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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

As the Waters Rise

In an event as impactful as Cyclone Gabrielle any number of gripping stories emerge as the force of Mother Nature puts humans’ safety and survival at risk. In Napier for Jonty Moffett, horticulturalist and owner of Flanders and Moffett beekeeping business, in six hectic hours on February 14 his thoughts soon turned from concern for his orchard, hives and equipment, to that of his family and staff as flood waters rose, lives were put at risk and he scrambled to ensure others’ safety.

By mid-morning flood waters were so high and so fast on the increase, road vehicles were no longer of use and Moffett was left with but one option if he wanted to continue to aid his 80 Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) orchard staff and neighbours – the jet-skis. A bad time for one to have a flat battery then…

Jonty Moffett at a time of drier feet. The horticulturalist and owner of Flanders and Moffett beekeeping business has seen both his businesses and home hard hit by Cyclone Gabrielle.

After a quick swap around of batteries he got both up and running, one for a friend and one for himself, no sooner than the flood waters floated it off the trailer. From there it was throttle down.

While the ‘washup’ of the flood would be extensive damage to the Flanders and Moffett shed and headquarters, some hives, his orchard packhouse and cool-store, crops, apple trees and even a write-off of his own home and several of his family members’ houses, in those hectic hours on the jet-ski, it was people’s safety at the forefront.

A Morning Like No Other

Moffett’s morning started about 6am with a check of the family’s apple, rock melon, watermelon and maize crops.

“It was a wet and ruthless night, so I got up early to shoot around the orchard and check on damage,” he picks up his recollection of an action-packed day.

“At that early morning stage it wasn’t too bad. So, when I got home I jumped on the side-by-side with my daughter to go and take a look at the river. We got halfway down and the water was coming to meet us.”

That necessitated sending his teenage daughter home as he headed for his nearby parents’ house.

“I waded through waist-deep water to get there and discovered they had got out. I then went to our yard where our RSE staff stay to check on them and they were alright.”

A quick trip to the nearby marae to check in there was followed by the decision to head home, with concern for their low-lying house.

“By the time I got home it was pretty clear it was getting serious fast. The family went inside and I let horses out of the paddocks and took their covers off. My wife was grabbing food and water and belongings.”

With the family scrambling up to the attic to keep dry, that’s when the jet-skis became the only option to get around fast.

“I went out to some low-lying areas to try and ferry people to the hills. By that stage houses were already totally submerged and I was ducking under powerlines, the water was that deep. At that point I went home to join the family in the attic and waited until the water went down. We were huddled in an attic with my parents, a couple of my kids, some neighbours. There were about 10 of us.

“We had a little window in the attic which was going to be our escape hatch if the water got any higher. You looked out to see the water flowing past, the horses huddled behind a shed and it began to sink in a bit. That was flood day. Rock bottom, and ever since then we have been rebuilding.”

Apple crops go to waste at Moffett Orchards in Hawke’s Bay following Cyclone Gabrielle.

The Destruction

While Moffett’s beekeeping team, headed by business partner Jeff Flanders and their staff of four, have yet to assess most of their 1600 hives, losses are expected to be minimal compared to the damage to their headquarters at the Moffett orchard where supers were washed away and silt laden. Water through beekeeping and orchard vehicles rendered them inoperable, while crops have been destroyed and most apple trees simply won’t survive.

“It’s life changing,” Moffett says.

“It’s rock bottom and we are trying to move from crisis management to semi-operational. It’s a matter of forming a plan that will work. We have options in front of us, but it is early days yet. We need to work through some things with the insurance company. We don’t know how many hives we have left on a lot of the farms, but I don’t think there will be a large number washed out. Some would have though.”

Luckily varroa treatments are in their hives, as gaining access to many will take some time. This season they have had a “next to nothing” honey crop thus far.

“I can’t see us getting a crop. Nothing worth talking about anyway. Jeff is optimistic, but I’ve never seen a lot come in in March.”

Flood waters engulf the Moffett home, February 14.

As for the sheds, they are working to tidy up.

“We have shovelled everything out and dumped it. The little bit of honey we had in stock will be ruined. All our supers, frames and boxes have been washed away. We have picked most of them up again, but the frames are full of silt.”

Onwards

His family is currently living out of a campervan on their property, two of his brothers and his parents have also had their homes destroyed, and there are also the 80 RSE staff from Samoa to worry about. It’s undoubtably going to be a challenging ‘rebuild’ for orchard, apiaries, home and factory.

As for the beekeeping side of his business, he calls this the “cherry on top of a terrible season”. Despite all that, Moffett is trying to focus on the positives.

The Moffett orchard goes underwater.

“I am truly blessed with the people who are around me. My family, my mates. It’s times like this you actually find out how good they are. They are tough, resilient, talented and I am lucky to be surrounded by that. It gives you strength, it gives you belief that you can actually make it,” he says.

Then there are the little things.

“Hopefully today we get power. I might have a hot shower tonight,” Moffett says, adding, “everyday gets a bit better”.





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