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What I learnt living in a disaster zone

Spinoff article written by Muriwai resident Emma Farry - 13th February 2024

One year ago today, the west coast town of Muriwai was devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle. Local Emma Farry reflects on what it was like to weather the storm.

The West Coast community of Muriwai is used to scary weather. We are often battered by gale-force winds and smashed by horizontal rain. We are a settlement of 2,000 hardy souls who make sacrifices to live here on the West Coast, where the wild weather is balanced by the beauty and energy of our black sand beach.

We didn’t think we would ever see the scale of destruction that occurred after Cyclone Gabrielle exactly one year ago.

The loss of two of our respected firefighters, Dave van Zwanenberg and Craig Stevens, who perished in the line of duty, broke our collective hearts. We struggled to find room in our community for the 125 displaced local families. Many of us opened our homes to those in need of accommodation, and new friendships and connections grew. But the scale of the damage was biblical, and we asked ourselves quietly if we were foolish for thinking we could tame this wild place enough to be safe.

It is a question that many are still asking.

The hills and cliffs that collapsed while Gabrielle raged are huge sand dunes held together with coastal clay. There had been a fatal slip before, five doors down from our house in 1965 where a mother and daughter lost their lives.

Donations of food and other necessities poured into Muriwai. (Photo supplied)

It was documented back then that no one should be living on that slip-prone area of Domain Crescent, but humans have short memories, and by the 1980s, building permits were once more being granted for sections underneath an unstable cliff.

The people who built there were big thinkers with vision and guts. They loved this place, and they created houses and homes and lives at the bottom of a cliff, looking out over breathtaking views of the Tasman Sea.

But the land had other ideas for their homes. Today, all the houses on that part of Domain Crescent have been red stickered and will eventually be demolished by the council.

Our 80-year-old bach just up the road from the condemned houses survives along with our direct neighbours on either side. We are an island of three safe houses that happen to be built on a rocky ridge with clay sand dunes surrounding us on either side. Our street will never be the same. We raised our boys in this tiny house before we bought a family home around the corner, so we know the people on our street and we feel for them, as many struggle to leave their dream homes and start again in some other place.

Apart from the grief and the shock, the deep sense of community is what I remember most about this time last year.

The legendary staff at the Muriwai Surf Club opened their doors to the community. Once the flood waters had been cleared, the place was operational again, and that’s when the magic started.

I can’t exactly remember how the Food Hub came to be, as we were still walking around in a daze at that point. An acquaintance (who would become a close friend) asked if I wanted to help her set up a free food shop for displaced Muriwai residents.

I agreed and we got to work with whiteboard markers, making a sign that would transform the surf club’s gear shed into a hub dispensing water, food, hugs and a deepening sense of community.

The Red Cross was there, offering trauma counselling and a shoulder to cry on. It was strange to see that charity and realise we were now living in a disaster zone.

Looking back, I can see that we navigated an initiation into the reality of climate-related weather events. With all the upheaval, grief and trauma, there was a definite sense of grace and community spirit that kept us buoyed and helped us to feel safe.

We hugged each other lots. People who didn’t know each other, who may have crossed paths on the beach a few times, hugged like they were family. People cried with each other or silently held space while someone shared their story or sobbed with the depth of their loss.

So much food arrived. What we needed seemed to magically appear. South Kaipara Good Food supported us regularly with necessities, toiletries and advice. There was some magic at play too. One day I remember saying to my friend, “We’re about to run out of fresh bread.” Ten minutes later, a supermarket truck pulled up and delivered a pallet-load of fresh bread, fruit, and other necessities.

And that’s what happened day after day, week after week.

One day, a Sikh charity from Australia arrived with a truckload of things we didn’t even know we needed: kids’ and adults’ underwear, socks, toiletries, makeup. They had been in disaster zones before, and they were one step ahead of us.

Donated clothing was a lifesaver and came at just the right time. (Photo supplied)

People from all over the country donated clothing, shoes, household items and even furniture. Soon, the upstairs bedrooms at the Surf Club that weren’t being used to house displaced residents became a one-stop shop for people who had lost everything.

The volunteers showed up each morning, and we were surprised by how often a displaced person’s needs were met by random donations that somehow fit perfectly. Shoes that were just the right size for the gorgeous three-year-old girl, or a whole new wardrobe for the couple who arrived back from an overseas ski holiday and were not able to return home to collect their summer clothes.

It wasn’t just the physical needs of our community that were taken care of. Other legendary residents set up the Locals Lounge, where a good old cup of tea and homemade baking soothed our souls, where organised art therapy helped us heal from our shock, and various mental health experts offered trauma workshops that provided practical and emotional support and strengthened community bonds.

In the wake of the turmoil, a group of locals came together to advocate and raise awareness on behalf of our community. This group became known as the Muriwai Stickered Resident’s Group. These wonderful souls have worked long and hard to make sure Muriwai and the battles we face have stayed front and centre of the news cycle.

This is not an easy job, and the hours this group of volunteers have offered on our behalf is staggering. I believe that the prompt delivery of the Geotech reports and the offer of payouts in a comparatively timely manner is due to the constant effort of this group. 

And then there are those in our community who are still waiting for final categorisations on their properties or for final plans to mitigate risk for the future. After an agonising year, these locals are paying rent while still paying mortgages on properties they are unsure they will ever live in again. In our community, we must make sure we remember their plight while everyone else moves on with their lives.

We have lost many of our Muriwai friends. Some locals can no longer live at the site of such deep trauma. I understand their decision, and though I miss them, I know that better days will come for them in a place not weighed down by so much sorrow and uncertainty.

On the other hand, our community is stronger than ever. When we come together at events, there is a hidden connection between us that doesn’t need to be stated; it can be felt by all of us who have weathered this unbelievable storm.

It takes a hardy soul to live out here, but I have learned that a strong community is born from tough times. 

Thank you, Muriwai. You are a profound and sacred place.



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