21 September 2023

Hawke's Bay Regional Public Service Commissioner Karen Bartlett reflects on the region's recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle.

It's incredible what a bit of sunshine can do – especially for those still grappling with the ongoing destruction and uncertainty caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

“We just had a sunny week and the difference that made in people was incredible,” says Karen Bartlett.

“Everyone seemed to lift, and the weather was the first thing people mentioned to each other when they met.”

Karen is the Regional Public Service Commissioner (RPSC) for Hawke's Bay, and one of 12 RPSCs representing every corner of Aotearoa.

Employed by individual government departments and working across 15 regions on behalf of the Public Service, RPSCs play an important role in the interface between national policy and local implementation.

For Karen, that role has been very much focused on recovery since Cyclone Gabrielle ripped through parts of the country in February, causing widespread damage and 11 deaths.

Six months on few people are immune from the ongoing after-effects, she says.

“There remains significant trauma across Hawke’s Bay. Every aspect of our community was impacted, whānau, homes, marae, churches, schools, businesses, infrastructure, and the whenua. Of course, the trauma for some has been much worse than for others, but everybody has been impacted, either directly or through friends and family.”

She recalls being part of a regional call the night before the cyclone struck.

“I knew that it was going to be bad in Tairāwhiti, which was under a red warning, but things were less certain for Hawke's Bay, which had been under an orange warning.

“But overnight everything fell apart, and all through the next day it was severe, no power, no communications, bridges were out, people were cut off, homes and land was devastated and sadly people lost their lives.”

Rissington Bridge was washed out by Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo by Hastings District Council.

Her Hastings office had no electricity, so Karen went to Civil Defence Headquarters for a couple of days before joining colleagues at the local Te Puni Kōkiri office where a generator had been set up.

They quickly ended up with public servants from Te Puni Kōkiri, Ministry of Social Development, Oranga Tamariki, Ministry of Education, Te Whatu Ora, Waka Kotahi, Corrections and more, all working side by side when it mattered most.

“Just by sitting together it meant that some things could happen quickly, for example Ministry of Education and MSD linking displaced workers to help clear school grounds of silt. We ran on communication and trust.

“Likewise, once we knew the needs of some communities, we worked out how we could collectively fund it, and with a single reporting mechanism to make it easier and faster for everyone.

“These may sound like small things, but when you look back at the way we used to operate, they're actually quite big things.

The value of a joined-up Public Service becomes very, very evident at a time like this.

Going through the social sector plan for the recovery approach, you are immediately struck by the length of the list of complex issues being tackled.

There are roading access issues, displaced households, safety and security concerns, volunteer burnout, workforce impacts, and increasing unemployment. Psychosocial support is needed at individual, whānau and community-level.

But it's also reassuring to see the long list of public sector agencies involved in the recovery, and the detailed, coordinated approach that is about being locally led, regionally enabled, and nationally supported.

An extra RPSC was established for Tairāwhiti early on in the recovery, and in March, the government established the Cyclone Recovery Unit to lead, coordinate and monitor the severe weather recovery across government.

Eskdale after floodwaters had receded. Photo by Hastings District Council.

Work is underway to enable the recovery plans that communities have developed since the cyclone - this is largely focused on whānau and community wellbeing, plus workforce development in support of the economic recovery of the region. 

Karen says the response in Hawke’s Bay has been collaborative across agency, iwi, hapu, councils and communities from Wairoa to Central Hawke’s Bay - “and this will stand us in good stead as the recovery moves forward”.

But there is still a great deal of work to be done, she says.

“I want to get to the space where we can start seeing the action plans in effect, where we can start ticking some of those big items of the to-do list that need to be ticked off.

“How do you get there? You get there with small wins.

“There is a lot to do, and you just have to get on and do it. And that's what we're doing.”