Cyclone Gabrielle: A First-Hand Account of the Devastation in Aotearoa

Dr Jeremy Webber Shares His Experience of New Zealand’s Deadliest Weather System in 40 Years


Only weeks after rainfall records were shattered in Auckland, causing widespread flooding across the region, a second such, further devastating weather event battered regions of Aotearoa in the form of Cyclone Gabrielle.

The evening of Sunday 12th February, and the weeks ensuing has resulted in Cyclone Gabrielle becoming the deadliest weather system to hit Aotearoa New Zealand in 40 years.

News coverage alone demonstrated how severe this weather event was for Aotearoa’s own. But the scenes of the destruction from the worst-hit regions have been truly heartbreaking. On the ground amongst this all as it happened was our own Dr Jeremy Webber, Clinical Director Rural Health, who was situated in Havelock North with his family as the storm hit.

We were lucky enough to speak with him as he detailed his experience leading into response and recovery, the impact of the cyclone on the rural communities, and any lessons learned as a result.


We can imagine this past month has been extremely hectic for you – so thank you for your time. Firstly, what was your experience, being right in the thick of Cyclone Gabrielle? My kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude was tempered with my wife’s upbringing in far North Queensland, where cyclone prep is commonplace, however moving everything not bolted down into the garage and dumping a quarter of the pool water proved a courtesy wave to the forces of nature. We evacuated at 3 in the morning after phoning the fire brigade who did a welfare check on local residents, at that stage the garage flooded, and water was at the middle step of the house. We expected to return in the morning to clean up the yard. Daybreak revealed a dammed bridge breaching a nearby stream and a metre of water flowing down the street with vehicles floating and neighbours trapped inside homes.

Obviously, Cyclone Gabrielle caused havoc, particularly in the Hawkes Bay region such as the bridge damage you spoke of. Can you detail the impact on the infrastructure around you and what challenges that presented? As we often hear after natural disasters, there is an overwhelming sense of being underprepared. In our immediate area the flooding was quite localised, however, no comms or power meant the wider impact of the cyclone wasn’t appreciated for over a week. The absence of any emergency services though suggested there were bigger problems and gradually messages filtered through of the access block to most of the region due to bridge damage, treefall, and flooding.

It seemed like those power outages were paired in some regions with water shortages. That must’ve been a concerning factor at some point. Fortunately for us, water supply was sustained but the lack of power and comms was a challenge. I expect more so for friends and family trying to connect with us, as we had plenty of mahi at home to occupy us. Like most rural households our stock of camping equipment and food gave us peace of mind that we could entertain ourselves for a few days at least.

You mentioned that there was limited communication outside of your region and an absence of any emergency services. As a result of this, how did your community respond in coming together to support each other in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle? As the week progressed, the community response evolved. From the teenagers utilising their 4WDs to drag trees and debris from access ways, local sporting teams and tradies moving house to house stripping gib and furniture, the local community notice board coordinating rooms to accommodate people, schools organising uniforms and housing, the 5 households that shared our animals and bike collection, not to mention home baking and meals to challenge a godzone support crew. We continue to be humbled by the community support and messages of goodwill from all.

We are lucky as your eye isn’t just that of a civilian, but your clinical knowledge provides a unique perspective to some of the other impacts that you have seen, particularly on rural health. Being currently on a clinical hiatus, I had little contact with local colleagues but certainly, the immediate challenges of lost medicines and the trauma of flood damage were significant. Lack of comms and access clearly became the most pressing issue, and stock in isolated practices had the potential to be quickly exhausted. For the most part, clinical staff were able to work although some were cut off by access issues.

Building on this a little bit more, what challenges specifically did you gauge health professionals having to face in dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle? The expected gastroenteritis, soft tissue infections and some cases of leptospirosis have affected many. More significant will be the immediate and pending mental health challenges for those who have lost loved ones, homes, stock, and livelihoods. Coordinating a national medical response was again compromised by the lack of comms with affected areas.

What role did you find supporting organisations playing to ensure the health and safety of the affected population during and after the Cyclone? Hauora Taiwhenua promptly sought to flex the Tautoko Rural COVID response to relieve clinical services, although contractual processes could be reviewed in the future to enable a more seamless response. On the ground locally, limiting wastewater outflow into broken and overloaded drains was important, as was care with managing contaminated silt through the properties. Civil Defence were prompt in reviewing households for safety, traffic was limited to local residents and community patrols of damaged and abandoned properties gave us some peace of mind.

How did the health sector in rural communities adjust to these changing conditions and needs of the population? We have all learnt a lot about the buzzword of resilience in recent years. Rural communities have long been subject to the whims of the weather and learnt to roll with the cards dealt. As the waters recede, the core focus of why we practice medicine in these communities remains – to achieve the best health outcomes for our patients and rural communities. The experience will build on our collective wisdom and hopefully enable all of us to be more prepared for future events.

What did you observe of rural health providers responding to the increased demand for services in the wake of the Cyclone? What did this highlight looking back, in hindsight? Surge can present in many ways in the context of change and is often relative – fewer providers for the same load, variation in acuity and medical need, different modes of delivering care, and in increased illness for the usual medical service provision. Prioritising keeping our health providers well to allow ongoing and sustained service is a learning most of us inherently struggle with and reflecting on this in the context of health reform has also been a useful lesson for me.

These last few weeks have been as turbulent a time as any in recent history. As a parent, community member and also Doctor, what are your final reflections on Cyclone Gabrielle and your experience with it thus far? I am often fascinated by the way disease and illness affects individuals differently. Similarly, the same occurs with disasters. Many reflected they felt fortunate with their own scale of loss, particularly as the wider impact of Cyclone Gabrielle became evident. For us as a whanau, material loss is balanced by an appreciation for each other, the time and resources we have to rebuild and the security of professional livelihoods that continue.