• Video: Volume of water in Cyclone Gabrielle was mind-boggling, says local cameraman

Video: Volume of water in Cyclone Gabrielle was mind-boggling, says local cameraman

The volume of water in areas of Hawke’s Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle last year was “just mind-boggling", says local cameraman and Hastings District Councillor Simon Nixon.

Nixon, who is a stringer for a national television network, says he had just returned from Wairoa, having been sent there on the day before the cyclone.

He says he was lucky to get back to Napier and did not realise how bad things would get.

“On the way back I thought: “That rain's getting very heavy’. And I noticed there were quite a few slips. There were trees down across the road, and the rain was very heavy. I was escorted from about Tūtira through the Devil's Elbow, but I didn't have any inkling of just how bad it was going to get.”

He says that the real drama started the next day when he was asked to go the Esk Valley because they were evacuating people by helicopter off the roofs of houses.

“The next morning, it rained all night, the wind was ferocious, I got up about three o'clock and went out. I couldn't believe it. All around Havelock North, there were just trees across the road. Campbell Street, just along from the school, completely blocked off. I travelled around. The power was intermittent, the streetlights were coming on and off. It was very hard to see. I found one workman trying to cut trees up, but that was about all.”

He travelled along the expressway to Napier and found the situation even worse.

“The water obviously came from Waiohiki, down Links Road, and flooded that whole area. In hindsight, perhaps I should have been trying to ring more people. But remember, the phones also went down, because that was around the time that both my phones stopped working. I could get a few text messages out, but that soon stopped as well.”

He soon realised that it was a very dangerous area to be in.

“And I just thought: ‘This is a very dangerous area to be in.’ The volume of water was just mind boggling. And I just thought: ‘I don't want to be here too much longer.’”

Earlier Nixon had noticed that river levels were getting higher when he was travelling in the Links Road area.

“But I'd noticed the Tūtaekurī River was flying very high. It's the highest I've ever seen. The Ngaruroro River does, but the Tūtaekurī does not get that high, so I thought I'd go back and take a couple of pictures of it.”

“The water was coming down the highway from Waiohiki, like a river itself. I would say it would be about two metres deep. I saw a ute tumbling, end over end, all the way down the road, and got washed into one of the adjacent low-lying paddocks of the golf course, where the winery is.”

“It just kept getting worse. Some police turned up, I suggested to them they needed a jet boat or something. A man jumped into the water to try and rescue some people out on the golf course. I never saw him again, but presumably he did return. At that stage I thought, this is just getting too dangerous, I think I will go back to Napier, which I did.”

After a day of filiming the unfolding tragedy, Nixon found himself trapped in Napier and unable to return to his Hastings home.

“Somebody found me a motel. TV3 found an operator who could provide me with an internet system. I don't know how he did it. I still don't know how it worked. But he was very busy working, so I could only use it intermittently to upload stories that I was shooting. But that did help, otherwise we would not have got the message out.”

Nixon, who remembers Cyclone Bola, says he always has a plan when covering disasters.

“I've been through a fair few floods and disasters over the years. I'm reasonably cautious. I tend to always make sure I've got an escape route, that I can get to higher ground. Because you just don't want to be another victim, and it would certainly ruin my story.”

Looking back a year, Nixon says it was “a terrible tragedy”.

“I think it was really the failure to monitor things in real time and get that message out to the community that things were seriously out of control, and if you're in certain areas, you should leave those areas.”

“Looking back, I should have really somehow tried to say... I don't know whether I could have because the phones were so bad... to people between the two rivers, Pakowhai Road and the rest, get out, go to Hastings, go to Napier, but get out of this area. Because it was clearly turning completely out of control. Completely.”