In the latest instalment of our series The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better, the Herald is looking at how our cities and towns can cope with more extreme weather. Is managed retreat from flood zones and coastal properties the answer? Or are there better ideas to future proof our communities? Here, Simon Wilson examines the aftermath of this year’s Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle and what the devastating events can teach us.
The rain fell like a dam bursting over the city on Friday, January 27. And again on Monday, February 13. And again on Tuesday, May 9. During the January storm, Watercare expert Andrew Chin later told the Auckland Council, there was so much water in the North Shore’s Wairau Valley “it would not be possible to build a pipe big enough to carry it all safely away”.
Two people died there that night, caught in floodwaters that rose so fast they weren’t able to escape. Two more died in other parts of the city.
There’s a whole new way of looking at water in cities now. It’s right there in the name the council has given to its strategic response to those summer storms: “Making Space for Water”.
The same idea informs an influential book about floods in Brisbane, called A River with a City Problem. Author Margaret Cook inverts the thinking of city builders in the 19th and 20th centuries to argue that it’s dangerous to shut nature out. Better to let it in and work with it.
In the wake of the storms here, many people suggested it was crazy that parts of the city are built on flood plains. But almost all cities are on flood plains: that’s what it means to build on flat land on the coast or by a river. The challenge is in how to build, knowing the risk, and how to manage the water.
They’re on to it all over the world. On the Chinese island of Hainan, the rivers that run through the main cities are surrounded by wetlands that double as public parks. When the floods come, the water fills the parks but leaves the buildings alone.
In New York’s harbour, the Living Breakwaters Project is restoring oyster farms by building undersea reefs. During a storm they calm the sea before it smashes into the land. It works better than sea walls, which break.
Even the country that sets the gold standard for shutting nature out, the Netherlands, doesn’t rely only on dykes. An elaborate water-management system directs floodwater to land where it can do the least damage.
And in Auckland, Making Space for Water didn’t arrive from nowhere. It builds on work already done by Kāinga Ora, private developers and the council itself, especially in the big new housing projects in places like Northcote and Mt Roskill.
During the recent storms, parks near those projects filled with water, as they were meant to, but the houses didn’t.
Still, this kind of talk is not a great help to the people of the once-idyllic Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay, or the settlements up the coast from Gisborne. Or to the people of West Auckland and many other parts of the city, who fear another flood every time we get serious rain.
Or to the people of Muriwai, on Auckland’s west coast, who have more red-stickered homes than any other part of Auckland. Not because of flooding, but because Cyclone Gabrielle caused their beautiful, bush-covered hills to collapse. Two volunteer firefighters died in the rescue effort. Making space for water is not top of mind in Muriwai.
On the winter afternoon of June 15, about 150 residents gathered in the Muriwai surf life-saving clubrooms, which double as a community centre, to hear from Michael Wood, the Minister for Auckland, senior officials from the council’s Recovery Unit.
One resident quickly dubbed them “the minister and his posse of peeps”.
They’ve been through grief and anger, these residents, but they’re not so immune to bad news that they won’t fall back into either. Right now, they’re frustrated and scared.
They know the decision-making is complex and several of them said they appreciate that officials are working in good faith. But they’re running out of money, especially those whose insurance cover for temporary rental accommodation will soon dry up.
And they’re fearful about how long decisions will take. At one point Mat Tucker, head of the council’s recovery unit, used the phrase “managing this over the years to come”.
Mike Hibbert, who was chairing the meeting, was quick to pull him up. “Years,” he said. “That’s the first time we’ve heard years.”
Wood told them: “We want you to be able to move on. There is no way the Government will come out of this process putting a burden on homeowners.”
It was the right thing to say, but when pressed, he couldn’t say what he meant.
“Can you assure us you won’t let the burden of accommodation costs fall on us from July?” asked one resident.
Wood replied, “We don’t want you to be in that predicament. But I can’t give you an assurance just at this point. I am waiting for advice.” He explained that because there are “different situations” it’s not straightforward. “But I have heard you today and we are moving quickly.”
Hibbert reminded him that “most stickered homes aren’t damaged”. But the owners can’t go home because they’re at risk from landslides on other properties. And yet: “Insurance won’t pay when there’s no damage.”
He talked about the strains on everyone’s mental health. And physical health. “There have been heart attacks,” he said.
Wood had brought Jin Russell with him. She’s a paediatrician at Starship and a member of the advisory group he set up after the storms. She was there for anyone who wanted to talk about how their kids were coping.
The Government has already said it will pay the bulk of costs associated with relocating residents, but it’s negotiating with councils over how much they’ll pay and how it will work.
And it’s the councils that designate which homes go into each of the three categories. Category 3 is the critical one: it means you can’t rebuild or reoccupy and you’ll be offered a buyout.
Homeowners in other parts of the country have already received their category designations, but the Auckland Council says it is still doing the assessments and does not expect to complete this work before August.
At the Muriwai meeting, Ross Roberts, a geotech engineer with the recovery unit, explained that it’s possible new landslides could occur on the cliffs near the existing scarps. Other hillsides could also be at risk.
They’re putting measuring tools into bores to provide readings every 10 minutes, which tells you something about how precarious it all is.
Despite all this uncertainty, in a bigger sense the reality is very plain. Dozens of houses in Muriwai sit at the foot of giant landslides that are still unstable. The next storm could wreak far more damage, and preventing that could be astronomically expensive. It’s impossible to think the homeowners will be able to return.
So how will they relocate, who will pay and when, and where will they go?
The Muriwai peeps live on this coast because they want to: because, to them, the rewards outweigh the isolation, storms and unreliable utility services. Mace Ward, deputy head of the recovery unit, suggested to me later the residents of the west coast beaches are like “island communities”. What they’ve got, or had, is self-contained and special.
“If we wanted to live in Huapai,” says resident Maria Koppens, “we’d be living there already.”
And they want to remain a community. One homeowner suggested they should be moved onto the regional park which borders the village. But is that something the wider Auckland public would tolerate?
Ward told me the regional park probably isn’t an option, but there may be some land nearby that could be repurposed.
After the meeting, resident Elaine McNee said: “You do everything you’re supposed to. Pay your rates, pay your taxes. You get the right consents when you build or you renovate, we’ve got insurance, and what does it mean?”
She was suggesting there is a social contract. But when disaster strikes, it feels harder than it should to get the banks and insurers, as well as the Government and the council, to honour their side of the bargain.
This is climate change and we need some new rules, new guidelines, new thinking.
New ways to manage competing expectations and the anxieties that overwhelm us when disaster strikes.
There are no easy answers and New Zealand isn’t alone in discovering this.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped the largest rainstorm ever recorded in the US on Houston, Texas. Some 150,000 homes were flooded and 80 people died, and afterwards it did not seem not credible for people to stay living in some parts of the city. So a programme of voluntary buyouts was established. This is part of what’s called “managed retreat”.
But after five years, only 750 homeowners had taken up the offer.
American accounts suggest that when storm disasters strike, most people don’t flee. Their sense of belonging is reinforced. The community rallies round, relationships deepen, they rebuild together. People find it hard to imagine that uprooting their whole life would be better.
As a result, the money spent on managed retreat is tiny compared with what gets spent on rebuilding and re-establishing homes, suburbs and cities.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans more or less got put back the way it was, with extra levees. But it will flood again. How many times do you let it happen, before you say enough? Do you force people to move? How?
What all the experts say is that the best time to relocate is before you need to. But no one knows how to persuade people to give up their homes before the danger is even real.
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown prefers “resilience, not retreat”.
In early May he said the council should “work with property owners, not on managed retreat but building storm resilience, developing solutions tailored for each site and community”.
Making Space for Water has Brown’s enthusiastic backing. Last year he routinely dismissed questions about climate change. Not anymore.
“In the long run,” he said in May, “we can better serve Aucklanders by adapting to life in a changing climate. We need to work with community groups, not over the top of them. I want to see the council join forces with local residents and mana whenua to monitor and manage flood risks in and around urban streams.”
Making Space for Water was developed by the council’s Healthy Waters division, which looks after stormwater (as distinct from potable water and wastewater, which are controlled by the separate council agency Watercare).
Healthy Water general manager Craig McIlroy presented the plan to the council in May and it was received enthusiastically. It includes “daylighting streams”, which means taking them out of underground pipes and recreating them as above-ground waterways. This helps to establish “blue-green networks”.
The idea is that stormwater isn’t something you manage just with drains. There’s a whole system of water management, including the drains and culverts, wetlands and swales, which are planted areas alongside the roads, and parks and playing fields that double as “flood detention basins”.
Eden Park became a valuable flood detention basin on January 27, but the gold standard in Auckland is Te Auaunga, or Oakley Creek, which flows from Mt Roskill to the mangroves at Pt Chevalier. Much of this waterway used to be routed underground. Now, the daylighted stream flows through bush, wetlands, picnic and play areas and a series of parks and playing fields.
In ordinary times it’s a beautiful feature of the city’s inner west, much used by local families. Apartment buildings are rising along its perimeter. When the rains come, the parks fill with water and then then they drain away again.
Te Auaunga worked wonderfully well in the storms this summer and two of the parks have recently won an international award.
McIlroy wants to see much more of this, all over the city, and so does Brown. To achieve it will involve property acquisition, co-ordinated work with landowners, and stronger roles for local boards and community groups in monitoring and developing the waterways.
That’s what Making Space for Water proposes, along with more maintenance of drains, culverts and streams, support for rural as well as urban communities and funding for better diagnostic and modelling tools.
Mayor Brown has also made it clear he does not want council on the hook for excessive costs. “Government has to provide the bulk of the funds,” his statement in May declared.
The bulk, but not all. The council’s new annual budget contains a $20 million Storm Response Fund and Brown has proposed a $1.2 billion infrastructure commitment for the next 10-year plan, which begins in mid-2024.
And in addition to the recovery office, there’s an Emergency Relief Fund to provide rates relief, and a Together Fund, “to help communities recover and rebuild”.
Brown also said: “Auckland Council is not a guarantor of private property interests, and we are generally not responsible for compensating property owners in case of loss due to a severe weather event or natural disaster.”
And he’s been frustrated at the way developers can appeal to the Environment Court against the council’s decisions to deny consents because of weather-related risks. This, in theory, will be overcome with the passage of the Government’s Resource Management Act reforms later this year.
This is a very grey area, full of risk and potential costs for council and property owners alike.
Elaine McNee in Muriwai says the council sold them a section in 2005 “and let us build on it”. She doesn’t blame the council for not knowing a landslide that started a long distance away could ruin her property.
But what will it mean for other properties now, not just in Muriwai but everywhere? To what extent will councils be liable? How much more will owners have to spend on geotech surveys and extra construction costs?
The Government, for its part, announced a $1b “recovery package” in the Budget. It is, said Finance Minister Grant Robertson at the time, “not the end of our support”.
Treasury has estimated the costs of the 2023 storm damage at $9b to $14.5b, of which about half will be Government and local council spending. That leaves a lot of damage to houses, farms and other commercial assets for the private sector to pay for.
Letting nature in probably sounds nuts to anyone who has experienced a mudslide roaring through their house.
They don’t want platitudes about living with nature. They want payouts, retaining walls and bigger drains. They’ve paid their taxes and their rates and they want their community back. They feel it deeply.
But central and local governments represent all the other taxpayers and ratepayers as well. Rebuild or relocate; barriers or let the water in: none of it is easy. How should they even talk to each other?
Researchers studying Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey said: “In the short term, far more needs to be done to communicate risk. While some residents may never want to leave their homes, our interviews show that few people have clear information about their vulnerability to future flooding.
“The federal government should mandate that flood risk is made clear in every lease, deed and mortgage contract and that this information is updated annually. Residents also need to know about alternative places to live before, and immediately after, their homes are damaged - the period when people are most open to accepting buyouts.”
But there’s no speed here. “Ten years,” they mutter In Muriwai, referring to the time it’s taken to restore Christchurch after the earthquakes. So far.
On the Kāpiti Coast, homeowners have fought in the courts to prevent climate-related risk being recorded on their land information memoranda (Lims). And in Ōrewa, in the north of Auckland, there’s been an ongoing battle over sea walls. Many people argue it’s far better to establish inter-tidal wetlands, with the multiple benefits they bring to the ecosystem, than to put up walls that will inevitably be battered down again.
As the disputes unfold, it may not be either public officials or residents who lead the way. The finance sector is stepping in.
The risk-assessment agency Moody’s now factors climate impacts into its municipal bond ratings. Insurers have made it clear they will not indefinitely offer cover for flood-prone properties. And how long before banks and other lenders stop offering 30-year mortgages? Or even 20-year mortgages?
In Muriwai, Michael Wood said, “My big takeaway from what I’m hearing about the insurance companies and the banks is that I want everyone leaning in.” He meant helping with the problem, not being part of it.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has said much the same: “Clearly, there is a role for... the banks and for the insurance companies, and that’s something we’re working on at the moment.”
But what do these things mean? Shaw hopes to table legislation covering managed retreats in Parliament this year.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of January 27 and February 13 is that we have all become Jon Snow in Game of Thrones: we know nothing. Will it be the same again next year? Same but in a different place? Same place but even worse?
Because in our case, it’s not winter that’s coming, it’s the wild storms of late summer.
This year, those storms trashed both the concept of “hundred-year rainfall events” and the very idea you can manage the climate crisis with statistical probability. So how do governments plan?
At the community meeting in Muriwai, night had fallen by the time the minister and his posse of peeps had finished answering questions.
The bar opened and the food truck parked next to the deck was suddenly busy. The minister stayed on for a while, the TV crews packed up. Kids ran around on the big grassy slopes while the adults clustered to talk. It felt like a cohesive community. Not happy, not pleased about anything, really. But engaged, hopeful, at least to a degree.
Most of the locals seem determined to stay in Muriwai. They won’t be living under the landslides, but they hold out hope that “making space for water” will allow them to relocate somewhere nearby.
Maria Koppens says: “We bought for the environment but we fell in love with the community.”
The rest of Auckland may well understand that: Muriwai gets 1.5 million visitors a year. Mace Ward says it’s “the busiest park in New Zealand by a long shot”. Those beaches mean an awful lot to this city.
Another resident, Abe Dew, says if they can’t rebuild, somehow, it will “gut the community”. Families will leave. “The rich people up on the hill with their Maseratis will stay and the old folks will stay, but if there are no families, that means there’s no young people to do the surf life saving.”
Who saw that coming? The climate crisis making casualties of the very people who volunteer to look out for our safety.
Dew talks about the gift they give new residents: because the power is so unreliable, it’s a box of Universal candles.
Elaine McNee says she can still remember her second night there. “The power went out and I lit some of my new candles. I looked out the window and all the other houses were doing the same.”
“Making Space for Water”
This week Auckland Council identified streams in 12 suburbs for priority action in its new strategic response to flood risk, Making Space for Water: Wairau Valley, Kumeu, Swanson, Glen Eden, Henderson, Blockhouse Bay, Mt Roskill, Grey Lynn, Sandringham, Mt Eden, Mangere and Pukekohe. Other flood-prone areas, like Howick, are being addressed under separate plans.
The plan itself focuses on nine areas:
- Blue-green networks in critical flood-risk areas: stormwater solutions (stream daylighting, widening and realignment), enhancing parkland or open space, and property acquisition and removal.
- High-risk properties: working with owners on engineering solutions, managed retreat and property acquisition.
- Culvert and bridge upgrades.
- More work to repair, maintain and monitor overland flow paths and to educate property owners.
- Supporting resilience planning in rural communities including marae and papakāinga.
- Investment in planning and modelling tools.
- Stream rehabilitation and management.
- Community-led flood resilience: advice for property owners, industry-specific advice, public events and awareness campaigns.
- Increased maintenance of the stormwater networks, including street sweeping, catchpit cleaning and weed clearance from streams.
* Simon Wilson is a senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.