Last week Prime Minister Chris Hipkins visited Thames and surrounding areas to assess the storm-ravaged region’s infrastructure first hand, concluding “we know we have a big job ahead of us”.
The summer’s extreme weather events have destroyed a stretch of road on State Highway 25A, rendering it impassable, and State Highway 25 from Hikuai and Opoutere has been closed at night while repairs are conducted, severely affecting travel for locals.
Hipkins met with Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Len Salt on March 9, before joining a media convoy to Dennis Raines’ Thornton Bay home, which was badly damaged after a major slip smashed into the back of it during a deluge generated by Cyclone Gabrielle at the end of January.
The tour continued on to Tapu-Coroglen Road where Hipkins, along with Civil Defence representatives and Waka Kotahi engineers got an up-close look at the carnage that has closed the key access road to traffic while a geotechnical assessment is conducted.
Another key access route, State Highway 25 from Hikuai and Opoutere, is understood to be having boreholes drilled this week to diagnose the extent of the damage to the road.
At a stand-up press conference after the Coroglen visit, Hipkins said Waka Kotahi’s priority for the Coromandel is to “restore transport connectivity” through “local government-led decisions”. He acknowledged the scale of the region’s roading and infrastructure issues: “We know we have a big job ahead of us, there will be some quick fixes to roads, while others will take time.
“There is a future of road cones ahead of us, I think, in the Coromandel; we do have to accept that some communities have become quite isolated, and that [building] a resilient transport network so they don’t get cut off quite as easily as they have been, was paramount.”
He also spoke about the impacts of the increasing frequency of major weather events, and said the Government was examining “how to best prepare communities for climate change”.
When asked about the viability of SH25A in the future, Hipkins said Waka Kotahi “had to look at the overall sustainability” of the project. Rumours of a SH25A repair bill of up to $100 million have been circulated by some in engineering circles, but the Prime Minister wouldn’t be drawn on a figure, saying “we don’t have cost on that yet”.
Hipkins was also unable to give a timeline on the repairs to 25A, saying ”I certainly can’t make that call, I think the reality is work is going to take as long as it takes”. In speaking with an NZME reporter earlier in the day in Taupo, he expressed doubt on SH25A’s ongoing viability or if the road will even be repaired at all, saying it may be better to “give up” on some roads rather than try to fight a losing battle.
“Do we actually say, ‘that road we give up on and [we’ll] build a different road somewhere else’? Those are the sorts of conversations we need to have in the Coromandel.”
In addressing the issues faced by Coromandel businesses hit hard by the weather, Hipkins said the Government was offering ”a range of support at the moment, but we know more is going to be required”. He added that funding has been focused on the “immediate emergency” caused by the extreme weather, and the Government needed ”to make sure we are targeting our support to those who need it most — and the priority for central government is to make sure we have a robust framework for those decisions”.
Hipkins stressed the importance of partnering with local government for the Coromandel’s regeneration, including decisions on where home owners can build or rebuild in light of the prevalence of slips and weather-related erosion.
Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Len Salt said the level of support from the Prime Minister and central government had been “good and very helpful” in “helping our people and business people through the immediate emergency situation”. He said the district council had asked the Government ”for a conversation about the longer-term resilience” of the roading network.
Salt admitted to some trepidation about what the future looks like for the Coromandel, saying he is concerned about the degradation of State Highway 25, the “wider supply issues of the district”, and the “degree of anticipation about what pathways are taken next — I think we all understand there is going to be significant levels of investment needed”.
“We need to make smart decisions,” said Salt. “We need to be thinking about the future in an era of climate change with an increase in [the] frequency and severity of weather events, that we’ve seen hit our district very very hard; it’s not going to be an easy fix, and there is a level of anxiety that exists now over weather and the sustainability of business.”
The mayoral relief fund was set up to compensate for the losses incurred by people cleaning up after Cyclone Gabrielle and has received a significant uptake, according to Salt. Affected businesses have accessed a separate immediate-support package.
Salt said the TCDC had the “flexibility to revisit the fund mayoral relief fund”, and that he council was encouraged that people are aware “they can reach out” in time of need.
“The key thing is if people need help, we are there to help.”