Thursday, February 23, 2023

The big storm

Last week, New Zealand was bashed by another big storm, Cyclone Gabrielle, which was a very, very expensive weather event—in fact, it may turn out to the the most expensive. It’s too early to tell. The storm hit only a couple weeks after the big storm that caused widespread flooding and damage in Auckland and landslips in Coromandel, and that, in turn, was only about thee weeks after Cyclone Hale.

As I so often do, I started posting about the storm on my personal Facebook, and a bit on Instagram. My experience of the storm was minor, even trivial, compared to what happened in the east of the country, in Northland, and in West Auckland, but my experience was nevertheless mine, and it’s all I know personally.

I decided to knit together my Facebook posts to describe how the storm went for me, not merely because my Facebook posts aren’t public, but also because this blog is in many ways a pretty thorough record of things I’ve experienced. I know that in the future it’ll help me to be able to remember what I experienced; maybe others will be interested, too. This long post is the result.

The earliest we knew anything could be serious was February 6, because by then it was known that an as yet unnamed tropical cyclone was forming in the Coral Sea. Last year on that date, Hamilton went to Level 2 water restrictions, meaning sprinklers were banned. There haven’t been any water restrictions at all this summer (surprise!), but I’d noticed that the road I take to get anywhere in Hamilton had one of Council’s annual signs urging us to “Save Water”. I politely declined the offer as I drove past the sign the first time.

Three days later, on February 9, I noted, “This time of year, lots people would normally be talking about how they can’t wait for winter to end the hot dry weather. This year, we’ll go from warm and humid wet weather to cold and damp wet weather. Lovely.” That was when it still looked like just another heavy storm, like the first two we’d had so far this year, though they were both worse for other areas of the country than they were in Hamilton.

Warnings about the approaching storm became more insistent, and we were urged to take precautions, and I did the same things I did for Cyclone Hale. On Saturday, February 11 at 6:40pm, I wrote:
I finished my preparations for Cyclone Gabrielle: I put the long bungee cords over the mesh lid of my Vegepod (before I got the cords, winds would lift the cover off and throw it around the yard, but not any more). I also put my rubbish and recycling wheelie bins in the garage, and put my plastic watering can in there, too.

The Waikato (where Hamilton is) and Waitomo (south of us) are both under a strong wind watch, but not a heavy rain watch. This could all change depending on the path the cyclone takes, but, even so, all of us in this part of the country are reasonably safe.

Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, and Bay of Plenty all have various warnings (not mere watches) in effect, including strong wind and heavy rain. I have friends and family in those higher risk areas. Again, it’s not yet known where the storm will hit, though it’s expected to start affecting Northland later tonight and Auckland tomorrow.

More tomorrow, but the important thing to know is that people in the high-risk areas have been preparing for the cyclone and followed official advice. I think I’ll be relatively unaffected, but if I’m prepared for whatever.
At 10:58am the next day, Sunday, I noted that:
The first rains around my house fell around 8.40 this morning, but it was very brief, as all the rain has been so far. It’s a little breezier than normal, but only breezy so far. The barometric pressure is falling slowly at my house. Still, this is just being stirred up by Gabrielle, and it’ll be around 24 hours before we’ll start to experience weather directly from the storm itself.
Later I felt compelled to add a comment:
BTW, the reason I make these updates at all (apart from the fact I think it’s interesting), is that with a severe storm like this, there’s a higher probability it’ll end on the news overseas, and whenever that happens folks who know me wonder or worry. I think it makes sense to explain why I’m not worried, even though, yes, I expect to be affected—just not badly.
I added a comment to Saturday’s post (I can’t remember why I didn’t add it to Sunday’s post, but it may have been because Saturday’s was getting more attention):
Update — 3:30pm: The rain is a bit more constant now, but not heavy at all. It’s a little bit windy, but not much.

I read a comment on someone else’s post about bringing plants in posts inside, which hadn’t occurred to me, so I just did that. I have three tall plastic, lightweight pots, two either side of my door, and one out on my patio. I brought them all inside because winds could blow them over. Two small pots were just kinda exposed, so why not bring them in? I bought in my welcome mat, too, because ordinary storms have blown that around.
At 11:05pm on Sunday, I shared a couple photos of the sky I’d taken around tn to 9 that evening (at the top of this post), and said:
As Cyclone Gabrielle starts lashing New Zealand, here in Hamilton, hundreds of kilometres south of where the storm currently is, the skies are looking stormy. To me, the clouds seemed to be moving quite quickly. The strong wind and heavy rain warnings for the area officially begin at 9am (Monday), though the wind’s definitely picked up around me. Tomorrow’s expected to be the worst day. What actually happens will depend on the storm’s path, but it shouldn’t be too bad here in Hamilton, so I worry about friends and family in Auckland, Coromandel, and the Bay of Plenty, areas that look to be hit hard. Fingers crossed, the cyclone will veer further away from New Zealand!
Monday’s update, posted at 1:38pm:
Monday now, and Gabrielle is definitely attacking New Zealand. The storm itself is expected to pass Auckland at its closest point today as it heads southeast. That means that the next 24 hours should be the worst of it for Northland, Auckland and us in the northwestern part of the Waikato (including Hamilton). Depending on the storm’s track, the Coromandel may get it for longer, but it, too, may see it start to get better on Tuesday.

There are currently local states of emergency in Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, Tairāwhiti and Ōpōtiki. A national state of emergency may be declared if local emergency management becomes overwhelmed.

Power is out in parts of Northland and Auckland, often due to large trees being blown over, taking out power lines. Residents of parts of Whangārei (on the eastern coast of Northland, and its largest town) have been told to evacuate before high tide because of the expected large storm surge (which often kills people in hurricanes and cyclones). Bridges are being overwhelmed in some areas.

Here in Hamilton, all official places are closed, and so is Hamilton Airport. Last night, it became extremely calm and almost normal: Some breezes, but no strong winds, and no rain. It was weird, and the first thing I thought was, “the calm before the storm”.

The rain started early this morning, and is was steady, but not particularly heavy. By later morning, the rain was considerably stronger, though not torrential. The rain is definitely much heavier now, but it’s still no worse than the last big storm two weeks ago.

Winds started picking up in late morning, too, but more like light winds with some gusts. Now, however, the winds are much stronger (driving the rain harder), and gusts are definitely getting stronger. Even so, the rain is still dominant right now (our strong wind warning and heavy rain watch both began at 9am this morning).

One thing that surprised me was how cool it is: 16 degrees (around 61F). Just another example of how virtually nonexistent this summer has been, on top of all the rain we’ve had this year.

The bottom line, then, is that so far the cyclone has affected the country pretty much as predicted, and it’s also still true that much will depend on the path the storm takes. However, it still looks like Hamilton won’t be affected as badly as Northland, Auckland, and Coromandel will be (we’ll have to wait to know for sure what other areas will be hit as are hard as those three).

I’m not in any danger from flooding, because my house is on high ground. The winds could be a problem, though it possibly matters that my house isn’t on the highEST ground. It’s possible (probable?) that strong gusts, say over the expected peaks of 130kph, could pick up things people less conscientious than me left outside or unsecured (like trampolines, which often get thrown around in less severe storms). Still, unless things get a LOT worse, I’m not worried about that, either.

Leo and I are safe and well, though Leo’s morning trip outside to, um, do things, was quick and he stayed under the house eaves. I had to dry him off, even though the rain was much lighter then, so I realised I’d better get out all his dog towels for his other trips…
I later added an update:
Waikato District Council, the unit of local government just north of Hamilton, has declared a state of emergency. This is primarily because of evacuations ordered for residents at Port Waikato (on the Tasman Sea). Their particular area of concern is quite a way from me, but the border between Waikato District and Hamilton City is really close to my house. This doesn’t change anything for me, but the weather is pretty awful.
In a comment, I also added a story from TVNZ: ”Jaw-dropping image shows Cyclone Gabrielle from space”. At 5:06pm, I shared another TVNZ story, "More 'destructive winds' expected in North Island, into Tuesday", noting “Just great. Some of the gusts are already really bad.”

I stayed up late that night because the wind was getting pretty scary. At 2:02am Tuesday morning I posted as I lay in bed, just before I turned out the light:
Power is still on at my house—so far. At the moment, not many without power in Hamilton, but lots further out.

The wind is giving me terrible anxiety: When the strong gusts hit the solar panels, it sounds like thunder in the near distance. Other times, I can feel the vibrations.

Rational Me knows full well that the panel installation method was designed to withstand bad storms and winds, but nothing humans make is indestructible. So, every vibration or low moan coming from the roof was making Irrational Me think the roof was going to get ripped off the house sooner or later. Rational Me argued that this isn’t the first storm since installation, nor is it the first time the roof has moaned in a storm. Irrational Me just throws up a hand.

I doubt very much anything bad will happen. But my bedroom is at the back of the house, where the roof is much lower, and so, the small cavity between the roof and the ceiling makes the rain and wind sound much louder than at the front of the house. It’s really hard to sleep with all this racket, and too hard to stay up with moaning on the roof directly above my chair.

Deep, slow breaths. That usually helps.
At 10:32am Tuesday, I posted my follow-up post:
Well, THAT night was pretty shit. First things first: Leo and I are safe and well.

I went outside this morning to inspect, and there was no visible damage to the house or anything on it (including the solar panels, TV aerial, spouting). The fence was intact. Since I’d brought things inside, nothing had been tossed around. The long bungee cords kept the lid on my Vegepod. The lawn at the back of the section, where the drain in the lawn is, was like walking on a *thoroughly* soaked sponge (12-18 hours of constant rain, much of it heavy, can do that…).

The worst of the storm is now affecting eastern parts of the country as it continues moving southeast. There’s been LOTS of flooding already, and many landslips. A national state of emergency was declared at 8.43am this morning, and applies ONLY to the regions that have declared local states of emergency. This allows greater coordination of the civil defence response and resources —nothing really changes for most people, and not at all if there’s no local declaration where they are (Hamilton City Council has not declared).

The only “damage” I could see in the area around my house or on my street was the safety netting around the back neighbours’ trampoline is detached (it looked to have been pulled up off its supports), and all the white flowers in the city’s planted areas out front at the kerb have been ripped off the stems, as if a flock of bored teenagers had come through. The street in front of my house is littered with specks of white from those flowers. In other words, no damage visible from my house.

This is NOT to say there was no damage in Hamilton: Last night, I saw some anecdotal reports of fallen trees, for example. The big old trees I can off in the distance survived (sometimes I had my doubts they would). There’s probably more local damage we’ll hear about today.

Some 50,000 homes were without power this morning, most of them in places like Auckland and Coromandel. Evacuations are currently underway in the Hawke’s Bay. The worry is that Gabrielle may swing back toward New Zealand, like Cyclone Hale did a few weeks ago.

For those of us in the northwestern parts of the North Island, the worst is over (the atmospheric pressure is rising again, which is a good sign). That doesn’t mean there won’t be more rain or wind here, just that the torrential rain and damaging winds have moved on from us, now threatening others who deserve our focus.

Last night, just before I went to bed, everything suddenly went quiet, and I was surprised to find out how loud my TV volume was. Then, the wind and rain returned with a vengeance, louder than before, and I decided to try to sleep, so I went to bed. I couldn’t switch off with all the loud weather noise. I lay in bed for hours, awake, and then around 2.30am, everything suddenly went quiet again. The rain returned, as did some gusts of wind, but it was *nothing* like it had been—positively gentle by comparison. I finally fell asleep. Leo spent all that time sleeping up against me. That helped me more than I can say.
It turned out, though, that there was some damage: The wind had pushed the pittosporum I’d planted a couple years ago—not enough to uproot it, but enough that it was leaning (photo at left). Tuesday afternoon, I pulled it upright and secured it so that the roots can stabilise the plant. At the time. I thought we were done, and all eyes were on the worsening situation on the east coast of the North Island.

At 3:03pm on Tuesday, though, I posted what had happened moments earlier: “Just lost electricity.” I was flummoxed. “It’s bright outside, mostly sunny. And a bit breezy, but nowhere near as windy as last night,” I reported in a comment. “Yet the power outage area has been growing all day—in fact, the biggest outage area in Hamilton displayed on the outage map is the area I’m now in. When the storm’s over for us.” I added a few minutes later, “Someone on our community page got through to the company: We may not get power back until tomorrow.”

I then got in the car and drove to a home centre to pick up a shop light that runs on the 18v batteries for my power tools, along with a lantern battery for a torch I had. On the way home, I stopped in one of the supermarkets to get some bits and pieces I needed—which by then included wine.

My final stop was at the petrol station nearest my house where I bought two bags of ice (for the stuff in the fridge) and a gas bottle for the BBQ, though it turned out that after probably 5 years (or more?) without use, the hose or the regulator is shot.

I did all that because I didn’t want to burn candles all over the house, and the gas bottle was because I had bread rising in the breadmaker when the power went out, and I wanted to try to save it by baking it in the BBQ. I also couldn’t be sure when power would be back, and thought it was prudent to be able to cook stuff, especially if the freezer started thawing.

However, at 6:42pm, I was able to share this: “BREAKING NEWS! power just came back on!!!” I noticed that the dishwasher, which was also running when the power went out, resumed the cycle where it stopped. The breadmaker, however, didn’t. So, I turned my oven on on put the dough in a couple bread pans, not expecting much, and I was right: The bread never fully rose in baking (I think the second rising may have failed because without power, it lost its warm spot to rise, and because there was too long a delay in getting it baking).

I later thought that the power may have been deliberately cut off to allow crews to reconnect repaired portions to the grid, and that would mean turning our power off so they could do that. I don’t know, of course, but that sounded plausible to me. Still, I hadn’t completely lost my sense of humour, though. At 6:32pm I said:
You know the worst thing about my current situation? I’m powerless to change it. Even so, flipping a switch and quickly forming a plan to cope tonight gave me a positive charge. Figuring out ways to short circuit adverse situations is kind of electrifying.

This is what happens with no TV and slow Internet on my mobile phone (3G! I’m surprised I didn’t have to turn a crank and ask Sarah to connect me with Pixley…)
I’m not sure that many of my Facebook friends got my reference to Pixley, and some may not even have noticed my laboured puns, but I amused myself which, without TV or radio, was all I could manage right then.

When the power came back on, the worst of the cyclone was over for me, even as the horror of what happened in the east was coming to light. There will be a lot discussion about that as we begin the recovery phase, but it’s fair to say that what I experienced was like a pleasant summer picnic compared to what folks in the east experienced—and still are. I was never in any mortal danger from flooding, and even though the wind really did frighten me, it was unlikely to cause and serious damage at my place. Rational Me knew at the time, but Irrational Me became anxious, anyway.

This won’t be the last big storm to hit New Zealand, though hopefully it’ll be the last cyclone this season. Even if it is, that doesn’t mean there won’t be other terrible storms during the rest of this year (Auckland’s flooding wasn’t caused by a cyclone, after all). We’re all going to have to pay more attention to storm preparations, to build in resilience, even while we redouble our efforts to live more sustainably. I’ll have more to say on my own efforts another time (it’s an ongoing process, of course), but for now I know we’re all glad that cyclone’s over.

Right now, we just need to heal. Will we get the chance? Another cyclone may form the middle of next week. Onward.


Roger Owen Green said...

Sounds like fun.
When ALB had the Oct 4, 1987 snowstorm - 6" (15 cm), which took down branches that had not yet shed their leaves - I lost power for over 4 days. When I got home with the power on, I noticed the television was VERY LOUD.

Arthur Schenck said...

When the power went off, I took the precaution of turning off all my entertainment stuff at the wall to ensure there'd be no surges—including of sound. Actually, the first thing that tells me the power's back on is the robot vacuum announcing, "Charging!", in a rather insistent tone.