Centred in the storm

Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023 left Greg and Gail Mitchell isolated on their Hawke’s Bay farm along with 25 others. Here’s how they coped with the crisis and what they learned from it.

Inside Dairy

5 min read

Greg and Gail Mitchell, their farm team and their families learned first-hand what it takes to cope with and recover from a severe weather event like 2023’s Cyclone Gabrielle.

At 3am on February 14 last year, Hawkes Bay dairy farmers Greg and Gail Mitchell woke up to a blackout on their Patoka property, their backyard covered by 10-20cm of water and hills collapsing around the farm.

“It sounded like avalanches. We didn’t know what was going on,” says Greg, who’d raced out to turn on the generator.

Gail hopped onto Facebook. Civil Defence had declared a state of emergency for Napier and Hastings, and many bridges were out.

By 6am she’d phoned sons Scott and James. They were both fine. Then, all the cell towers in the area lost power.

Cows above a washed-out culvert.

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Some of the farm team repairing fencing.

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Paddock and fencing flooding damage.

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Team BBQ in the woolshed’s makeshift ‘kitchen’.

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All hands to the pump

“You didn’t know what was happening in the rest of the world. We were basically trapped,” says Greg.

The Mitchells had a generator in the cowshed, and plenty of space, so they and their eight team members (all from Kiribati) ferried freezers from their homes into the shed, setting up a base and communal kitchen.

Phone and online contact remained cut off while the team continued milking. Finally on February 16, one of their team got a phone signal from the top of one paddock, enough to message but not to talk. Fonterra flew in their area manager and two vets who advised everyone in the area to dry off their cows, due to no milk tanker access.

“Meanwhile, vets helicoptered in dry cow treatments to all the dairy farms, along with a vet for those who needed to pregnancy-test their cows,” says Gail.

Once restored, road access wasn’t easy or consistent: some were open one day, then closed the next, says Greg. At one stage, 900 cull cows from across the district had to be walked out across a river.

Family and others rallied. Son James crossed the river with help from locals at Rissington, to bring a generator, extension cords and gas bottles to the farm. Then private helicopters started coming in with food drops, followed soon after by NZ Army and Civil Defence helicopters.

It sounded like avalanches. We didn’t know what was going on.

Greg Mitchell

Recovery and reflection

Greg says it’s hard to plan for recovery or an emergency, and although they thought they were prepared, there were things they didn’t foresee.

“It was a month before we could get into town,” he says. “Everyone on the farm is looking to you for leadership. Things are changing all the time. The key is to keep making decisions.”

In the weeks following the cyclone, the Mitchells learned a lot.

“One thing was, to have a bit of a headcount of how many people live on your farm,” says Greg (27, including the team’s family members).

Gail noted that people handle isolation differently. Restored access to news/social media coverage of the cyclone damage unfortunately led to one staff member having a panic attack and being helicoptered out, two weeks after the cyclone.

Gail says even though their farm was isolated, at least they knew they were okay. “We couldn’t fathom how tough it must have been for those who had to climb onto their roofs to escape the floodwaters.”

The Mitchells (far left) catch up with three of their team. Left to right: Taremon Beia, Motua Moanibwebwe and Mika Kanae.

The key is to keep making decisions.

Greg Mitchell

Resilience before and after

“Be prepared to look after yourself for at least a week,” says Gail. “And have plenty of dry food, such as rice, that can be stored for a long period,” adds Greg. Knowing about Starlink satellite service would have helped immensely too, says Gail.

A generator is a must-have, as is access to enough fuel, says Greg. “Unison electricity distributors brought a generator that Civil Defence would supply with fuel, but it needed 4000 litres a day, so farmers began sending tankers over the river every day to collect some.

”The couple says portable solar-powered fences are another essential. “Once the power was off, cows quickly learned they could go through fences,” says Gail. “You need to be able to control animals, and not just on one side.”

The couple had a digger on the farm and began repairing culverts, but getting supplies in was slow. “For a month we couldn’t really do anything,” says Greg. Luckily, extensive work carried out before the cyclone, to divert water away from their cowshed and spread it over many points down the hill, really paid off, as did previously-installed sediment traps.

In places where infrastructure didn’t hold up, the Mitchells future-proofed it, replacing 500mm culverts with 1.2m culverts; and re-siting washed-away fences in less vulnerable locations. They also noticed ponding areas had helped slow water down, so they created more of them and raised more streams’ areas.

A good relationship with their insurance broker made the Mitchells’ life easier, especially when managing multiple claims. “We could pick up the phone and ring Heather, our broker, who did most of the firefighting for us,” explains Gail, who also advises having farm buildings photographed. “A valuer will want to know what it looked like pre-flooding.”

The couple’s ‘Force Majeure’ clause in their Fonterra Terms of Supply also kicked in, so they had the security of a paycheck coming.

Greg (pictured with the farm’s generator) says an alternative power source is a “must-have”.

If you want to help farmers, keep asking even a month or six weeks later.

Gail Mitchell

After effects linger on

“We dried the cows off in February that year and didn’t start milking again until that July,” says Greg. “The longterm effects of a disaster shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s crucial to step back after these events and assess how you’ll manage rebuilding – and the fatigue that goes with it.”

He had a serious tractor accident eight weeks after the storm, and he puts this and other farmers’ calls to 111 in the months post-cyclone, down to fatigue during the recovery in the region. “Everyone rips into it, but even if you are stuck on the farm, you can’t work 24/7,” he says.

Post-crisis support is very important too, adds Gail.

“If you want to help farmers, keep asking even a month or six weeks later. That’s probably the best time, as they’ve had time to digest what needs doing – and there’s access to the farm again.”

Slip damage caused by the storm.

Slip damage addressed with replanting.

Silver linings

“Don’t waste a good crisis,” emphasises Greg. “Learn to use what you’ve got, old wire and scrap metal can make a fence when you’re in need.”

Production-wise, they’re recovering relatively well. Their usual 600,000kg MS/year is tracking to drop down to about 570,000, and pasture growth has returned to normal after considerable undersowing.

“Staff coped well overall,” adds Greg, “but it did take some getting back into the swing of it for the next season.”

The couple remain upbeat, despite the challenges of the last 12 months. If you can “batten down the hatches” you will get through anything, says Gail.

The ultimate pick-me-up came six weeks after the cyclone when the Mitchells were named regional Ballance Farm Environment Awards’ Supreme Winner for the East Coast.

Planning for adverse weather

Having a contingency plan in place can help increase your resilience to future spells of adverse weather. We recommend that it include:

  • an adverse event checklist readily available and updated for and by everyone on-farm
  • a list of things to consider to care for your cows during an event:
    • shelter
    • areas to lie down
    • availability of appropriate feed and the environment
  • a calendar for regular plan discussions/updates with your team.

DairyNZ’s website has a range of tips, resources and advice for preparing for a range of adverse weather events, including prolonged wet weather, cyclones and dry periods. Visit crisis and adverse events for more information.

This article was originally published in Inside Dairy April-May 2024.

Page last updated:

23 Apr 2024