2023 left a trail of destruction in its wake, with many happy to say goodbye to the year while facing the “long road ahead”.

Off the back of an already soaked 2022 Kiwis were looking skyward for the sun, only to be pummelled by rain that broke records.

NIWA declared January 2023 the “wettest month ever” for central Auckland with 539mm, smashing the previous record set in February 1869 by over 100mm.

Then just as the water began to recede, before residents had even a month to catch their breath, Cyclone Gabrielle struck.

For only the third time in New Zealand’s history, a national state of emergency was declared , cementing Cyclone Gabrielle into history alongside the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and first Covid-19 lockdown.

Four people died in the Auckland Anniversary floods and 11 others lost their lives to the force of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Many people will be happy to say goodbye to 2023 – every person who scaled a roof, abandoned their car or fled for their lives as floodwaters rose around them.

These are just some of the stories from the year that has changed their lives forever.

Auckland Anniversary Floods

Some in Auckland were excitedly preparing for Elton John’s concert on the evening of January 27. However the deluge that saw the gig cancelled as people were in the stadium left a permanent imprint on the country’s biggest city.

Flash flooding triggered by intense rainfall overwhelmed the 100-year-old drainage system with ease and forced the closure of major motorways, destroyed properties, businesses and livelihoods in one fell swoop.

A local state of emergency was declared and hundreds evacuated their homes.

The devastation was widespread, brutal, and remains ongoing for many.

In the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, residents carried their children through floodwaters, submerged up to their chest.

Stunned Henderson residents were rescued from their houses by kayaks and jet skis, and across the central city helicopter footage captured jagged slips as houses were left precariously on the edge of cliffs.

One of those homes belongs to Douglas Miller, who described the terror of his house teetering on the edge of a 30m cliff-face in West Auckland.

He, his wife Denise, their daughter Mavis and her partner Chris had no choice but to abandon the home amid high winds and rain.

Miller told 1News: “I feel so helpless. I’m the sort of person when something is broken, I can fix it, or I’d give it my best shot and that’s the worst, knowing I can’t do anything. It’s totally out of my hands.”

Cyclone Gabrielle

The land was covered in mud and silt. Communication was cut for many as houses were swept away, cars upturned, and items from countless businesses and orchards were strewn through the landscape.

An overturned car on Dartmoor Road in Hawke's Bay.

Beginning on February 12, a national state of emergency was declared, applying to Northland, Auckland, Tairāwhiti Gisborne, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Tararua District.

It’s estimated more than 10,000 people found themselves displaced as a result of the cyclone.

In the Esk Valley region of Hawke’s Bay, residents Ella and Jack recounted the horror of the night their cherished two-year-old daughter Ivy was swept away in the floodwaters.

Jack fought desperately for their lives during the tumultuous storm and Ella recalls the night as “bloody hell on earth”.

“We lost our young one, the biggest loss I’ll ever have to take in this lifetime,” Jack said.

The family’s home, though shattered, still holds precious memories of Ivy, with her nightlight stars shining on the roof, a constant reminder of happier times.

“I was so proud of her, absolutely exceptional. Her ability to communicate her emotional maturity was far beyond her years. She was super sharp and fearless,” Jack said.

Also in Esk Valley, Christopher and Luciana Barber described the moment they smashed a hole through their roof with a wooden toy in order to survive.

“We had a big rush of water come in, and it just started rising really quickly. That’s when things got scary, and we did our last 111 calls. But we knew no-one was coming to save us,” Christopher said.

They have two small children and when the floods hit, they had one last chance to survive.

“I found a little wooden train track and smashed a hole through the ceiling. Then she passed up the children and a seven-month-old puppy…we sat in that roof space for a few hours.”

Huddled together, the family were finally rescued as dawn broke.

In Tairawhiti, 500 Te Karaka residents were evacuated from their homes and stranded for 27 hours with no communication or any idea if anyone was coming to help.

Locals broke down in tears when telling Jenny-May Clarkson about what they’d been through.

“Now don’t get me wrong, we’re happy we’re still alive,” one resident told her, “but, it’s the devastation afterwards. We don’t even know we’re going to stay.”

“We just watched it unfold in front of us. And watched our town basically get drowned,” another said.

Amber Rhodes’ home was one of five Karekare properties damaged or destroyed in slips during Cyclone Gabrielle.

She said the concrete steps began “pulling apart like in a movie” and “disappearing beneath our feet” while they were still inside.

“My husband was behind me and he turned and he looked back and saw the entire house slide down the hillside onto the road,” Rhodes said.

Built in 1927, the house that had been in her family since the 1960s was reduced to a flattened pile of debris, with sodden books strewn about.

Rhodes said while the family “all managed to get out safely,” they were left shocked by the “devastation out here in Karekare which we’ve never seen anything like before”.

In Whakapara, north of Whangārei, vehicles were left like toys submerged in flood waters.

Cars submerged in flood waters in Whakapara, north of Whangārei.

In Muriwai, west of Auckland, deadly landslides rolled down steep cliffs and claimed the lives of two volunteer firefighters – Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg.

The cyclone left behind 130 red-stickered homes in Muriwai – more than anywhere else in the country.

Charlotte Reynolds told Sunday about her home that lay in the pathway of one of the most destructive landslides.

A firefighter yelled at them to leave before a massive pine tree was propelled like a missile through her 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom, past the kitchen and into the lounge.

“I left with my daughter, my dogs, my husband’s ashes and my book, can you believe it? I thought I’d probably just be out of the house for the night,” she said.

Fragments of many lives were buried in large, sticky piles of that mud. Glimpses of a community that once was.

Aftermath

Smothered in silt and surrounded by slash, the unforgiving force of these weather events is still evident across the country today.

Politicians have walked around the hardest-hit communities, pledging they won’t be forgotten as the multi-generational clean-up effort began.

In May, Treasury estimated the damage from both Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland Floods could range from $9 billion to $14.5b, second behind only the Canterbury earthquakes in terms of damage from natural disasters New Zealand has faced.

Of this, $5b to $7.5b of damage is expected to relate to infrastructure owned by central and local government.

The Government ploughed three-quarters of a billion dollars into fixing roads and railways across the country hit by January floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.

In July, the Government pledged a further $567 million for immediate repair works on state highways in Tairāwhiti, Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay, Coromandel and Northland.

An official government inquiry was also launched into the response to the North Island severe weather events, noting that with climate change such events will become more common.

Next came the buyout processes for flood and cyclone-affected Kiwis after the council agreed to a cost-sharing agreement with the Government.

Now, months on from Cyclone Gabrielle, some residents told 1News they still feel like they’re in limbo.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier released his report into the country’s emergency procedures, sharing that every person he met with was “incredibly generous with their time” and sharing their experiences that help him form a robust picture of the complaints he has received in his work.

Among the despair, there is hope for the future.

Already a major State Highway bridge between Kōpū and Hikuai has been rebuilt, miraculously reconnecting these Coromandel communities before Christmas and under budget.

The section was completely washed away in late January.

The slip on SH25A Kōpū-Hikuai has suffered a further significant slip.

In Wairoa, just three out of 133 residents there have officially returned home, 11 months on from Cyclone Gabrielle.

Wairoa recovery manager Benita Tahuri is calling for more urgency.

“The pressing need for urgency, especially as the frequency of storms continues to rise, causing further distress among residents,” she said.

“I just don’t know if people are seeing or hearing the struggle that we’ve got across the country.

“Just because we’re not on the news or in the newspapers doesn’t mean our families aren’t suffering.”

This is a sentiment still shared by communities across the country. As they band together to rebuild, reconnect and remind themselves of what’s to come following this roller coaster year.

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