Some victims of the Matata floods have reacted in an entirely understandable manner to advice that they can never return to their homes. In the wake of a shattering natural disaster, the natural inclination is to rebuild both property and life. Nobody wants to learn that is not possible, and that a much-loved home has been condemned.

Thus, there has been much railing by residents against the Whakatane District Council for using Victim Support staff to break the bad news. But as much as the identity of the messenger can be debated, the good sense of the message cannot. Rebuilding the 31 affected properties east of the Awatarariki Stream would be a recipe for further disaster, including the possible loss of life.

The magnitude of the calamity that hit the Bay of Plenty community on May 18 should not be underestimated. Nor should the likelihood of a recurrence. An intense rainstorm appears to have triggered a series of debris flows, in which large boulders propelled by mud formed powerful battering rams. The upshot was the destruction of 27 homes, the damaging of a further 80, and a situation in which lives could easily have been lost.

Something similar is bound to happen in the future. When cannot be calculated. But the unfortunate fact, according to at least one expert in geology, is that Matata's location on a small, steep alluvial fan makes it prone to debris flows. Boulders in gardens of the settlement before the latest devastation suggest there were similar but smaller events last century.

The odds on a recurrence, allied with the impossibility of building adequate protective works, make rebuilding untenable. Debris flows are a far more difficult proposition than floods, given their scope, speed, savagery and unpredictability. Scientists suggest, as does common sense, that nature will always be omnipotent when events conspire as they did at Matata. The only way to reduce the risks of debris flows is to avoid building at such locations. As much, perhaps, was recognised relatively early in the aftermath by the district council, leading it early last month to stop clean-up work on the now-condemned houses.

The affected residents must now concentrate, however reluctantly, on rebuilding their lives elsewhere. Their immediate priority, quite reasonably, will be fair and reasonable compensation. That should mean they are assured of receiving cash equivalent to the full market value of their homes before the debris flows struck. The Earthquake Commission pays only up to $100,000 for houses and $20,000 for contents damaged in a natural disaster. That suggests the Government, as well as the district council, will have to become involved.

There is plenty of precedent for the Crown paying compensation in such circumstances. In 2002, for example, it and a mining company devised a $3 million package for homes in Waihi that were at risk of collapsing into old mine workings, even though the Earthquake Commission was not liable for damage caused by man-made subsidence. The people of Matata are, quite obviously, no less deserving, and similar intervention should occur.

The coming months will be heart-breaking for the people whose houses have been condemned. Having endured the most harrowing of nights, and the stress and anguish of almost two months in limbo, they must now await a decision on compensation. Their plight makes it imperative that the district council and the Government act with urgency and compassion. Nothing less will suffice for people deprived of their most prized possession in the most dispiriting of circumstances.