Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

“We shouldn’t overlook the power of community” – Tofilau Talalelei Taufale

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Gladys Hartson | Senior Journalist

February 14th 2023 will forever be etched into the lives and hearts of communities in Hawkes Bay, Napier, Northland and Gisborne who felt the full force and destruction of Cyclone Gabrielle. 

It claimed 11 lives, thousands of people and families lost their homes and property and infrastructure in many cities was severely damaged.

And as commemoration services were held around the regions to mark the anniversary of that event, Hawkes Bay Pacific response leader Tofilau Talalelei Taufale says people are doing the best they can and that times are still tough. 

“We really feel for the families who lost loved ones and we are also appealing for the number of families who are displaced and the businesses that have lost everything,” he says.

Not only was the local horticulture sector affected by the disaster, the impact was also felt by workers from the Pacific region employed under the Recognised Seasonal Workers (RSE) programme.

Tofilau says they felt the support and community spirit from across the country during the disaster and pays tribute to the government agencies, Pacific individuals and groups who helped Hawke’s Bay during and since the cyclone.

Pop-up evacuation centres were set up to house families and displaced people while health workers were deployed from across the country to support the Pacific Health clinics.

Six local Pacific churches played their role in providing not only spiritual guidance but much needed shelter and a temporary home for many of the RSE workers left with nothing but the clothes on their back after their accommodation and belongings were swept away by the floods. 

And he was encouraged to see the churches lead the way alongside Pacific providers catering to the different needs of the community, whether that be for food, shelter, insurance claims, or health and mental well being.

“You see the impact in wairua and you see the impact in Tairawhiti and across many of our communities that are still recovering. We don’t take things for granted,” he says.

Hawkes Bay Pacific response leader Tofilau Talalelei Taufale.

A Napier resident for more than 30 years, Tofilau says talanoa continues with the wider community. And while the strength and resilience of the community continues, he says it has taken a toll. 

“There are many challenges faced across communities… private situations where families are trying to claim their insurance back,” he says.

“And we also appreciate that there are many families that, because of so many hassles, red tape and barriers, some have left the region or left the country never to return and it’s sad to hear. It is what it is and we’re trying to move forward.”

However Tofilau remains optimistic.

 “We want to take this opportunity to strengthen our ability to adapt in weather events so it’s encouraging to know that there are some initiatives that are going to be announced shortly around how we can support our community leaders to be ready and then also how we can look at those six Pacific churches that stood up to perhaps look at being the starting point for community hubs in natural disasters and looking at how we can equip them with education and resources.”

Another positive has been the collective response to assess, to share and learn from those who have experienced cyclones from the Pacific region. 

“These natural disasters for our Pacific communities aren’t new because many of our elders experienced these sorts of things back in the islands. And many of the RSE workers, for example a number of the Fijian workers at the time, talked to me about experiencing cyclones in the islands,” he says.

“So they have a level of resiliency and if anything, their knowledge and skills can help us as a community and as a nation in terms of our ability to respond to a cyclone.

“We had a team from Niue here, they came post-the cyclone and their civil defence team came and they put together a paper and a number of recommendations about how we can, as a nation, look to create a platform for Pacific communities to be resilient and be prepared, bearing in mind that we’ve also had our natural disasters like in Christchurch, the earthquakes there have impacted their communities, the floods up in Auckland.”

Far left: Tofilau, featuring staff from Hawke’s Bay’s Pacific Health – Te Whatu Ora. Photo: Facebook.

As part of the one year anniversary, a special service was held that brought government agency representatives, MPs, Pacific church and community leaders and RSE workers together.

“All our RSE workers that were displaced, the company heads all came and it was a real chance to reflect and share and what made it really special, was all the RSE leaders, they shared some insights from their perspectives as well as songs. So that was really nice.” 

“I think what it has taught us is that there is a real opportunity for us to work together and the wider community can see that when Pacific communities work together, like during COVID, like the Napier floods, like these recent cyclones, good things can happen and it’s to the advantage that because we have such a diverse community and the example in this cyclone was that the community responded, we shouldn’t overlook the power of community.” 



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