News | 7 March 2023
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Wairoa to Wellington: A man's mission to restore his devastated town

The world changed overnight for Wairoa Māori Film Festival Director Leo Koziol when Cyclone Gabrielle ravaged his hometown of Nūhaka, Wairoa. Places he had known and treasured were damaged – the streets around his home, the local school, the Māori language school, the new film festival office, and his Marae.

Person standing infront of balcony holding brochures.
Leo Koziol in Wellington.

Now Leo is on a mission to restore his home, and has made his way to Wellington to find out how he can help Nūhaka and Wairoa.
Currently staying with Wellington City Council Māori Arts Director Suzanne Tamaki, Leo is in Pōneke to help fundraise for the Mayoral Relief Fund and his flooded Marae, Kahungunu, he says.
“All the carvings need to be cared for because you want to keep the original wood restoration. We need to take the panels off to restore them and try to repair any photos and books. The Marae was filled with precious taonga.”

Flooded Marae.
Kahungunu Marae on the day of the floods.

His secondary mission is to restore archival footage from the Wairoa Film Festival, which includes videos used for Wellington City Council Film Nights, he says.
“Being the founder of the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, I had 20 years of archival DVD footage in my garage that was flooded and I’ve been able to dry and repair them. These films have been played across the country, even for film festivals in Wellington. If we had VHS tapes, we would’ve lost our history!”
When he thinks back to when the Cyclone hit Nūhaka, Leo says that the whole experience felt surreal.
“I found my father’s old transistor radio and spent all night listening to National Radio to figure out what was happening in the country. My garage had been flooded, but I didn’t know how bad it was.
“When the power came back on a couple of days later, I was able to watch the news on tv and I could see photos of Wairoa. I would say ‘that’s not Wairoa’. I couldn’t believe what I saw. You want to press rewind, but you can’t.”

DVDs in a dish rack.
Wairoa Māori Film Festival DVDs drying at Leo's home.

When he was able to leave his home, half of the town was still in-tact while the other side was completely devastated. 
“On the North side, a motel, bowling club, petrol station, Iwi Centre for Ngāti Kahungunu and the Māori language school where the new film festival office is were all flooded. It all looked so weird. We then had four days of sunshine, so everything dried out. Wairoa looked like a cowboy town,” Leo says.
With Nūhaka already being a rural town, the community had to rely on each other to get through the first few days.
“The best thing for us was to be with our own people, look after each other and do what we could. The supermarkets were stripped bare and there were only things like onions left.
“A Marae that wasn’t damaged opened their doors for the community. They went around getting as much food from damaged freezers and began cooking. They cooked for 24 hours. The fire station became a relief hub and we all spent our time there, being looked after by our neighbours.”

Māori Language School.
The damaged Māori Language School in Wairoa.

After a few days of staying together at the relief hub, a woman from Auckland showed up with Starlink, allowing the people of Nūhaka to contact their families.
“A lady just drove to us in her motorhome and let us connect to Starlink. I was able to connect my phone and I can’t explain the feeling of talking to your whānau after six days of no contact – being able to say you’re okay and to hear they are too.
“And to realise it wasn’t just you, it was everyone around you calling their loved ones. The hardest part was not knowing about your family and seeing the damage on the news. This woman did so much for us. You realise how much people are willing to do for one another.”

The lady with the motorhome and Starlink was helping out communities without even being asked. Leo wants to get in touch with her to thank her, and is amazed how people are supporting.

“The floods are bringing us all together.”
Wellington City Council has joined a Local Government Initiative called Adopt a Community to support cyclone-affected Councils and their communities. Wellington has been paired with Wairoa District Council. You can donate to the Mayoral Relief Fund for Wairoa here.

A close-faced selfie of Leo Koziol smiling with a shaved head and black-rimmed reading glasses next to a smiling Wellington Mayor, Tory Whanau, with long black hair and shiny lips.
One of Leo's highlights in the capital has been catching up with Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau.

Mayoral Relief Funds have been set up for Auckland, Tairāwhiti, Thames-Coromandel, Hawke’s Bay, Tararua, Wairarapa, Taranaki and Taupō regions. To find out more, visit the National Emergency Management Agency's website.