Situation Report, Waiohiki. The scale of devastation is vast. Nerves are frayed.

Situation Report, Waiohiki, 1st March, 2023

Ranginui is relentless. The scale of devastation is vast. Behind what’s left of my home and down Omarunui Road it looks like the Somme. Individually and collectively our community are experiencing the early stages of grief. Nerves are frayed. Crises bring out the best of people, and the worst of people. There’s been much media hype about lawlessness and a call for the army to intervene. In fact, the army are already here doing what they do best, evacuating people from imminent danger and supporting the recovery effort. Law enforcement is best left to the Police, and in my view, they are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances. In a civil society martial law is neither desirable nor required.

I know of some instances early in the crisis where some individuals, generally in poorer suburbs, deprived of electricity and cell-phone communication, went feral and into survival mode. Some of the more bizarre reported behaviours suggest to me that those ‘acting out’ were coming down from methamphetamine highs – their supply chain having been disrupted – and were experiencing mental health issues. There have been instances of looting and reports of predatory behaviour. Some communities – ours being one – have banded together and established security patrols. In more remote locations some have taken recourse to arm themselves. I understand that. It is a two-edged sword and carries the possibility of unintended and tragic consequences. I know of an instance where a firearm was presented by a rural homeowner who misinterpreted the intentions of a group out searching for two missing mates. Now that cellphone coverage has been re-established when a homeowner is afraid or there are ambiguous circumstances the appropriate precautionary approach is to call 111.

Roosevelt’s perceptive comment that “the only thing we need to fear is fear itself” rings true, and that was before the age of social media and shock jock radio hosts. The impacts of naïve misinformation and mischievous disinformation are not new. In 1909 when New Zealand was unnerved by portents of war in Europe – just as today – a remarkable social delusion swept across the entire country. Tens of thousands of citizens were not only convinced that a hostile German Zeppelin or Zeppelins were spying and possibly ready to drop bombs under the cover of darkness, but many were certain that they had seen the vessel. According to the Hawke’s Bay Herald, on Tuesday night, August 3rd 1909, a Waipawa man stated that while riding his horse near the racecourse, a large, grey torpedo-shaped vessel with lights at the prow and stern, passed overhead, and one of three visible passengers “shouted out to him in an unknown tongue.”

Basic theories of social psychology would attribute the 1909 Zeppelin sightings to the ever present glitches of human perception, which can be highly unreliable, subject to error, and pre-conditioned by the observer’s frame of reference or “mental set.” Fed by the presence of ambiguity, anxiety, the spread of rumours and false but plausible beliefs the prevailing mental set can result in collective delusion or moral panic, call it what you will.

Givealittle Campaign for Waiohiki Flood Recovery

We have a national tendency to ‘other’, and the ‘other’ in this instance are the normal suspects, bogey-men gang members. Some gang members have undoubtedly been involved in looting, theft, and intimidation. I encountered such a situation just yesterday. I did what any citizen should do and reported the incident to the Police with the most accurate information I could provide including the vehicle number plate.

I also did something else. I used my social networks and contacted the leadership of the perpetrator’s roopu. We quickly established a protective protocol to prevent a repeat incidence.

I encourage community members to do the same. Despite the deprecatory comments of some politicians what I witness is that most of the region’s gang members are working side by side with fellow citizens, digging mud, clearing debris and supporting their whanau to recover. At least this is what I have witnessed at Waiohiki and at our refuge at Waipatu, and what l know of at Omahu and Tangoio.

Early in the crisis the Deputy Commissioner of Police drew on our successful experience during the first Covid lockdown and mobilised a national network of pro-social gang leaders to work alongside specialist police officers to mitigate harm and maximise community collaboration. It is not helpful when politicians trivialise this vital dialogue as ‘having cups of tea’ with gang members. These men and women, mums and dads themselves, are solving complex problems in volatile uncertain and ambiguous times. To those that have ears: In memory of Chester Burrows would you just button your lips!

Our whanau home is lost. Our community is devastated. The things that we have collectively worked for over the last thirty or so years; safe warm dry housing at an affordable rental with security of tenure; a working arts village with artist-in residence; mara kai – community gardens, have been swept away or damaged.

At Waiohiki our new marae wharenui survived and has provided shelter and support to Maori and Pakeha alike, Tangata Whenua, Tangata Tiriti. The marae at Moteo, Timi Kara, has provided similar support to a mainly Pakeha rural community of growers and farmers. Hundreds of volunteers Pakeha and Maori are working side by side helping those of us that have suffered the loss of homes and possessions.

Whatever we have lost in spirit has been more than compensated for by the efforts of our fellow citizens, kiwi brothers and sisters. This is a nation building opportunity. Sure, there are some crappy things being done by crappy people but they are such a minority that they should not be the focus of our attention. Nurture our best angels.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land.
From dissension, envy, hate,
And corruption guard our state,
Make our country good and great,
God defend New Zealand.

Denis O’Reilly M Soc P
Pa Waiohiki
Hawke’s Bay
1 March 2023

Denis O’Reilly holds a Masters Degree in Social Practice. He is the chairman of the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust.

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