Locals were stranded on roofs as floodwaters raged around them last month as the Gabrielle battered parts of the upper North Island, causing devastation to homes, businesses and infrastructure.
The two reservists, based near Napier, say they were ordered to go on a rescue mission to Glengarry Road near Puketapu, but decided the bigger emergency was in Esk Valley and went there instead.
They were the first two Defence Force personnel in Esk Valley that Tuesday morning.
As the cyclone pounded Hawke’s Bay, Staff Sergeant Davey Forbes was woken at 2am by a phone call from Civil Defence asking for help.
He and Corporal Storm Harrison were told to head up to Glengarry Road in Puketapu to rescue a trapped family.
But after speaking with volunteer firefighters Harrison quickly realised the problem was much bigger in Eskdale where the river had burst its banks.
“We just thought, ‘bugger it, let’s go’, there are people that need to be saved. So we just took it upon ourselves just to get out there and try and rescue people”.
The soldiers said disobeying the order to help people on Glengarry Road was a difficult decision but with power and communication out they knew they had to act quickly.
Harrison said going to Esk Valley instead likely broke the chain of command and protocol.
“There’s obviously rules and regulations that we have to follow, but when the shit hits the fan we just got stuck in and did what we had to do and dealt with the repercussions later.
“If it wasn’t for Davey organising and getting everything sorted, [and] I think our quick reaction, we wouldn’t have been there.”
Forbes said their decision led to dozens of people being saved.
“We found another 18-odd cars that were trapped with kids and adults and dogs so we managed to get them out of there.”
In the days before the cyclone was due to hit, Forbes was put in charge of Defence Force resources for Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence.
He said at the initial emergency planning conference on Monday, February 13, Wairoa, Waipukerau, Waipawa, Pōrangahau were prioritised as areas most at risk from flooding.
Esk Valley was not seen as a major concern.
“We definitely had contingencies in place. But honestly, I don’t think any contingencies could have prepared us for what we went into,” Forbes said.
The two men said there were limited Defence Force resources in Hawke’s Bay when the Gabrielle struck.
The Unimog that made it possible for them to get into Esk Valley through raging floodwaters was the only one in Hawke’s Bay at the time.
Forbes said all other vehicles were in Waiouru at a reservist training camp.
“The majority of our army reserve was in Waiouru on their annual training exercise where they’re getting qualified on their weapons and stuff like that. So they were still trying to come back from Waiouru to come and be part of it.”
He called in help from the Linton Military Camp in Palmerston North to urgently get more boots on the ground.
“We actually rang through to our mates and warned them ‘you need to get your guys ready’, and then we went back up through the official command channels to make that happen.”
Corporal Storm Harrison said the work of local people, including the Bay View volunteer fire service, Search and Rescue, and police ensured Esk Valley residents got out that morning.
“We were doing our job, there were other people out there doing twice as much as we did. There’s a lot of heroes our there and there’s a lot of people that put their lives on the line.”
The two men are now helping with the clean-up effort in Hawke’s Bay.
‘Worthy of praise’
In a statement, the Defence Force said the actions of the two 5/7 Battalion soldiers in the immediate response to Cyclone Gabrielle were nothing short of courageous and worthy of praise.
Defence works at the direction of civil emergency authorities in such events, and personnel and assets are often prepositioned in locations based on previous experiences of weather events.
“In this instance, our people, along with FENZ and NZ Police were responding to multiple requests for assistance in the middle of the night in very dynamic and challenging circumstances, where communications were being stretched,” Commanding Officer of 5/7 Battalion Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Fortune said in the statement.
“They did not ‘break the chain of command’ and instead they should be described as being both incredibly experienced and senior personnel who used their initiative to respond to communities in need.
“This misunderstanding was instead possibly a poor choice of words on their part.”
RNZ has approached Civil Defence for comment.