A year on from a devastating flood, the residents of Kaiaua are hopeful there won't be a repeat — but there are no guarantees.

Driving into Kaiaua on a humid summer morning, the place looks every bit the sleepy seaside town.

A couple of locals are lounging with a cuppa on their decks, watching a high tide lapping against the beach.

The gentle swell is making a mockery of the king tide which combined with a monster storm to devastate the town almost a year ago.


The first big weather event of this year ripped across the country on January 5, destroying roads, flooding homes and claiming a woman's life after a tree fell onto her car.

Kaiaua — on the Firth of Thames about 90 minutes from central Auckland — was hit hard.

Waves of floodwater punched through glass doors, washed away fences and submerged much of the town in muddy, silty water.

It was far from the first major storm to afflict the town. The previous March, around a dozen houses were flooded during a deluge that caused slips, sparked power cuts and forced evacuations.

And a report by the Hauraki District Council details two major events on consecutive weekends in January 2011, when the sea washed over the bank into the town and streams overflowed.

Deputy Mayor Toby Adams says the district council is working closely with regional officials to future-proof the town from similar events.

They've invested $100,000 on infrastructure to help manage the effects of stormwater and bolstered rules around new builds: the floor level now has to be above the highest known flood level.

The Kaiaua Coast Disaster Relief Fund has generated $43,000 for families in need of assistance and the district council is working with coastal communities to develop response plans.


Most locals seem to accept there will be another serious event sooner or later. Several properties resemble construction sites as owners go about raising their house, while others are simply hoping for the best.

As one elderly resident, Bonnie Campbell, told the Weekend Herald: "If it happens, it happens."

Kaiaua resident John Hill sold his house on January 2. Three days later there was a lake on his property.

He was away getting his car serviced when the storm hit. His first thoughts when he came home?

"Holy shit, it's buggered."

Hill bought in Kaiaua six years ago and lives there with his wife Josie.

Suffering from medical issues and tiring of the isolation, he had decided it was time for a move. The 'for sale' sign went up outside their East Coast Rd home late last year.


Negotiations with a potential buyer began soon after. The buyer had signed to buy, but no payments were made.

"Of course three days after [when the storm hit] I got a phone call from this guy, and he said, 'we're gonna come to see you'.

"I said to him, 'yeah I thought so'. I could have stuck to it, I could have said, 'look, that's just too bad for you, you own it now'," Hill muses. "But I wouldn't do that — it's just not right."

So he waived the deal and stayed put.

In the months since, he's felt trapped: "I can't do anything, I've just got to stay here until I finish [the renovations]."

To Hill it's "pretty obvious" this kind of weather event is more frequent.


"I don't know what it is. I wouldn't like to say yes or no [to climate change], but I'm definitely not like whatshisname — Trump. It's coming from somewhere."

Down the road, Bonnie Campbell is sitting at the kitchen table, on the top storey of her brick home.

She's admiring the grass on her front lawn, which has only recently grown back after the January storm transformed the yard into a big, dirty, sandpit.

Campbell remembers the day well. Her great-grandchildren were staying during the school holidays — they were the ones to point out how high the tide had become.

"It was very frightening at first," she says.

Her grandson Tyler, 14 at the time, helped her move two cars around the corner to higher ground.

Campbell marvels at how fast everything happened. Minutes after they left, floodwater smashed through a glass sliding door on the ground floor. Jagged pieces of glass were left floating in murky, ankle deep water.


Access to the house was cut off and her garden shed out the back partially submerged. A dinghy sitting by the shed floated across the water to rest by the house.

Today, a sturdy-looking black wooden fence runs along the perimeter of her front yard, where the old fence was entirely washed away by the flood.

"The whole fence and gate just disappeared, it was unbelievable," Campbell recalls.

"All my plants, and pot plants — I had orchids and all sorts outside … I don't know where they went."

One of the worst losses, Campbell tells us, was boxes of photos and trinkets from travels with her late husband, stored in the bottom level of her house.

One of her three daughters suggested she sell up and move down to join her in Rotorua. But Campbell doesn't want to.


She gestures to the shoreline, some 20 metres from her boundary.

"Where else could you get a view like that?"

Repairs were held up by the discovery of asbestos in the bottom floor but are now complete.

Even so, she won't leave anything of value — monetary or sentimental — downstairs.

She's thought about raising the house, but knows work on the concrete structure would be a huge undertaking.

Nevertheless, Campbell doubts anything would be as bad as the flooding that kicked off the year.


It's mid-morning and the Pink Store has a steady stream of customers — locals grabbing copies of the Herald, travellers stopping for a takeaway flat white.

Lynn Yeager, who owns the general store and cafe, has had a tough year. She's hoping for a better season this time around.

The storm in January hit pause on summer, and business didn't properly pick up for months afterwards.

"It was peak season, we had lots of stock, lots of drinks, and it just all stopped," Yeager says.

While the locals were supportive, road closures meant passing trade diminished from a flow to a trickle.

People were, and sometimes still are, Yeager says, unsure if the town is open for business — something she wants to clear up for good.

"We're still here. Life goes on - memories are short."


An insurance payout mid-year helped ease the financial pressure of repairing and replacing equipment, furniture and stock.

Yeager never considered shutting up shop. She had it worse in 2011.

"I'd had a lot more stuff in the shop, and it was new."

She's determined future flooding events won't take as much of a toll.

She's looking at raising The Pink Store's floor — she's talked to an engineer — but knows it will come at a cost.

The expense will be worth it though. Yeager says every time it rains for more than a couple of hours, she gets a little nervous.


"You start thinking about, 'what's the sea doing?, what's the river at the back doing?, are they going to come together at the same time?'"

Insurers have spent upwards of $226 million this year on claims relating to extreme weather events, Insurance Council data shows.

That makes 2018 the second most expensive year for weather-related claims since 1969, falling just short of last year's $243m.

Research and planning to protect communities is underway.

The Ministry for the Environment Coastal Hazards Guide was published in 2017. A Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group has plans for a national risk assessment system.

According to a report prepared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, more than 43,000 residential properties nationwide face risks from the effects of climate change. The cost of replacing at-risk buildings is around $19 billion.

The idea of relocatable homes was tossed around because it's not viable to raise all at-risk properties to a safe height.


Around 2000km of road and 50km of railway are also in danger.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says communities will have a say on the best way forward.

Shaw says advice from our own climate change experts and international data show changes in climatic conditions are significantly affecting global weather patterns.

Storms are becoming more frequent and more severe - and New Zealand is not immune, he says.

Niwa's Rob Bell, who helped pen the Coastal Hazards Guide, has no doubt extreme weather events are becoming more common.

"While that combination we saw on January 5 in the Firth of Thames and Kaiaua, is a pretty infrequent combination, we're going to see more of them."


Rising sea levels are exacerbating king tides; making major events devastating, and minor events more common.

A secondary factor is rainfall. Rob says climate change is driving "short periods of high-intensity rainfall".

Kaiaua isn't alone in the risk it faces — Rob says Christchurch, Invercargill, Napier and Nelson are among a raft of low-lying towns and cities dangerously close to rising seas.

"Sea level rise is going to carry on for centuries. Eventually people say 'enough's enough', we have to do something."