Surf Life Saving Heroes Rescue Stranded Animals Following Cyclone Gabrielle

Tuesday, 8 August 2023

When Cyclone Gabrielle tore through Hawke’s Bay earlier this year, the devastation was unimaginable.  Lives were lost and homes were reduced to ruins.


However, in amongst the sadness, stories of remarkable survival emerged, and the Surf Life Saving teams played a crucial role in rescuing those stranded, including animals.


Rob Bigwood, along with 11 others from the Manawatū/Tararua Surf Life Saving Search and Rescue (SAR) squad, responded to the call for help when Cyclone Gabrielle struck.  Without hesitation, they sprang into action, focusing their efforts on one of the hardest hit areas, Pakowhai.


When Rob and the team arrived the area was under water.


“When we launched the inflatable rescue boats (IRBs), the conditions on the water were nothing like I had experienced in 29 years of surf lifeguarding or search and rescue.  A truck was completely submerged and we were having to duck under power lines.”


In an hour around 190 people were rescued by Surf Life Saving crews, the Air Force, rescue helicopters, and two jet boats.


After several days, the water that once swamped the community had almost receded, with just pockets of flooding to navigate.  With their IRBs, Rob’s team went door to door with the Fire and Emergency Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, inspecting properties.


Rob remembers vividly, “We were checking dwellings and we paused outside this house and I looked on the roof and immediately saw this poor dog standing next to the chimney.  It was tied to this pile of debris, which turned out to be its broken kennel.”


Torrential rain had flooded the area and the dog had floated up with the rising waters, leaving it stranded on the roof.


“It’s lucky it landed on the roof”, admits Rob.


Immediately, he radioed the Surf Life Saving base camp, asking for assistance from the Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT).


“One of our teams went down to the house with VERT.  Using a ladder, they climbed up onto the roof and got him. He was cold, very cold.  Poor bugger.”


The dog was taken back to the emergency animal shelter which had been set up for displaced animals in Hastings, where he was well looked after.


Rob said it was just one of a number of animal rescues carried out by the Surf Life Saving SAR squads.  While prioritising human lives was paramount, they didn’t hesitate helping animals.


“There was never a question about whether we would take an animal or not.  At Surf Life Saving we all come from a place of compassion, that’s why we’re there in the first place, so it was an absolute no brainer to say “right, everyone aboard!” And if that included animals, that included animals.”


In the days that followed, Rob’s team encountered numerous animals that, unfortunately, did not survive the cyclone’s wrath.


“There were deceased animals of every description, everywhere.  Domestic and farm animals.  It was heart-breaking… These houses… People’s lives were gone, their animals gone, there was nothing you could recover from these buildings.”


It took its toll on the team but Rob said they tried to manage it by holding regular debriefings.


“Each day we met twice, sometime three times, and we’d just go over what we’d encountered or dealt with.  It meant people could air their laundry if they chose too.


“But despite the enormity of it all, we were so privileged to be there.  My whole team still talks about how privileged they felt to be there helping the local community.”


Whether it was helping with people or animals, like the dog on the roof.



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