The wedding the cyclone (nearly) destroyed
On February 13, Hawke’s Bay couple Michaela Tait and Mackenzie Wiig were gearing up for the biggest day of their lives. Then Cyclone Gabrielle destroyed their home and their plans. After nine months of treading water, the couple will today take one step t
The buzz of Mackenzie’s phone at 5.30am shunted the couple out of sleep. It was an emergency alert – the river was flooding and they needed to get out, it said. But the river was already here.
The minute Mackenzie Wiig and fiancee Michaela Tait rolled out of bed, they were in water. They’d known the cyclone was coming, of course. But it was wind they were worried about.
When they bought their Esk Valley lifestyle dream just 15 months earlier, they asked if it was a flood zone. The water had only ever come up to the paddock below the house, they were told.
When they went to bed the night before, everything was normal. Worried the chookhouse might blow over and crush the chickens, Tait got up at midnight to move them. It was pouring by then, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. So they went back to bed.
But as they slept, water sneaked in. When they rose in the dark and looked outside they could make out their cars, already drowned to the bonnet. No escape that way.
So they grabbed Dexter the shih tzu maltese, their guinea pig and rabbit and set off for the silhouette of safety – their neighbour’s house on top of the hill, about 200 metres away.
“Before we’d even left our backyard, the water was even above my head, so we were swimming,” Wiig recalls. “We were swimming with the dog, the rabbit, the guinea pig and our cellphones, with the torches on.” “With all the clouds, there was no light from the moon or anything,” says Tait. “We could just see the figure of where the hill was, so we just knew to go in that direction. But I couldn’t see a metre either
side of me – that’s how dark it was. It was just completely going in blindly, which was quite frightening.”
Tait was still in her dressing down. Heavy with silt-laden floodwater, it was pulling her under. The rabbit and guinea pig had to go.
When they reached the neighbour’s house, no-one knew the extent of the cyclone’s devastation. Wiig and Tait thought the flooding was localised – that maybe the stream next to their house had gone crazy.
They managed to text their parents to say they were safe. Then the phones went dead.
‘Iwas just overwhelmed with everything’
When the sun came up, and the water went down, Wiig returned to the house on a mission.
At first light, he’d left the safety of the neighbour’s place to search for their other animals, saving Scarlett the miniature pony from her island refuge. Two blokes turned up a couple of hours later with their scratched-but-alive other pony, Sunny, who they’d untangled from a fence.
But this was a different kind of rescue mission. Wading through the wastedeep sludge the flood’s receding tongue left behind, Wiig made it to the kitchen cupboard. He fished around for the key basket, finding the soggy box he was looking for.
He retrieved another sodden box from Tait’s bedside table, before opening her wardrobe. The filthy water had ruined her hanging clothes and come halfway up the dress bag. But it wasn’t see-through so he couldn’t tell if it was damaged. He just grabbed it and hoped.
Back at the neighbour’s house, Wiig handed over the two precious rings salvaged from their busted boxes and the dress that had been months in the making, the last fitting just a week before.
“It was funny,” Wiig says. “We had clearly just lost every single thing we owned – all our vehicles, our cars, our animals. And all we were thinking about was, we’re getting married in less than two weeks. So our first thought was, s..., her wedding dress took six or seven months to be made and altered. If this is damaged, how do we do all that again in two weeks?”
“He brought the bag over and said, ‘I don’t know what the dress is like. The bag is wet, but here you go,’” Tait remembers. “It was nerve-racking. I was just overwhelmed with everything. I think I was in shock that morning, because I got really sick and just couldn’t stop vomiting. I took it with the neighbour, and we took it into her bedroom. It was fine.”
It wasn’t until about 10pm that night, when another neighbour returned from a day of helping in his helicopter and reported the apocalyptic extent of the destruction, that they realised there would be no wedding.
‘It feels like your life is in other people's hands, which is quite a hard feeling.’
Now 26, Tait and Wiig knew each other from childhood – their parents were friends. But they got together only about six years ago.
They bought a house together in town, but having both grown up on lifestyle blocks, they were keen to find a bit of land they could have animals on.
It was November 2021 and they’d only been looking a week when the Eskdale property came up – a three-bedroom, 1960s farm cottage on a perfect flat acre. ‘‘You know when you get a feeling, when you go somewhere? It feels warm and inviting. And we were just like – oh, we love it,” Tait says.
The day their offer went unconditional coincided with their weekly date night. They planned a winery picnic and Wiig figured it was the perfect time to pop the question. Not much of a romantic, he knew if he planned something special other than on date night, Tait would instantly suspect.
Wedding planning started pretty much straight away, with the date set for February 25 this year. But instead of saying “I do” in the sunshine among the tepees at Meadowood, the couple spent that night in a hotel in less cyclone-battered Havelock North, trying to catch a break from the siltsunk dream that was their home.
For the first few weeks, the pair were numb. Dozens of mates came to strip out the Eskdale cottage, shovel silt and salvage anything that might clean up OK.
“All my friends were in tears and I was just, like, completely no emotion,” Tait remembers. “I was like ‘Yeah, I’m all good’. But I definitely wasn’t.”
Then reality kicked in. And the waiting. “It’s kind of come in waves,” Tait says. “I feel like the first couple of weeks were very much in survival mode. You feel sick a lot of the time, because you’re like: ‘What’s just happened? Holy hell.’
“And then after that I felt really sad for a couple of months, just mourning our house and our future plans there and all of our animals.
“And after that, I almost had quite a bit of anger for a couple of months, because I just wanted my life to go back to normal. It feels like your life is in other people's hands, which is quite a hard feeling.
“I think the four or five months right in the middle were probably the hardest, because it was just a lot of waiting and wanting answers and just wanting our life back.”
In June, they were among some 236 Hawke’s Bay homeowners told they couldn’t rebuild. It wasn’t a surprise – the Esk Valley flooding wasn’t due to stopbanks breaching, so it was hard to imagine how they could prevent a repeat event.
But nothing is straightforward. Despite the floodwater reaching bench height in their high-piled house, the cottage was only yellow-stickered, as it wasn’t structurally damaged. Which means the couple’s insurers only paid out for repair costs on a house that can’t be repaired. Or at least can’t be repaired where it is.
The $340,000 payout (compared to their sum insured of almost $600,000) leaves them with a mortgage on a house they can’t live in.
The couple were incredibly lucky that Wiig’s family had undeveloped land at Puketapu that they could live on temporarily. Wiig, a self-employed builder, stopped working to build them a 29m² tiny home.
“That was another struggle, because I was four or five months unpaid,” Wiig says. “So we used all our contents insurance money, plus we maxed out our second mortgage, that we had taken out to do renovations on our Eskdale property, to finish building the tiny house, so we had somewhere to live.”
“The whole situation is unlucky,” Tait says. “But I think we’re quite lucky that we’ve got this to live in ... It's going to be at least a year that we're in the tiny home, until we've got a house again. So we've just started trying to make this home.”
Almost nine months on from the floods, the future remains uncertain. They hope Hastings District Council will offer a full buyout of the property, which will make up the difference between their insurance payout and market value. Another option could be to negotiate to relocate the Eskdale house.
“Best case scenario, we might walk away mortgage-free,” Wiig says. “Best, best case scenario, we might have 100 grand left over as a deposit to go again. We definitely can’t expect that.”
“We had clearly just lost every single thing we owned ... and all we were thinking about was, we’re getting married in less than two weeks.”
‘I’m so excited, I just want to do it’
Amid all the uncertainty, and after nine stressful months of treading water, one thing is locked in. At 3pm this afternoon, Tait and Wiig will finally get to use those salvaged wedding bands and that miraculously unsullied dress.
While it might seem crazy to reorganise a wedding at the same time as trying to rebuild busted lives, the couple say it’s been a welcome focus.
“It’s given us one thing to look forward to, because everything house-related is just still a big waiting game,” Tait says. “So it has been a good distraction. One thing to plan, and move forward in our life.”
Before the floods, Tait stressed about wedding day weather and having to stand up in front of everyone to say her vows.
“This time I’m like, I don’t even care if it rains. I’m so excited, I just want to do it.”
“I’m just so happy to be able to marry Michaela,” says Wiig. “I can just see such a positive future with her ... It’s just nice to finally be able to move on with another chapter in our lives.”