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Cyclone Gabrielle shows family violence challenge in NZ

Housing looms as the big issue facing New Zealand's victims of family violence, which is at elevated levels owing to Cyclone Gabrielle.

In the days since the country's biggest storm this century, police have logged hundreds of calls for assistance from family harm incidents in the hard-hit regions of Hawke's Bay and Gisborne.

Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury said she expected the uptick, based on previous disasters like the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

"What we're seeing at the moment is what we would see in the wake of any natural disaster, and we've had a few to draw on," she told AAP.

Family Violence Prevention Minister Marama Davidson said it's an unfortunate but common phenomenon in the wake of major emergencies which bring trauma, stress and loss.

"Sadly I'm not surprised," she told AAP.

"I just have to be really, really clear that violence is never okay ... but we know that one of the drivers increasing the risk of violence is stress."

Family violence is an endemic problem in NZ, as it is in many societies, with police data showing its alarming scale.

Police attended 187,894 incidents in 2021 where an attending officer recorded a "family harm-related matter", producing 65,369 related offences.

That's 514 police-attended family harm incidents every day, or one every three minutes.

It is to say nothing of unreported violence.

Proactively released police data in recent days shows an average of 40 family violence callouts each day in the Gisborne-Tairiwhiti and Hawke's Bay regions alone.

Extrapolated to the national average, that's almost double the normal level.

As well as exacerbating family violence, Gabrielle has exposed the challenges in discussing it.

In the cyclone's wake, many NZ media outlets have shared stories of looting and opportunistic theft, such as stealing generators, from cyclone-ravaged communities.

However, police said those "dishonesty crimes" remain at near-normal levels.

That's in contrast to family harm, which Police Commissioner Andy Coster confirmed is at swollen levels. Yet it does not feature as prominently in Kiwi reporting.

Ms Davidson said it had been a "unsatisfying" narrative.

"The whole entire conversation about harm and violence, sexual violence and family violence across the country has not been good for a long, long time," she said.

"When we're talking about what is and isn't happening. If we're saying 'crime hasn't increased', well, family violence is a crime.

"So I'd like to see all political parties actually responding to ... what crime actually is increasing."

With two decades experience in the sector, Ms Jury has seen these spats before and wants a more consistent discussion.

Instead, she expects discussion to stay dormant "until we get the next horrific homicide".

"That tends to get the media and the politicians are very exercised. And that's really unhelpful. What we need in this country is sustained effort, sustained attention," she said.

The fights over crime levels in Hawke's Bay have inspired opposition parties to propose sending in the army to support police, and a doubling of sentences for theft and burglary committed during states of emergency.

There have been no publicly-aired ideas on how to prevent family violence, or respond to it.

Ms Jury said the number one need would be housing.

"What we learned (in past disasters) was that the systems that we have in place were good," she said.

"It was the housing issue that came afterwards, trying to place women afterwards, and we're going to have that same problem this time.

"If I had a magic wand I would instantly magic up 500 brand new houses in Hawke's Bay.

"We can always find food easily enough, we can always find cell phones and clothing and furniture and beds, but putting roofs over people's heads, that's going to be the much bigger challenge."

Compounding the challenge, Cyclone Gabrielle has worsened NZ's already poor housing supply.

The storm rendered thousands of homes temporarily uninhabitable and hundreds of homes permanently so, forcing many into short-term fixes such as spare rooms, couches and sheds.

With hundreds of families in Gisborne and the Hawke's Bay already on a waiting list for social housing, women seeking refuge from family violence will show up that shortfall.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he understood those with their hands up for temporary accommodation "(don't) reflect the true scale of need", and that "all options are on the table" to meet demand including temporary buildings and Airbnbs.

"In many cases people will move into other arrangements. They'll go and stay with friends and relatives and so on, and there is a finite time when those arrangements will continue to be able to operate," he said.

"That can lead to different stresses and strains in families as well.

"We use commercial providers - hotels, motels, and so on - to meet immediate needs in the short term, but we will be needing to look at other solutions."

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