Real Life

Cyclone Gabrielle: ‘My cat saved our lives!’

When her home and belongings have gone, Te Kīra is just grateful her beloved moggy has his eight lives left

Woken by the constant miaowing of her cat Kore at 5.45am on Tuesday, February 14, Kezia-Joy Whakamoe had no idea what she was about to experience or that the early wake-up call was potentially lifesaving.

As she headed to the bathroom, the single mother-of-one, who chooses to go by her Māori name Te Kīra, could hear the strangely loud rushing of water below.

One look outside her Waiohiki Arts Village home and she knew they were in trouble.

“We were submerged like we were in a lake,” recalls Te Kīra, 46, who wasn’t worried about the approaching Cyclone Garbrielle when she went to sleep the night before.

At that time, she says it was raining and a bit windy, “but we’d had much worse before”.

But overnight the Tutaekuri River had risen dramatically and began to rush through Waiohiki, destroying much of the small Hawke’s Bay community.

“I got quite scared and panicked,” she tells. “The water was rising and I couldn’t prioritise what needed to happen apart from getting the cats.”

Moggy Kore sounded the alarm while his owner and her son slept.

She called the fire service, who advised her to get on the roof or in the attic – neither of which were possible. With so many needing assistance, they weren’t able to provide any more help.

Te Kīra’s 24-year-old son Israel was clear-headed and focused, directing her to move their computers and guitar up high. But it was obvious they couldn’t safely stay inside.

Thankfully, concerned neighbours Terri Dangen and her son Chris came over, taking them and Kore back to their nearby home, which had a small upstairs room.

Waiohiki’s picturesque streets under siege.

Hours were spent trying to save artworks and items from Terri’s downstairs shop, and going outside whenever possible to help bring others seeking shelter in, or share the supplies they had.

“Eventually, we had to stay upstairs and sat in the window watching the water rising, thinking, ‘When is it going to stop?’ But it just kept rising. People were trying to drive away and their cars were starting to float. Shipping containers were floating past and the golf course looked like Huka Falls.”

Taking a breath, Te Kīra continues, “Another neighbour arrived, shivering and traumatised. He was driving when a wave picked up his car and dumped it. He had passed a car with three kids standing on

top of it. Their grandmother was next to him, screaming, ‘Those are my moko’, but they couldn’t get to them.”

They later learned the children were saved, but Te Kīra knows it’s just one traumatic story amongst thousands for the region.

Her car is also a write off.

When the flood waters eventually receded that evening, Te Kīra sought refuge at the nearby Ormlie Lodge, where she is still staying.

As the days pass by, Te Kīra shares she’s still completely overwhelmed by what they and so many others endured.

“I don’t really know how to describe it because I’m still right in the middle of it. It’s an apocalyptic feeling here and now there’s heaps of dust. We wear masks but even so, I can already feel my lungs

itching. Unless you see the hugeness of it, you can’t really believe it.”

Speaking to the Weekly from the shade of a tree, Te Kīra is staring at the wreckage of what was her home.

More than 30 volunteers – some friends and whānau but most complete strangers – have just finished completely gutting the house and all of her worldly possessions are piled up on the road. Almost

nothing is salvageable.

No going back: The damage o her uninsured home means Te Kīra must move on.

“It’s when I think about people’s generosity and kindness that brings the tears,” says Te Kīra, who didn’t have insurance, but is humbled by the support of those donating to a Givealittle page her brother Iraia Whakamoe set up.

It’s hard to know where to go from here, but it’s also not the first time the talented artist has lost everything and rebuilt her life.

At 28 years old, Te Kīra shares, she was raped. The accused had previously spent several years in prison for sex crimes. But despite the officer in charge supporting Te Kīra’s case, it was thrown out of court due to a lack of evidence.

One year later, in 2006, her grandfather died and she returned home to find her Hastings house the target of arson, burnt to the ground and all of her personal belongings destroyed.

Te Kīra is a survivor and knows from experience she can and will overcome this latest tragedy. Her plan is to buy a van and head home to her ancestral Tūhoe lands, where she’ll continue her work as an artist.

Now she’s headed to drier land to start all over again.

“One thing that’s really clear is none of us have time to waste. I am going to get a big first-aid kit, and make sure I have stuff to cook with and to make a fire, a few beautiful things and that’s it,” enthuses Te Kīra, adding she will never forget the spirit of the community.

“We have banded together and everyone who has been able to, has turned up to help. There are almost no words, only tears, and that is where the aroha is expressed.”

To donate to Te Kira, visit

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