tora residents were also still cut off, with 704 Wairarapa customers were still without power.

Police appealed to the public for information about a serious assault in Featherston and an arson attack in Gladstone that they believed were linked. Wairarapa Detective Senior Sergeant Philip Skoglund said police were investigating an assault on Fitzherbert St in Featherston that left a man with serious injuries. Wellington Free Ambulance confirmed one patient was transported to Masterton Hospital.

February 17

The New Zealand Defence Force [NZDF] arrived in the night to help cut-off communities in Wairarapa. The NZDF had deployed a Unimog truck, 19 defence force personnel, and four-wheel drive vehicles to reach isolated areas on the eastern coast. Wairarapa Emergency Operations Centre [EOC] said food and supplies were delivered to rural communities cut off by Cyclone Gabrielle. EOC controller Steve May said the Defence Force and Upper Hutt Community Rescue had been to Tīnui and arrived in Castlepoint.

“Traumatic” was how Tīnui residents described the days in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle. Lisa Shelton, a Tīnui local, said the flooding that hit the town was the worst it had ever seen, while others compared it to the 1991 flood, which saw 350mm of rain fall in 48 hours. Shelton said floodwaters had washed through at least 20 homes, and many residents had been evacuated.

February 18

The recovery effort began in Tīnui with locals sweeping layers of mud from homes, shops, and the local school. Wairarapa community and rural sergeant Steve Cameron – who had just spent three days helping the Castlepoint community get through the worst of the storm – took the Times-Age to Tīnui to assess the damage. Tīnui resident Bill Laing said it was the first chance for people to get in and begin to clean up the town. Ray and Nicky Moffatt’s Tīnui Rd home was one of about 20 ruined by deep flood waters. Ray Moffatt said he was prepared for rain and flooding, but nothing like what ripped through their house.

Wings Over Wairarapa was postponed. The biennial air festival – one of New Zealand’s largest – was set to attract thousands of people but was temporarily grounded due to Cyclone Gabrielle. “I am absolutely gutted,” said board chair Ron Mark. “We put a hell of a lot of work into it. We had a very impressive programme lined up. After last time, having to cancel the first day because of covid, we thought this would be our year.” It was a difficult decision that took a long time to arrive at, Mark said.

February 20

Wairarapa MP and Minister of Emergency Management Kieran McAnulty said he was struck by the determination and positive outlook of Wairarapa communities hit by Cyclone Gabrielle. McAnulty visited one of Wairarapa’s worst-hit towns, Tīnui, and afterwards said he felt confident that the region would get through the storm and recover.

February 21

A joint Mayoral Relief Fund was set up by Wairarapa’s three mayors to respond to Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact on the region, while a separate fund was also set up for the Tararua District. The district councils for Masterton, Carterton, and South Wairarapa were still deciding how to administer the support and manage funding contributions. Criteria and distribution processes for the fund would be established by councils in partnership with agencies such as the East Coast Rural Support Trust. Masterton Mayor Gary Caffell said he was impressed with how resilient impacted communities had been.

February 22

Waka Kotahi NZTA said public consultations were “not a vote” in response to an Official Information Act [OIA] request from a member of the public that sought to clarify why SH2 speed limits were reduced despite widespread public opposition. The transport agency also revealed it ignored its own assessment of the appropriate speed limit between Greytown and Featherston for the sake of “consistency”. Wairarapa resident Chris Rawson said he submitted the OIA request because he felt Waka Kotahi had not been transparent or forthcoming about how or why it reached its decision to reduce the open road sections between Masterton and Featherston from 100kmh to 80km.

February 23

A damning perception survey showed just 9 per cent of South Wairarapa residents were happy with council decisions and actions last year. The bombshell report was presented as extraordinary business at a South Wairarapa District Council meeting. Satisfaction dropped in 49 of 50 overall measures compared with the previous year’s survey. The one overall measure that improved was “public swimming pools” in which there was a 2 per cent increase in satisfaction.

February 25

After a brutal season for production on the farm, economists believed Cyclone Gabrielle would cause further inflation, resulting in a bumpy ride for the rural sector for the foreseeable future. Economics consultancy Infometrics said the cyclone’s impact posed a challenge for several regional North Island economies over an extended period. “We anticipate a considerable period of disruption for parts of the North Island given the devastating effects of Cyclone Gabrielle,” Infometrics economists Gareth Kiernan and Brad Olsen said. “Increasingly limited communications, and disrupted transport infrastructure, will also limit economic activity in the short-term.” Wairarapa Federated Farmers president David Hayes said trade issues for farmers were much more intense in Hawke’s Bay, but farmers in Wairarapa were also feeling the pinch.

February 28

The board of Wairarapa social housing provider Trust House declined to front on questions from the Times-Age about aspects of its performance. Instead, the board indicated through a communications advisor that it would prefer the questions be answered by the organisation’s new chief executive. It was understood the trust’s new operational head would be announced imminently. Previous chief executive Charles Kaka resigned two weeks ago from the position he held for two-and-a-half years in order to “explore other opportunities”, according to a trust statement. Kaka’s sudden departure came hard on the heels of the trust’s announcement that 478 of its tenants would face an average rent increase of about 60 per cent from April, a decision that was partially reversed after coverage critical of the decision [the signalled increases for 189 tenants are now on hold “while a review of the Trust’s Housing Improvement Programme is carried out”].

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