One year on from the significant flooding events of early 2023, and particularly the devastation that Cyclone Gabrielle brought to Tairāwhiti and Te Matau-a-Māui (Hawke’s Bay) on February 14, I’ve been reflecting on the extensive damage caused. It got me thinking about what have we learned from past events and what should we do differently for future recovery exercises? 

The Auckland Anniversary weekend flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle caused an estimated $9.0 - $14.5 billion of damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure. Research tells us that with climate change, we can expect these types of events to occur with increasing frequency. Added to this, New Zealand is well-known for being geologically active with major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, together with an ageing infrastructure asset base. So as an island nation faced with increasing disaster events, we must quickly learn from past events, so we are better prepared and can recover faster.

Infrastructure exists for community benefit, so when damage from disasters occur, they significantly impact people’s lives as well as disrupting the economy. The longer-term economic impact depends on various factors such as the severity of the event, the criticality of the infrastructure, level of resilience in the infrastructure, and the effectiveness of response and recovery. Being better prepared and recovering faster helps reduces the impact on communities, and also makes good economic sense. Conversely the less prepared we are, the more as a nation we will pay overtime, and the longer each recovery will take.

Insurance is often thought of as a critical piece of the recovery plan. However, large parts of public infrastructure are not insured, so the cost of recovery primarily comes from our taxes and local authority rates. Private infrastructure that is insured (such as homes and businesses) often relies on public infrastructure that is uninsured (such as flood protection assets, transport, water and sewage facilities), so economic losses and community frustration increases whilst careful and time-consuming recovery decisions must be made about funding and what to repair first and why. Depending on the scale, each recovery event then has the potential to increase our overall infrastructure deficit, as planned work on our aging assets is deferred with resources and budgets reallocated.

I recently heard "there is no playbook for recoveries", so as an island nation faced with increasing disaster events, how quick can we learn and share from previous recoveries? In my view, we must openly share and collaborate so we are better prepared for disaster recoveries, as building infrastructure resilience will take time. Information is power, so sharing is vitally important - we will be better if we face this together.

So what do we do?

I believe open collaboration across the infrastructure industry is the key, with a standardised approach to collecting hazard information, and sharing risk information. By centralising information and standardising it, we can all be better informed around the vulnerabilities and resilience levels that currently exist. In particular, many of our rural and coastal communities are most isolated, which makes them highly vulnerable, as they typically have few options if they lose their infrastructure. Centralised information is needed to increase short-term awareness and generate more robust recovery plans for likely events, whilst also aiding longer-term resilience planning options.

Private businesses typically have business continuity plans, so they can continue to operate when an event occurs, so could we move to having infrastructure recovery plans for our public assets?

A business continuity plan ensures critical business functions continue after a disaster, outlining the procedures and instructions to be followed to minimise disruption and ensure necessary resources are available for rapid recovery.

An infrastructure recovery plan could be prewritten, incorporating key shared learnings from similar events, and could include the following:

  • locations of critical assets, and those communities/areas who rely on them
  • who to contact and how, for updates on the status of critical assets (e.g. telecommunications, power, bridges etc)
  • locations of pre-determined ‘community support hubs’, including communication protocols and how they will be resourced
  • how infrastructure damage assessments will be categorised, triaged and stored
  • how procurement delegations change, so resources and supplies can be quickly organised; and
  • existing contracts, and their relevance and importance in response and recovery (i.e. helicopters, maintenance contractors, critical suppliers, etc).

If we standardise how we identify critical assets, centralise all relevant information to identify vulnerable communities, and work together to share lessons and define priorities in localised infrastructure recovery plans, we will be in a much better position at the start line of recovery from any large event. This improved starting position then aids community confidence in their public infrastructure, speeds up the recovery process, and decreases costs and economic losses.

At Beca, we have over a hundred years' experience of working with public infrastructure clients in New Zealand. We have supported rebuilds, and recoveries, effectively engaging with communities recovering from events such as the Canterbury earthquakes, Kaikōura earthquake, Auckland Anniversary flooding, Cyclone Gita, and Cyclone Gabrielle. Our company values (particularly Partnership, Tenacity, and Care) drive us to work together with communities and clients, delivering resilient timely outcomes.

If your organisation would appreciate some help in thinking about recovery, please get in touch.

About the Author
Andrew Livermore

Director – Disaster Readiness and Response

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