Nurse returns to work, days after losing everything in cyclone

February 23, 2023

A Hawke’s Bay nurse who had to swim to safety from her flooded home and lost everything she owns in Cyclone Gabrielle was back on duty at Hawke’s Bay Hospital four days later. 

Maria Hollyshead after being reunited with her cat George.

Maria Hollingshead bluntly states her post-cyclone reality.

“Basically we’ve lost everything. Six feet of water through our property, three homes, 11 cars trashed, the whole lot, everything.”

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Nurses devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle are juggling trauma, property losses, and trying to support friends and whānau – while still providing essential care for their community.

Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa NZNO kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku, who lost her Omahu home in northwest Hastings and took refuge for hours on a raised stopbank to escape “violent torrents of water”, encouraged members affected by the cyclone to reach out for support.

“The only thing I can say is reach out, and don’t feel whakamā, don’t feel stink about reaching out and just having someone with you because in these times, that’s what’s really needed to get you through.”

NZNO kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku
NZNO kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku

Hollingshead, who lives in nearby Pakowhai, said she was still in a state of shock.

‘I don’t think the full scale of it has sunk in . . . it’s just numb, everything’s numb at the moment.’

“You sit there and think: we’ve lost everything we owned – apart from what we swam out in.”

At about 10.30am on Tuesday, February 14, with water about 30 cm (one foot) deep, Hollingshead and her partner received a text advising them to evacuate their Pakowhai property.

The pair, who had three homes, a business, several sheep, a horse, cats and dogs, and 11 vehicles on the site, didn’t believe it could get that much worse.

But over the next six hours, their outlook became less optimistic.

“Basically, we sat on the deck, watching the water rise, thinking: ‘Holy shit, this is going to be worse than we thought’.”

By 5pm they were stranded, sitting in chairs on top of their kitchen bench, watching water lapping over it.

“I said, if we don’t get out now, we’re not going to get out.

“So we swam to the deck and were picked up by a jetboat that was going up and down the street rescuing people.”

Hollingshead said trying to navigate a raging torrent was “pretty scary”.

The traumatised couple were taken to Te Aranga Marae, where they were given clothes and kai.

They were able to stay with relatives in Hastings but are hoping to move into a caravan on their own property soon.

Flood waters at Maria Hollingshead’s Pakowhai property continued rising throughout February 14.

By 2.30pm flood waters had swamped cars at Maria Hollingshead’s home.

Maria Hollingshead said she was in a state of disbelief when she returned to her flood damaged Pakowhai home.

She reported for duty at the hospital on Friday, just four days after swimming to safety from her flooded home.

“I’m sort of permanent casual, but I’m not permanent so I don’t get paid if I don’t work.”

Nuku said she and her whānau were taken aback by the speed and severity of the flooding as they received no warning or notice to evacuate.

By about 9.30am, flood waters were flowing through their house. Nuku, her husband, five adult children, partners and grand-children took refuge on higher ground in their paddock, but the waters continued to rise.

Nuku’s daughter Dayna shared videos of the whānau’s experiences on social media, as can be seen throughout this article.

Nuku said they called 111 for help but were told there was no way to access the property and to “sit tight”.

“My husband made the decision to put [the children and parents] in a larger truck, and my son drove my daughter and her family and partner across the bridge.”

Nuku said her husband followed behind them with a digger to help slow the flow of the water, while she stayed at the property.

“I was with my older boy . . . we had nowhere to go, we were trapped . . . it was like we were in the middle of a swimming pool.”

For the next few hours, they stayed on the narrow patch of land on the perimeter of the paddock, closely monitoring the water, until eventually it receded.

The whānau then moved straight into “clean-up mode” and slept in a bach on the property.

“We moved everything out because it’s covered in silt, and it stunk, and it was a just such a foul stench.”

Nuku said she thought her home would need to be demolished as a result of the flood damage but she was incredibly thankful her whānau all survived.

‘When we started to hear about people being lost, that’s when the reality of it hit us.’

Nuku said the support of NZNO members had been “really awesome”.

Last Friday, Hollingshead returned to her home and said she was in a state of disbelief.

“Everything was upside down, tipped out, mud everywhere, but I did find my little kitten, and there were a couple of chooks there, so some niceties at the end.”

Hollingshead said she lost nine sheep, about six chickens and another cat in the floods. She managed to rescue her horse, but it was “not in a good way” and was being cared for by a vet.

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“I’ve made 20 years of memories since I moved to New Zealand [from the UK] – all lost, but we’re OK, that’s the main thing.”