My Cyclone Diary: after the flood, the dread that replaces panic
It is difficult to record historical events that will in time determine policy decisions and economic outcomes, and the lives of those affected, while events are still unfolding. There are the quick impressions – men wrestling escaped bees on a roadside deep in flood waters, a flattened cornfield marked by the shape and force of the torrent, a mud-soiled child on a stoop, wide plains transformed into lakes, the eerie chime of a stuck train signal. Then there are the pecuniary matters – the financial loss of a corn yield – and the interviews with the afflicted.
Any large-scale traumatic event, be it a natural disaster or a war will often provoke reminders of previous traumatic episodes; instances that have remained abstract, placeless or locked within the mind. A flood might breach other instances of grief, loss, degradation, violence. It may be the interminable and sour stench of silt and sewage, children’s toys and clothing heaped in brown puddles, humble and cherished items stacked in ruins or the ceaseless clack of helicopters flying low through ashen skies that prompt the return of a painful memory; it could be the sight of broken walls, sagging houses, a wrecked car submerged in mud.
The national state of emergency in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti has been extended for a third week to manage the ongoing impact from the flooding event, and for many these past three weeks have been a gruelling blur of endless toil, more rain accompanied by anxiety at a greying sky, sheltering at a marae or elsewhere for an indeterminate period. People speak of the collective trauma that accrues among those caught in limbo, living in close quarters together. A different mode of anxiety settles in, there is a shift in psychology. Dread supplants the immediate panic where, for instance, the week after the flood, water was scarce. Town faucets supplied water only an hour or so a day, and there remains circumspection about the quality of that water. The river as it breached roared through fertiliser plants, farm run-off, garden sheds stacked with hazardous chemicals, and sewage.
Four days after the flood, the local council administered its usual daily update – printed on A4 paper given the lack of telecommunications – with a decree to boil all water. All flood water was to be treated as contaminated as the wastewater system was overloaded. Three days after this edict, the update instructed those wading through sludge and silt to wear gloves and long sleeves, and respiratory masks for those blazing days where the mud dried to dust and curdled in the throat, prompting wheezing and a caustic taste in the mouth. Those intervening days between ordinances were, then, higher risk, regarded as more unsafe than was previously understood. Such details are important in consideration of the seeds of distrust planted and circulating within communities during the Covid pandemic. Formal warnings or lack thereof threaten to reinforce mistrust in such a time.
The immediate ancillary social issues to the event were not unanticipated – the spike in domestic violence, the sole operational grocery store stating it would not sell alcohol and cigarettes, the fear of theft. “Good job on the yellow stickers,” one man rued, wryly addressing the council in describing the classification that signals a house is not immediately habitable but not condemned and may therefore contain valuables. There was the fraying mental state of those on the frontlines confronting destroyed homes and distressed occupants, tasked with issuing such stickers that sealed the fate of a home’s inhabitants.
That there was, for a week, no internet connection allowed for a markedly different experience than might otherwise have transpired. The centre of the town became atypically populated; people converged on the council grounds seeking information, supplies, conversation, hopes of an online connection. It would have been an entirely different experience had there been the internet to scroll for information. There would not be the knitted community that would emerge, the material understanding that our lives are indivisibly linked to one another, notwithstanding the observation levelled from some corners that those milling around the grounds were not – for the most part – covered in mud, were not salvaging their ravaged homes, and it would become, and remain, a point of contention. Comments would be directed at the council and the National Emergency Management Agency, which located water reserves, food and social services on the side of town that had not experienced flooding.
With no fuel, those on the affected side of town could not necessarily travel to access water with which to clean or drink; when they arrived at a food bank for welfare boxes, they found those reserves scant or emptied. Occupied with urgently rescuing their ruined homes, they were dealt a further blow. Military vehicles rolling through the town and reserves clad in fatigues became a familiar and ambient sight; the sound of choppers collecting and depositing relief and supplies – power generators, water, food – a hopeful if not disquieting brace against the sense of being abandoned. And there were those on far-flung farms or on the outskirts of town also without fuel and supplies, and those still without power, three weeks on.
A week or so into the disaster it seemed as though half the town was quite suddenly stricken once again with Covid, including the mayor and the primary volunteer leading the response effort at Hinemihi marae. The abrupt confluence of a pandemic and a natural disaster is a modern crisis of the kind theorists and scientists have been predicting for decades. Accordingly, facing twinned events under such conditions prompts ethical and practical questions and problems, and risks, that will ultimately depend upon an individual, not the state, to weigh and to make commensurate decisions and compromises.
What this event has offered is a glimpse not only into the daily realities faced by many around the world – how the impoverished and stricken have lived for decades – but a future that has arrived in all its chaos: lack of water, intermittent power, no communications, dwindling, limited or restricted reserves of fuel and food, uninhabitable homes, sudden unemployment, destroyed infrastructure and road networks. The notion of the social contract is removed from its theoretical status in such a time; how thin are those strands that bind us together when the grocery store shelves are bare and no banking technology means those with no cash will go without but for the goodwill of others – particularly when central government cannot intervene at the outset. That requisite moral and ethical choices are required is patent but there is no guarantee one will act in accordance with one’s system of belief under such duress. We may find ourselves surprised, alarmed, by our own thoughts.
Anna Rankin is a writer working as a reporter in Wairoa