Hearing people trapped on rooftops screaming for help in the darkness as floodwaters surged around their homes is something Corporal Storm Harrison says he will never forget.
The former Regular Force soldier, now a member of the Army Reserve Force, was one of the first two New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel to come to the aid of Esk Valley residents as Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked havoc in Hawke’s Bay.
With him was Staff Sergeant Davey Forbes, a fellow member of the 5/7 Battalion Royal NZ Infantry Regiment – reserves based on the East Coast. As the cyclone approached, Staff Sergeant Forbes was made controller of NZDF resources for the Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups in Hawke’s Bay.
In the early hours of Tuesday 14 February, the pair raced to Bay View Fire Station after news a river had burst its banks in Esk Valley.
“She was pretty chaotic down there, people running around, the volunteer firefighters were scrambling to get out, and the lights were out so people had torches,” Corporal Harrison said.
He and Staff Sergeant Forbes leapt into a Unimog truck with two firefighters and two police officers. “We said ‘We have got to go, people are screaming for help, we can hear them screaming from the rooftops’.”
Rising floodwaters blocked their way on State Highway 5, forcing the crew to navigate a different route into Esk Valley, which was littered with fallen trees.
Out of the darkness came a man running barefoot, looking for his pig dogs. Staff Sergeant Forbes said, “He was a tree feller so we took him back to his truck to grab his chainsaw, and he was clearing roads for us in bare feet and we were dragging the trees from the road.”
When they made it to Eskdale School, they discovered around 20 carloads of people – safe, but stranded – and water tanks and containers floating past in the floodwaters.
Once again, Corporal Harrison tried to drive on through the torrent to reach people trapped in their homes, but the vehicle’s headlights quickly became submerged. Staff Sergeant Forbes and a police officer got up on the cab of the Unimog, armed with two spotlights.
With water gushing into the cab, Staff Sergeant Forbes had to make a heart breaking decision.
“The water was too high, it was running too fast and water was coming up to the mog windscreen, and then it started to fill the cab and we were starting to get pushed with the current. We reversed back up. It was very frustrating to feel like we had failed,” he said.
Eventually, Surf Life Savers and locals with jet boats started to join the rescue effort. In the meantime, the reservists had backed the Unimog up to Eskdale School and transported those stranded there to safety in nearby Bay View.
Staff Sergeant Forbes set about coordinating the on-the-ground response, working with a reconnaissance team from Linton Military Camp, Police, and Fire and Emergency, and setting up an NZDF base at Hastings Police Station.
As the sun started to rise, Corporal Harrison spotted a way through the floodwaters and was able to reach a woman and two children sheltering on their roof.
“They had been up there since midnight and by this time it was 10am … We had a quick chat as we got them into the truck and she said, ‘Thanks for coming, I thought we were over but as soon as I saw the Unimog turn up we knew we were alright’. That was a good feeling.”
The water level began to recede, revealing the extent of the damage and almost impenetrable silt. Wading through chest-high water and at times having to break down doors, Corporal Harrison and others spent a long time checking houses.
“You don’t really think about what’s on the other side of that door, you usually clear rooms with weapons but this time you’re breaking doors to search for people. But the motivation was this is in our town, this is our home, these are our people we know. So that’s what kept us moving.”
The response has been personal for both men, who live in the Napier area. Staff Sergeant Forbes said, “I feel I had a lot of skin in the game, it’s our home, it’s our people, all you want to do is the best for them.”
Corporal Harrison estimated crews rescued around a dozen people before Regular Force personnel arrived to help coordinate efforts and begin trying to reach isolated communities around Puketapu and Rissington.
Staff Sergeant Forbes, who spent 26 years in the New Zealand Army, is quick to deflect praise for his own actions.
“That night we didn’t understand the volume of it, we could only see what the Unimog could show us,” he said.
He is full of respect for Corporal Harrison. “I can’t speak highly enough of Stormy. His actions saved the lives of a lot of our community. I’ve known Stormy since he joined the NZDF. He has always been someone you can rely on and look to when you are in a tough spot.”
In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, Corporal Harrison has kept busy focusing on his work with the NZDF – keeping his mind off the uncertainty surrounding his civilian job owning and driving trucks. While his truck was parked at home and survived the flooding, his workplace Pan Pac Forest Products was destroyed.
“When I found that out I was stunned, it’s such a huge, huge mill.”
Corporal Harrison said his family had been amazing while he was out responding, and he’s grateful to have had his 5/7 Battalion comrades by his side.
“Rank is rank, but this is family, this is whānau,” he said.