Storm Gabrielle: local tree bears some unusual fruit

March 10, 2023

Storm Gabrielle swept into town over the weekend of 11 and 12 February, quickly making herself felt all over Northland. We are indebted to the large number of people who worked hard to ready the port for her attack and who, once she’d left us, did everything necessary to get us up and running again so efficiently.

As we write this Northland’s road links to the rest of the country are still under repair and access to Auckland is tenuous. Our coastal shipping links remain operational, though, providing alternative transport options for Northland business. This is a great demonstration of how New Zealand’s ports link the country not only with its international trade partners, but also with itself.

As Gabrielle began to knock on Northland’s door that weekend the Northland harbourmaster acted quickly. He closed Whangārei harbour to all commercial shipping from 0900 on Sunday 12. All port operations were cancelled at that time and only a skeleton crew remained at the port to monitor infrastructure and storm-water levels.

On Monday 13 Northport took the decision to keep the port closed until at least 0700 on Wednesday 15. All port users were included in the decision-making process and supported the decision, the safety and wellbeing of everyone working at the port being paramount.

Anchorages (outside the harbour, in Bream Bay) were re-opened from 0200hrs on Wednesday 15 on the harbourmaster’s instruction. The port re-opened as planned at 0700hrs so that port users could undertake site inspection, repairs and machinery maintenance.

A thorough visual sweep of the shipping channels in Whangārei Harbour was conducted by the deputy harbourmaster in the pilot boat. Northport also conducted hydrographic surveys to ensure that these are clear of debris and other shipping hazards. The harbourmaster re-opened the harbour at 0900 the following day, Thursday 16, at which point Northport resumed freight and shipping operations.

Both of the port's Wave Rider buoys lost their moorings in the exceptional swell created by Storm Gabrielle, with one ending up above the high-water mark, lodged in a tree. As a result, all vessel transits were vetted by the harbourmaster from the time the harbour re-opened on Thursday 16, and deep-draft vessel passage in the harbour was limited to daylight only and one hour either side of high water. Clearance was subject to manual calculation as per the NTL Manual of Practices for Pilotage Procedures and allowance was made for possible siltation and wave measurements by altimeter and met service predictions.

One of the Wave Rider buoys was repositioned on Friday 17, at which point all transit and passage restrictions for the harbour were lifted.

The second buoy has since been repaired and repositioned. And, in a fortunate example of exquisite timing, our annual ‘full sweep’ hydrographic survey of all the channels and turning basins at the entrance to Whangarei Harbour was taking place as this article was being written in March. So if Gabrielle did leave any calling cards in the harbour we will have found and cleared them.

Generally, the facility held up well to the gale conditions. A rock wall was slightly damaged and has since been repaired. And some of the iron cladding on the port’s wood-chip conveyor had to be replaced. While much of Northland experienced power outages Northport maintained power from the grid. However, we do have emergency generator capacity to enable administration and security duties to continue in the event of loss of power from the grid.

Our sincere thanks go to the teams from all of Northland’s infrastructure providers who worked tirelessly, and in many cases continue to do so, to ensure that we have been able to return to business as usual so quickly. Particular mention must be made of the huge effort put in by the teams from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and Northpower, and all those drafted in from other infrastructure providers from all parts of the country to help with Northland’s recovery.

Many of our Northland communities remain faced with a massive clean-up and recovery operation. Our thoughts are with them, and with those families and communities in West Auckland, Eastland, Hawke’s Bay and the Bay of Plenty who bore the brunt of Gabrielle’s fury. Kia kaha!