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Cyclone Gabrielle rescue response

FCANZ Member and urban fencer Rob Bigwood is the Regional Coordinator for the Manawatu/Tararua Surf Lifesaving Search & Rescue squad. The team assists with swift water (river) rescues and recoveries as well as supporting in-shore search and rescue activities. This is his story about how Rob and his team were involved in the Cyclone Gabrielle response.

“On the morning of Friday 10th of February this year, Central Region Lifesaving manager Justine Flemming contacted me to advise that the incoming weather event was going to be big, and it was likely that the team would be needed in the coming week. 

The team went on standby and by the Sunday the whole country knew that the Cyclone was going to hit hard. By Monday afternoon, following updates from the National Surf SAR Coordinator, the team had moved two boats inland from Himatangi Beach to Palmerston North and were ready to be dispatched wherever needed whether Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Tararua or Manawatu areas.

On Tuesday, the 14th we all awoke to the news of the devastation that had hit the East Coast. At 8am the SAR Squad were put on alert for dispatch to the Hawke’s Bay and at 10am the squad received the instruction to deploy – a trip that takes 3 hours in “normal” conditions. By now, the Saddle Road had closed and only the Pahiatua Track was available, a challenge with trailers at the best of times. 

11 Senior Lifeguards were in the team dispatched, including five specialist Swiftwater technicians, two Flood Rescue Boat Instructors and an EMT. The convoy of four vehicles and five IRBs assembled in Waipawa, where the first team had completed their initial taskings of a medical and a welfare check. The team then quickly made haste to the Hawke’s Bay, aware of the added challenge of no comms with Hawke’s Bay surf. 

Arriving in Hastings the team were immediately redirected to Pakowhai with a local on-board to give directions through police cordons and around closed roads. We arrived at the Ngaruroro River bridge at about 1730hrs and immediately launched the boat. 

The conditions on the water were nothing like I had experienced in 29 years of Lifeguarding or Land Search and Rescue. Only 300 metres from the launching point a Kenworth truck was completely covered with water with only the tops of its exhaust showing.  We were having to duck under the power lines. Most single-story buildings had only the top ridge of the roof showing.   

For the next two or so hours, with nightfall approaching, our SAR Squad worked in challenging conditions to rescue approximately 50 people, many of whom were RSC workers trapped on the rooftops of buildings. We were told to look for hovering helicopters as they would hover over any people they would find. In one hour approximately 190 people were rescued by Surf Lifesaving crews, the Airforce, rescue helicopters and two jet boats.

The final rescue of the day for the squad was a challenging stretcher recovery through a window to allow a spinal patient to be winched to safety, so when the squad were able to call it a night, having rescued all patients in the area, they were all very grateful for the food and accommodation provided. 

With the immediate dangers to life now (mostly over) we spent the following two days assisting Police and USAR (Urban Search & Rescue) to get to houses so they could check on occupants. This was an exhausting and sad time, and incredibly hard work. We performed a few animal rescues and thankfully we were able to help USAR clear a lot of buildings.

Surf SAR and Flood rescue events are likely to become more frequent and as such the Manawatu/Tararua SAR Squad would like to acknowledge the families and fellow clubbies who offer never-ending support while deployed. It is this support that allows the squad to do what they do. To the people of Hawke’s Bay we send all the aroha we can muster to you while you rebuild your lives and homes.” 

Article supplied by Rob Bigwood of Bigwood Fencing

Read More: Surf Lifeguards incredible Cyclone Gabrielle response recognised by bp

Published in the After the Storm Feature in WIRED Issue 70 / September 2023 by Fencing Contractors NZ