One year ago today, on the afternoon of February 13 2023, the rain was getting more intense, the wind was getting up. I had batteries charged, water containers full – I was as ready as I could be for what I knew would be possibly the biggest storm to hit Aotearoa since Cyclone Bola in the 80’s.
Gabrielle lived up to her forecasts. She slammed into our little west coast communities of Piha, Karekare, Bethells and Muriwai later in the afternoon of 13 February 2023 and changed our lives forever, for some more than others. She went on to slam into Hawkes Bay, the Bay of Plenty and Tairāwhiti with renewed force and the government declared a national emergency.
Over the next 12 hours my Piha back yard rain gauge recorded upwards of 450 mm of rain. I wrote about it here. People lost their houses. My street had no power for the next 11 days. And while tragically, two volunteer firefighters at Muriwai lost their lives, somehow miraculously everyone else in these small communities survived, albeit with some very, very close calls.
Fast forward to today and where are we? Most of the people in the yellow or red stickered households haven’t got a final decision from the council: they’re still in limbo. One couple has lived in eight different rentals over the course of the last year.
Some of my close friends have moved out, left the community entirely. I miss them.
The traffic lights at the top of the hill on the one-way system past the slumped road near the (now closed) Elevation restaurant now cause half hour waits on sunny summer days as Aucklanders head home from the beach. Scenic Drive to Titirangi is still closed after an enormous slip in the Anniversary Weekend rain.
A few forest walking tracks have been restored, but the rest of them remain inaccessible.
But the bigger questions on the longer term issues of resilience, adaptation and climate action have yet to be resolved: in many cases they’re going backwards.
Auckland Council’s still approving resource consents on floodplains. Indeed everybody is, it seems: the media’s full of stories about people across Hawkes Bay “determined to rebuild”. But why would you even want that? Who would want to rebuild a house knowing it could be swept away in another ginormous flood?
But then again who has a choice? Insurance companies pay out more for a rebuild than for a straight payout. But will they insure those houses on floodplains again? That’s also super unclear right now.
There’s also calls for a National Policy Statement on Natural Hazards to get councils to limit consents on land vulnerable to floods, to give that national guidance. An article in Newsroom today sets out the difficulties of getting prepared for the future.
Because those huge floods will come again. Maybe not in the same place: we might not get the specific situation where that huge blocking high to the east, that Weatherwatch described as a “brick wall” sent Gabrielle barrelling down the country, but we know we’ll get more rainfall in a warming world.
Meanwhile the petro-state-hosted COP28 in Dubai last year blocked a phase-out of fossil fuels, something even the conservative International Energy Agency is backing.
And after Labour’s climate policy bonfire ahead of the elections, and the new government’s even bigger climate policy bonfire since the election (amid promises of just getting started, wait until we get the fast-track to Shane Jones’s promised coal mining resurgence), the future in terms of climate action here in Aotearoa is bleak.
The Ministry for the Environment has been working on an adaptation plan, and spent the last year consulting widely on it, but nobody’s quite sure what the new Climate Change minister Simon Watts wants to do. Oh, except keep agriculture from paying for its emissions. And NOT fix the ETS to separate out forests so that we keep (ridiculously and counter-productively) planting our way to net zero and not cutting actual emissions.
I mean you’d think our wider business community would want some certainty and guidance from government around future extreme weather (flooding, drought, storm) events, sea level rise, and how to deal with an insurance industry that’s either going to withdraw its insurance altogether, or price it out of range.
Because as we saw with Gabrielle, climate change has an absolutely massive impact on the economy: it sent fruit and vegetable prices through the roof as a major “food basket” region was sent under 1.5m of silt. There were no comms, no transport routes, no workers, nothing.
A June 2023 government announcement set out some of the post-cyclone package with eye-watering sums being spent: $1 billion, $6 billion, $74 million, plus loan and finance packages.
Just yesterday Christopher Luxon was on the ground with Emergency Minister Mark Mitchell announcing another (relatively tiny) tranche of cash ($63 million) for Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti clean-up (they didn’t mention climate change though). This isn’t going to stop any time soon.
While the North Island farmers are still trying to clear slash and silt from their farms, others are facing ongoing droughts and fires under this year’s super-strength El Niño, for which they will no doubt be asking for handouts from the government.
Climate change is relentless: it’s not going away, without action it’s only going to get worse, and the bills will continue to mount.
Back home in Piha we have the beginnings of a resilience plan that mostly focuses on where to go on the night if there’s a big event. Longer-term thinking about how we’d cope if the big slips on the hill really did cut us off for a while simply hasn’t taken place.
Tonight, the community gathers locally to remember that terrible night a year ago. There will be karakia, kai and kindness, tears and love. That’s how our community rolls.
But the bigger thinking has barely begun.