June 4, 2023

Hipkins ‘out of touch’ on security risks in flood zone

Residents of the hard hit areas of Meeanee and Awatoto have banded together to set up road block to stop opportunists coming in. Photo: Bonnie Sumner

Hawkes Bay locals challenge the PM to come and see the evidence for their crime fears for himself

Some residents in Hawke’s Bay are furious at the attitude of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in an interview on RNZ’s Morning Report today in which he said an incident involving firearms was unsubstantiated and insinuated the report was without basis.

In an extensive recorded interview with Newsroom on Sunday, Ryan Lawson, whose company East Coast Traffic is contracted to set up the necessary traffic management in the region, provided a detailed account of an incident on Pakowhai Road between Napier and Hastings in which firearms were used to threaten his staff.

“Two of my staff members were encountered with firearms being directly pointed at them while they were sending out temporary traffic management. Honestly for us it was a very, very scary moment and that crew just had to up and leave.”

Like many people here, Lawson and his staff don’t want the attention and are just getting on with the job. Lawson didn’t want to comment further, but plenty of other locals were angry and upset at the comments Hipkins made downplaying the extent of the issues they’re facing.

The PM said on RNZ that many of the things being reported as facts in fact “aren’t facts.” And in the same breath used the story about traffic workers being threatened by firearms as an example.

“There’s been no substantiation to the allegations that people on checkpoints had had guns pulled on them. If anyone wants to report that that happened they should do so to the police,” said Hipkins.

“All police have got at the moment are third hand accounts that they haven’t been able to substantiate.”

The interviewer said: “So you’re saying that particular incident that was raised of someone pulling a gun on someone at a checkpoint didn’t happen – is that the one you’re referring to?

Hipkins: “So the feedback I had, as of this morning, is that the police have not been able to substantiate that.”

But locals in Hawkes Bay spoken to by Newsroom felt the PM was out of touch and didn’t understand what it’s like on the ground.

“Not everyone reports everything because the police are busy, and so is Civil Defence. It shows the force isn’t actually coping with the amount of crime that’s happening in the Bay,” said one Awatoto resident who lost everything in the flooding.

“There’s been people everywhere you go, making the most of the situation, stealing stuff.”

Checkpoints have been up by locals at multiple spots, including tractors at Whirinaki up the coast and tree stumps blocking the entry to Waiohiki, which lost the bridge that connects it to Taradale.

In rural Puketapu, which resembles an apocapyltic war zone, residents are putting trucks across the road to keep looters and other opportunists out.

“Seventeen cars turned around about two or three hundred metres away and sped off on the first night we set up the roadblock,” said one couple, who had their fridge and washing machine – both of which they were hoping to salvage – taken early on. A neighbour had to board up their garage when they went off to work for the day, so thieves couldn’t see what they had inside.

One man who lives in Puketapu had a message for the PM: “Come and spend a night out here.”

Police Commisioner Andrew Coster also said the crime rate hasn’t gone up in Hawke’s Bay and it’s just rumours fuelling the fears of local communities – but try telling that to people of the hard-hit neighbouring areas of Brookfields, Awatoto and Meeanee.

Newsroom spoke to a group of locals who have banded together to set up a night roadblock with people working in shifts. They are livid they have to spend all day trying to clean up their properties, work, look after their families and then spend their nights keeping their area safe.

“We’re pissed off. If you’ve got a flooded house, you’re vulnerable. You can’t live in them, there’s no power so we’ve got houses susceptible to people coming in and helping themselves,” says Carl.

Ali is in charge of a team of 30 RSE workers from Samoa who have volunteered to help at the roadblock. “This is their home, but they’ve got a job to do during the day, too.”

“The RSE workers have been fricken awesome,” adds Kylie. “But none of us should have to do this.”

Just up the road a security guard posted on his own at night to watch over the machinery being used to pump sludge and water from the area couldn’t do anything when a couple of guys came in and uplifted two generators.

“They’ll take anything. Generators, gas bottles, anything they can find. There was a white van just earlier today trying to steal courier packages in Meeanee. It’s gone bananas,” Di told Newsroom.

“These gangs are organised, they’re more organised than the police. When are they going to turn up with weapons?”

She said they’ve only seen police in their area once, and want a curfew to help stem the tide of people taking advantage of the crisis.

“If the Government says there’s no such thing as looting or it’s being exaggerated – I say liar, liar pants on fire.”

In the region, people have their hands full. Everyone is just getting on with it, under intense pressure and many are near emotional collapse.

But the message residents want to send to the Government is clear: come and see for yourself if you don’t believe them.

In Parliament today, that view received some sharp backing from former National leader and former police minister Judith Collins who responded to the Prime Minister’s statement by saying: “I think some people might want to tell him where he can stick his ‘unsubstantiated rumour’.”

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