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Heavy Rain Triggers Anxiety For Isolated Gisborne Residents

“Sleep-deprived”, “anxious” and “distracted” is how members of the Bridging Tairāwhiti group felt during the at-times heavy rainfall that hit the district this week.

They feared losing access to their property or the outside world, having lost the public bridges to their homes during Cyclone Gabrielle last year.

They have been making do ever since.

Last month, farming property owners formed the Bridging Tairāwhiti group to lobby Parliament and get funding towards Tairāwhiti’s recovery plan to regain connectivity to their properties.

The owners had previously been told it could be five years before the council could fund the rebuilding of three bridges destroyed in Gabrielle.

Among the financial losses cited during their meeting with central government this month, the group expressed to Local Democracy Reporting how this week’s rain caused mental and emotional stress.

Helen Burgess lost access to public roads last year when the Burgess Bridge was washed away by a swollen Hangaroa River.

This week’s downpours caused her insomnia, she said.

“Every time I hear heavy rain on the roof ... [I] start thinking of the ‘what ifs’ and the plans that we would probably have to cancel,” she said.

Life post-cyclone was a constant calculation, she said.

“Not having a bridge is a bit like when you have a power cut.

“You’re going around the house and you think, ‘Oh, well I can’t do that’ ... and then you go to flick the light switch and go, ‘Oh, no... I can’t’. It’s just constant problem-solving.”

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Members of the group presented to the district council last week during its Three-Year Plan hearings, but when it started to rain heavily, they apologised and left.

They feared the rivers would get too high and they would not be able to get back into their properties.

Burgess said this was a common occurrence among them.

Group member Rob MacKenzie (Pauariki Bridge) said safety was always on his mind.

“I was in town about a month ago and my wife was at home unwell,” he said.

“I went to call her and she didn’t answer, and you start to worry.

“It’s moments like that.”

Council director of community lifelines Tim Barry this week said during a Civil Defence emergency management meeting the group’s members were worse-off than they were a year ago.

“For most of the region, things have improved in some measure. For them, it has not.”

Councillor Rob Telfer wanted to know how the council was helping them.

They had “fallen through the gaps of our process”, he said.

The group all have safe homes. However, they fall between policy cracks as the council does not have a process to buy out their properties or help them rebuild.

Barry said they were working with other agencies to support them.

“It’s a welfare situation now. We are an infrastructure delivery group.”

Barry spoke about the dangers of trying to cross rivers after having lost bridges.

“We don’t think it’s safe or smart to have people cross those rivers, but we can’t stop them from doing that.

“We’re concerned about the decisions they make at the water’s edge,” he said.

“Within the limitations of what we’ve got, we’re trying to be responsive to them.

“They are a group I will get straight back to when they request something.”

MacKenzie, who is able to get his vehicles over the river at a ford crossing during the summer months and when the river is low, told LDR he was constantly sitting at the river, wondering whether it was safe to cross.

“If you stuff something up and the water’s high, you could get yourself in a lot of trouble,” he said.

This week, he was unable to cross during the rain.

“On Tuesday morning it [the river level] was 3.2m, which is high ... my cut-off is 2.5m.”

The river rose as high as 4.5m this week, he said.

Last year, when they had a medical emergency at their property during a rainfall, it caused MacKenzie to think of the dangers.

“Helicopters don’t fly in the rain,” he said.

Burgess said: “The lack of safety brings on the most anxiety ... it’s a question we don’t want to ask ourselves. It’s a constant thing in the back of your mind.”

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz said during Wednesday’s meeting: “I can see the emotional and financial impact on those families.”

“We are waiting for the Budget announcement at the end of this month to know what type of assistance from NZTA [New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi] will be available.

“I am lobbying for them whenever I can.”

The council was concerned for the group, she said.

Gisborne Deputy Mayor Josh Wharehinga gave full credit to the group for “hanging in there” and “using their voice”.

“I know it’s tiring, but it is great you are doing the mahi.”

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