The Hawke’s Bay Pacific Health team has received the 2024 Pasifika Public Health Award in recognition of its outstanding service to Pacific families and communities, as well as contributions to public health in Hawke’s Bay, especially last year during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Noreen Tully and Tumema Mita’i, Co Interim Managers for Pacific Health, recall the moments they realised how serious the situation was.

“I woke up the morning of the cyclone and ran outside to see if we were okay,” says Tumema. “And everything looked fine—the power was out, but that seemed the worst of it.

“But then someone sent me a video of RSE workers on top of roofs. You could see how high the floodwaters were, and they were still rising, and doors and fridges and animals were floating by. And I just thought, oh my gosh, I need to get out there and help.”

Mobilising the community to help

Tofilau Talalelei Taufale, from the national Pacific Health team, had put together a Pacific response plan in the days leading up to the cyclone. Unable to get to Hastings on the day the cyclone hit, he called and asked for the Pacific Health team to mobilise and head down to the Hastings Sports Stadium to provide clinical and cultural support for Pacific people.

“The community started to pour in,” says Noreen. “People were soaked through, some were injured, and many of them were traumatised—they had seen their homes flooded, some had seen their animals swept away by floodwaters right in front of them.”

Using their experience from Tihei Mauri Ora, the Maori and Pacific COVID-19 response, Pacific Health team members began to register everyone coming in and organise a clinical team of nurses, while reaching out to the community to bring in supplies.

“There were only a few registered nurses,” says Noreen, “but we managed to organise a team to assess people who needed medical care. Some people we sent to hospital and some we could manage at the centre.”

“We needed food, clothing, lights, mattresses, pillows, blankets—simply everything,” says Tumema. “The generosity from the community was just incredible. Sandra Hazlehurst, the Hastings Mayor, was incredibly responsive and involved; Flaxmere councillor Henry Heke brought in beds and bedding; the Red Cross came in with generators; the rapid relief team was there from the start cooking for everyone; and people emptied their fridges to help us out.”

Taking care of our RSE workers

 “The people just kept on coming in, all day and through the night too—the scale of people affected was incredibly humbling,” Noreen says.

“We had big RSE groups coming in, hundreds and hundreds of people, and there just wasn’t enough resource available. So, we worked with our community to quickly stand up six more Pacific evacuation centres for our RSE workers across Hastings and Napier, to vacate the main evacuation centres for the rest of our local community.”

Moving forward and preparing for future events

One of the learnings from the cyclone was how unprepared the community was to deal with such loss.

“In the lead-up to the cyclone, the focus was on what to do if we had heavy rain,” says Tumema. “But it was so much worse than that. And the Hawke’s Bay community simply wasn’t prepared for devastation on that scale.”

Noreen agrees. “We came in and used a Pacific village approach to wrap around support for everyone affected, and there is a lot that can be learned from that.

“We are actively preparing now for another such event—we’re now savvy about partnership with local councils, the Red Cross and the communities we serve. Before this, there was nothing in place. Now, funding is being put into preparedness, training and building emergency capability for the future of our communities.”