If you consider Cyclone Gabrielle in the context of other natural disasters that New Zealand has recently faced, it was very significant. In terms of cost to the country, the quantum of impact is somewhere between the financial impact of the Kaikōura and Christchurch earthquakes. This is according to our Minister of Finance and Minister for Cyclone Recovery, Grant Robertson, who spoke to Beca employees at Beca House in Auckland earlier this year.
As we look to recovery, one key difference between the Christchurch earthquake and Cyclone Gabrielle is that so much of what needs to be repaired or rebuilt is public infrastructure (i.e. roads, rail, electricity, telecommunications) and is predominantly the responsibility of central and local government, whereas in Christchurch there was a large domestic effect to people’s homes, the repairs of which were mostly funded by private insurance.
As the Minister put it, Cyclone Gabrielle had a narrow but deep geographic impact. He described looking at complete devastation in one community and then driving a few hundred metres down the road and seeing orchardists harvesting apples – seemingly as normal.
There’s no doubt that this is a very challenging recovery process, and it was good to hear the Minister talk about putting into practice lessons that have been learned from past events (for example, the New Zealand Claims Resolution Service), and also ensuring lessons are being learned today. He mentioned the Christchurch response which he says was viewed by the local community as "Wellingtonians flying in to tell them what to do". This time around, they’re doing things differently by establishing regional recovery bodies. We are excited to hear that the response is being led locally and iwi are very much at the table.
Minister Robertson acknowledges that the recovery is of a scale far greater than what local and central government can deal with (or fund) alone. Hence the reason for his visit: the Cyclone Recovery Task Force, led by Sir Brian Roche, will need a locally coordinated response from across the public and private sectors. This response will include engineering and professional services companies such as Beca, whose technical experts pulled out all stops during the emergency response phase, and will also be involved as the country plans to ‘build back better’. As the Minister put it, we will all need to make those decisions together, but they need to be locally led from the ground up.
Until recently, Robertson was also Minister for Infrastructure. In that role, he noted the need for medium and longer term thinking, since as a country, New Zealand had not built the infrastructure needed to support its growth, and now faces a significant deficit, with the added challenge of the need to consider improving resilience for communities.
In his address at Beca he noted the good work done by Te Waihanga, the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, on the New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy, which allows companies to see a longer term view and plan accordingly.
What Cyclone Gabrielle has done, the Minister noted, is push the demand for infrastructure investment forward, as it has highlighted where our understanding of infrastructure resilience is outdated.
If there is a silver lining to the devastation Cyclone Gabrielle has caused, it is the opportunity to learn from what has happened and to focus on risk and resilience, enabling us to think differently about how, where, and in fact if we build, in the context of the climate change impacts we are facing. Addressing issues such as “managed retreat” can no longer be avoided, as for some communities, it has become a sudden and traumatic reality; acknowledging that it is not always an option of moving away from these areas, but also how we might appropriately re-use and even redevelop (but in different ways) in these areas.
Recent announcements in the Hawkes Bay and Auckland are bringing this into stark relief, with decisions around the salvageability or otherwise of affected homes and businesses, and the need for central and local government to work closely with affected parties to look at potential managed retreat options. Or, for those more 'fortunate' ones, to progress conversations with their insurance companies and commence the repair or rebuild of their properties.
In a long narrow country where none of us live very far from the water, many of us aspire to live and work as close to it as possible. Perhaps that dream is now changing as we start to get a better understanding of the risks and take a longer-term view of how we might live, work and play in these dynamic environments; looking after the interests not only of ourselves but of many generations to come. Learning from Cyclone Gabrielle, and sharing the lessons widely, so we create confidence in the local communities impacted, whilst mitigating future risks by creating greater resilience across our infrastructure is the opportunity we must now firmly grasp.