East Coast weather catastrophe: ‘We are a community in crisis’
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. Tairawhiti people are "at breaking point" after three states of emergency this year. Its turned our land into porridge. Of all the descriptions of the devastation weather has wrought on Tairawhiti Gisborne - three states of emergency this year alone - few capture the sodden regions situation better than that one from Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz. Other labels for the economic and structural impact of a years rainfall in six months, like enormous, massive, and devastating, have become such a part of the lexicon theyre no longer helpful to understanding what has happened. Even the estimate that direct losses for the regions main earning sectors - agriculture, horticulture, forestry, tourism/hospitality and small to medium-sized businesses - from Februarys Cyclone Gabrielle will amount to $415 million-$500m doesnt 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 thats proven one dousing too much for the saturated land. Hillsides are still moving, landslides are everywhere and some of the roads on which the regions 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, the mayor 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. Stoltz 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 isnt 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. Its impossible to take tractors anywhere because its so wet, he says. Its 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 wont 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 youre spending half a day doing a job, that time is lost for repairs, says Williams, Federated Farmers national meat and wool chair. While individual property situations may be miserable - particularly for still cut-off remote households - the regions roads are top of mind for community leaders now that systems have kicked in to ensure the most isolated residents are monitored daily. We dont 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 theyve 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 Tairawhiti agrees that road and bridge failures are the major contributors to the regions feeling that it is in crisis. Acting chief executive Richard Searle: We are pretty much totally reliant on our roading network to connect our supply chains and our customers. When those fail, which they have reasonably regularly of late, its 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 Transports 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 arent working. Stock trucks cant 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. Weve recovered to a certain extent but well never get that back. Were going to feel it for a long time. Not just this year, but ongoing. At least 10 crews for forestry company members of the Eastland Wood Council are not operating due to road closures, Cyclone Gabrielle fallout and weak log prices, says chief executive Philip Hope. Forestry exports have fallen 8 per cent this year, which means harvest volumes for this major export are down by 200,000 tonnes, he says. In normal times, the regions forestry industry provides 1000 fulltime equivalent jobs and claims to be the largest GDP contributor to the local economy. The impacts of this years storms across the forestry sector across the East Coast, on the back of frequent weather events last year, has been immense, as it has been on our communities and whanau, says Hope. Currently the majority of crews in the sector across the district have not been operating since June 22, due to the inability to move wood to the [Eastland] port, with the exception of crews harvesting forestry blocks with direct access to the state highway by private road. Harvesting operations are hit because most of the crews operating are on reduced production, says Hope. Harvest crews had not had three weeks of uninterrupted work since a cyclone in April last year. In the year to June, 2.3 million tonnes of logs were exported by forestry company members of the council, compared to 3.1 million tonnes in 2021. Forestry export revenue through the local port was $438m in the 2020 financial year. Though forestry is an important employer in the region, the sector has lost its social licence and faces an uncertain future on the East Coasts fragile soils due to the highly damaging wood debris it ejects in severe storms. Stoltz says there are many layers to the Tairawhiti crisis and theres no quick fix. But no ones 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 regions 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. Another $547m was sought for resilience funding, and $66.2m to address resilience recovery in the natural environment. By last week, 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 New Zealand Transport Agency; and $10.5m towards removal of wood debris. The regions allocation from this years Budget has still to be clarified, she says. Transport Minister David Parkers office says in a statement the Government allocated $250m for emergency repairs immediately after Cyclone Gabrielle in February. A further $275m was earmarked in this years 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. Trust Tairawhitis Searle says, without more significant infrastructure investment from the Government, we cant get there. We need to take a longer-term view about infrastructure resilience and the quality of our roading and bridge network. We are a small and more sparsely populated region, often theres prioritisation by the Government and 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. 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 years 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 regions 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. Its very depressing when you do all this hard work and come back the next day and its 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 Tairawhiti Gisborne and Hawkes Bay for more than 15 years. He doesnt 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 camels back. The land couldnt 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 youre 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 cant 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 hasnt been enough investment to build resilience, Pollock says the regions geology, the foundations on which roads are built, is not good. We dont 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. Its the nature of our isolation. Pollock says state highways are designed for a life of 25 years. There has never been enough money in anyones 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. Its why you have [lots of experts] thinking of innovative ways to keep infrastructure running on a shoestring budget. Local Federated Farmers leader Toby Williams says people are at breaking point, largely due to road access problems. Some farms wont 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. We need our roading fixed. Its a critical lifeline... a human right. He says East Coast local roads started as Maori 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 thats fit for purpose. We dont want to find roads are closed every time it rains. Waka Kotahi says there has been significant damage to the state highway network, including the destruction of the Hikuwai bridge, and widespread destruction of local roads. Some communities remain shut off, the transport agency says. 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. Downers Pollock says three road areas in particular are causing headaches. State Highway 2 at Otoko has only recently been reopened after being shut for a week. Then on SH35 up the coast, we have two areas of huge concern. The Hikuwai No 1 Bridge washed out and we recently put a Bailey [portable] bridge there. Just north of that at Mangahauini theres a massive slip. It blocked the river and the new river channel is actually the state highway, Pollock says. Nick Leggett, chief executive of Infrastructure New Zealand, says theres a great opportunity with the East Coasts network infrastructure failure for a public-private partnership as has been modelled overseas, including in Australia and the UK. Its 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 cant 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 shouldnt be scared of that. Last word to Downers 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. Andrea Fox joined the Herald as a senior business journalist six years ago and specialises in writing about the dairy industry, agribusiness, exporting and the logistics sector and supply chains. Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. NZ Aerospace Summit in Christchurch hit by protest - which promises escalation tomorrow.