“It’s turned our land into porridge.”
Of all the descriptions of the devastation 2023′s weather has wrought on Tairāwhiti/Gisborne - three states of emergency this year alone - few capture the sodden region’s situation better than that one from Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz.
Other labels for the economic and structural impact of a year’s rainfall in six months, like “enormous”, “massive”, and “devastating”, have become such a part of the lexicon they’re no longer helpful to understanding what has happened.
Even the estimate that direct losses for the region’s main earning sectors - agriculture, horticulture, forestry, tourism and hospitality, and small to medium-sized businesses - from February’s Cyclone Gabrielle will amount to $415 million-$500m doesn’t so effectively portray the result of the relentless battering from storms and rain.
Stoltz says the income of every business activity - from family-owned pie shops which rely on drivers travelling state highways that have been frequently closed, to large-scale vegetable and fruit growers who feed New Zealand - has been affected by five states of emergency since November 2021, and the recent rain that’s proven one dousing too much for the saturated land.
Hillsides are still moving, landslides are everywhere and some of the roads on which the region’s population of 50,000 depend are closed, disrupted, rerouted or at risk of being shut at any time. Some communities on the coast north of Gisborne are said to still need helicopter assistance.
Around 20 homes and properties have been declared so at risk from future flooding or landslides that their occupants have had to surrender them. The Gisborne District Council expects that number to rise.
Stoltz says 36 properties are red-stickered so far, and 200 yellow-stickered. These figures are predicted to increase, “with many homes on watch as the land continues to move”. She says information compiled by the recovery co-ordination centre set up after Gabrielle suggests “we need $1 billion to fix our region and future-proof it”.
If an image of land like porridge isn’t enough, local Federated Farmers leader Toby Williams offers another measure of the disaster: many farmers have had to buy horses to get around their properties due to landslides.
“It’s impossible to take tractors anywhere because it’s so wet,” he says. “It’s just an accepted fact of what we have to do now to ensure our stock are well cared for. A lot of the [seasonal] work coming up will have to be done on foot because there won’t be time to fix the tracks.”
The damage to farms will have an economic cost beyond the huge repair job required.
“A job that might have taken half an hour now takes half a day. It will also affect the recovery because when you’re spending half a day doing a job, that time is lost for repairs,” says Williams, the national meat and wool chair for Federated Farmers.
While individual property situations may be miserable - particularly for still cut-off remote households - the region’s roads are top of mind for community leaders now that systems have kicked in to ensure the most isolated residents are monitored daily.
“We don’t have a rail option,” says Stoltz. “Our roads are fragile and by sea is not dependable either.
“Our state highways into the region also carry the trucks that deliver everything to our supermarket shelves. As a region, we are very vulnerable when our state highways are out of action. This year they’ve been closed altogether many times and left our population... completely isolated from the rest of the country, accessible only by air.
“We are dealing with a community in crisis.”
Regional economic development agency Trust Tairāwhiti agrees that road and bridge failures are the major contributors to the region’s feeling that it is in crisis.
“We are pretty much totally reliant on our roading network to connect our supply chains and our customers,” says acting agency chief executive Richard Searle. “When those fail, which they have reasonably regularly of late, it’s a really big problem, and a lot of the costs are borne directly by our businesses and industry.”
The resulting escalation of freight costs has been “acutely felt”, and road failures create myriad downstream issues, from obvious access and travel interruptions to problems getting produce and livestock off properties, he says.
Gisborne-founded Weatherell Transport’s main business is hauling food and produce. Co-owner Steve Weatherell says “a lot of people are not working” in the region.
“The forestry and logging truck guys aren’t working. Stock trucks can’t move.
“Supermarkets are doing a roaring trade because everyone is sitting around eating and drinking. The volumes to supermarkets can go up 20-40 per cent depending on the day.”
That might sound positive for his business, but because it operates on a round-trip basis - full trucks going in and out of the region - and growers have lost crops, surcharges have been necessary to offset the cost of sending trucks out empty. The nationwide business, which employs 150 people and 120 trucks, experienced a “huge” negative swing in revenue due to the February cyclone, says Weatherell.
“We’ve recovered to a certain extent but we’ll never get that back. We’re going to feel it for a long time. Not just this year, but ongoing.”
The impact of this year’s storms on the forestry sector across the East Coast has been “immense” and comes on the back of frequent weather events last year, says Eastland Wood Council chief executive Philip Hope.
“It is hard to put a dollar figure on exactly what impact has been felt specifically from the failing infrastructure of our region because there is a range of factors at play,” Hope says.
“What we know is production forestry harvest volumes across Eastland Port have declined 26 per cent since 2021.
“This past year we have seen a drop in export volume of 8 per cent, which means harvest volumes reduced by 200,000 tonnes.”
In normal times, the region’s forestry industry provides 1000 fulltime equivalent jobs and claims to be the largest GDP contributor to the local economy.
Many forestry crews have not been operating since June, due to the inability to move wood to the port, with the exception of crews harvesting forestry blocks with direct access to the the state highway by private road, says Hope.
“This year we estimate around 18-20 crews have either left the region, left logging altogether, or transitioned to another sector.”
Harvest crews had not had three weeks of uninterrupted work since a cyclone in April last year.
In the year to June 30, 2.3 million tonnes were exported by forestry company members of the council, compared to 3.1 million tonnes in 2021.
Mayor Stoltz says there are many layers to the Tairāwhiti crisis and “there’s no quick fix”.
But no one’s in any doubt that the region needs money to fund the recovery and resilience plans now being nutted out by regional leaders and communities.
Given the $1b price tag and the region’s small ratepayer population, that money must come from central government.
In May, the district council asked for immediate Government funding of $534m to rebuild infrastructure, $5.1m to restore the natural environment, $15.8m for economic recovery and $475m to assist social recovery. A further $547m was sought for “resilience funding”, and $66.2m to address resilience recovery in the natural environment.
To date, Stoltz says, funds received are: for the Mayoral Relief Fund, $1m from the Government and $2.4m in public donations; $38.8m from the Ministry for the Environment; $29m from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency; and $10.5m towards the removal of wood debris.
The region’s allocation from this year’s Budget has still to be “clarified”, she says.
Transport Minister David Parker’s office said in a statement the Government allocated $250m for emergency repairs immediately after Cyclone Gabrielle in February.
A further $275m was “earmarked” in this year’s Budget to reconnect isolated communities, with a further $419m over seven years for roading resilience work.
Additional funding is likely as work programmes are identified. The minister is awaiting advice from Waka Kotahi on options for ongoing recovery work and funding requirements, to be considered by Cabinet. On July 31, the Government announced a further $567m to Waka Kotahi for immediate works on state highways in Tairāwhiti, Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay, Coromandel and Northland.
Trust Tairāwhiti’s Searle says without “more significant infrastructure investment from the Government, we can’t get there”.
“We need to take a longer-term view about infrastructure resilience and the quality of our roading and bridge network,” says Searle.
“We are a small, more sparsely populated region, often there’s prioritisation by the Government; sometimes those metrics count against us.
“When it comes to investment, we pay a heavy price around that. Events like this just make a more challenging business environment and a place to do business, if proactive investment is not done.”
Roads ‘a human right’
Ask any embattled East Coast resident how they feel and you can put money on the answer being “tired”.
Tired of being tossed about by storms, tired of being drenched, tired of the land moving under them, tired of their roading crisis.
But their dismay over the state of their roads and the fallout for the local economy go back further than this year’s storms.
In 2017, a report from a meeting of central and local government officials, roading experts and the forestry industry said the region had a “crisis” roading situation. Foresters claimed “a regional economic disaster [was] about to worsen” due to underfunding and deterioration.
Following three states of emergency this year (five since November 2021) and recent rain proving one downpour too many for saturated hillsides, the region’s leaders say roading failures and community and economic vulnerability go hand in hand.
Even road workers who, according to Downer regional manager for Gisborne and Wairoa Nigel Pollock, live for the challenge of a good rainfall, are tired, he says.
“It’s very depressing when you do all this hard work and come back the next day and it’s a disaster zone again.”
Downer has the Waka Kotahi maintenance contract for state highways in the region and for around 20 per cent of local roads.
Pollock has been running the highway contracts for Tairāwhiti/Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay for more than 15 years. He doesn’t agree there is a roading “crisis”, at least not for the state highways. “But it has been very interrupted for connectivity, and up the coast, their roads and houses are isolated because their access has been blocked off.”
He says the latest rain “broke the camel’s back. The land couldn’t handle any more”.
Faced with a vast area of slips and road and bridge damage, Pollock and his teams handle the giant repair job one bite at a time.
“If you break it down and you have a plan and approach it in a systematic way, a big challenge becomes lots of little projects. When you prioritise what you’re going to do, it brings some clarity.”
During the states of emergency, Downer followed the job orders of Civil Defence.
“Their focus is to protect life. The landmass of Gisborne is quite large and the population is quite small.
“A lot of people living in isolated communities have health issues. If the roads are blocked, these people can die. Helicopters can’t fly in a cyclone. So Downer would turn its focus there first.”
Pollock says the local environment is very fragile. “We are very vulnerable here... we rely on state highways to get goods in and out.”
Asked if the roading fragility is because there hasn’t been enough investment to build resilience, he says the region’s geology, the foundations on which roads are built, is not good.
“We don’t have good, hard materials to build high-quality roads. Everything moves. In the South Island they have beautiful greywacke which is rock-hard.
“We are challenged for good materials to build good roads.
“It means you have to import materials and then the cost to build good-quality roads is unaffordable. It’s the nature of our isolation.”
Pollock says state highways are designed for a life of 25 years. “There has never been enough money in anyone’s budget to replace all of our state highway inventory in this country every 25 years.”
Rates and taxes would have to rocket to achieve this, he says. “It’s why you have [lots of experts] thinking of innovative ways to keep infrastructure running on a shoestring budget.”
Federated Farmers’ Williams says “people are at breaking point”, largely due to road access problems. Some farms won’t have road access for at least another six months, he says.
The roading issue also made it difficult to retain and attract staff.
“We need investment from central government,” Williams says.
“We need our roading fixed. It’s a critical lifeline... a human right.”
He says East Coast local roads started as Māori bush tracks, were slowly widened over the years for horses and carts, and were eventually gravelled to take vehicles.
“They were never properly designed or put in the right places. We need to be thinking long-term about a road network that’s fit for purpose. We don’t want to find roads are closed every time it rains.”
Transport Minister David Parker says there are “no current plans” to abandon sections of state highway, but some road sections are being considered for realignment.
Nick Leggett, chief executive of Infrastructure New Zealand, says there’s a great opportunity with the East Coast’s “network infrastructure failure” for a public-private partnership as has been modelled overseas, including in Australia and the UK.
“It’s where central government partners with local government, iwi and the private sector in what we would label ‘a region deal’,” Leggett says.
“It hands the power and influence to local communities to make decisions for themselves. Local people have to be in the driving seat and business has to be at the table.
“We can’t just rely on the government balance sheet to fix all these problems.
“We have to let the private sector come in and fund and finance some of these infrastructure solutions - we shouldn’t be scared of that.”
The last word goes to Downer’s Pollock, who came away from a recent roads conference, addressed by central government and Waka Kotahi officials, confident that roading resilience is top of mind in Wellington.
“There is a lot of energy being put into what we can do better to provide a more resilient network... it was really positive. There is a real appetite to want to do more,” Pollock says.
“Everyone understands demands on our roading network are very different now.”