Flood victims in New Zealand are too scared to go home

Cyclone Gabrielle triggered a nationwide state of emergency

Last month, Cyclone Gabrielle ravaged New Zealand’s North Island, killing 11 people and displacing at least 10,000 others. It has sparked a national debate about climate change and whether vulnerable homes should be rebuilt or written off.

“I don’t want to go back there,” said Amy Bowkett.

The mother of two lived in the Hawkes Bay area, one of the regions hardest hit by Cyclone Gabrielle. When the Category 3 storm hit them with winds up to 159 km/h (99 mph), their home was completely destroyed.

She, along with 50 of her neighbors, spent a horrifying 48 hours without electricity, water, or a phone signal.

Eventually she was able to make a call and a friend organized a helicopter rescue from a neighbor’s backyard.

“I have a feeling if we get flooded a third time it would be our fault,” she told the BBC from her mother’s home in the nearby town of Napier. “If we didn’t put our house on stilts, I’d be scared every time it rained.”

She’s not the only one afraid to return. Many of the victims of New Zealand’s recent floods lost all their belongings in the disaster and believe the area on which their homes were built has become too dangerous for them to return.

The damage caused by the cyclone is expected to cost NZ$13.5bn (US$8.4bn; £6.9bn), similar to the financial impact of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake – the costliest natural disaster in history of New Zealand. Last month’s event triggered a nationwide state of emergency that didn’t end until Tuesday.

Cyclone Gabrielle also hit within weeks of unprecedented flooding in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, when a full summer’s rainfall fell in a single day.

New Zealand Minister for Climate Change James Shaw attributed the scale of the disaster to climate change, which has been exacerbated by rising global temperatures.

“There will be people who will say it’s too early to talk about these things… but we’re right in the middle. This is a climate change related event,” he said in a speech to Parliament last month.

“We are right in the middle of it… This is a climate change related event”, Source: James Shaw, Source Description: New Zealand Minister for Climate Change, Image: New Zealand Minister for Climate Change James Shaw

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Shaw said that while many homeowners have “total replacement” insurance, which compensates them if their home is destroyed or made uninhabitable, it only covers the cost of the property – not the value of the land on it is built on it.

This means people feel like they “have to rebuild on the current land and of course they’re really scared,” he added.

More extreme rainfall and regional cyclones are likely to occur by 2100, according to New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. During the warm months, days are already hotter, drier and windier, increasing the risk of bushfires.

Around 55,000 homes in Auckland are at risk of flooding, according to the government. Another 76,000 homes across the country are in coastal areas prone to erosion and sea level rise.

“[When] People are sleeping with life jackets on the door, you know it’s bad,” said displaced West Auckland resident Morgan Allen. “Fear has reached its peak.”

Landslide near a house on a cliff in Auckland

Tens of thousands of homes in New Zealand are now considered at risk

Along with a group of dozens of Auckland flood victims, Morgan has launched a campaign calling on the government to buy up their homes and turn high-risk areas into parks or nature reserves. The sound engineer says some of his neighbors spent a year rebuilding their homes, only to lose everything again in January.

Morgan blames recent events on climate change, but also on dense housing developments — where rows of houses were built on concrete, replacing single houses on grassy patches.

“Our city has lost an enormous amount of capacity to hold all this water.” He said this has increased the risk of flooding for homes built near valleys and wetlands.

As a result, in the days following the cyclone and Auckland floods, the government announced a NZ$300 million (US$185 million) package for affected regions.

It also introduced new severe weather emergency legislation designed to help rural landowners repair and rebuild their properties without the usual red tape.

The impact on New Zealand’s food-growing regions has also been significant. In just one sector, half of the kumara crop, a species of sweet potato found in New Zealand, has been wiped out.

Just down the road from Amy Bowkett in the small rural township of Puketapu were two orchards owned by Brydon Nisbet, with apple trees in bloom for harvest.

Brydon Nisbet, President of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association, at his apple orchard in Puketapu

Brydon’s orchards were covered with mud and silt

When the cyclone hit, the infrastructure designed to protect the main rivers from flooding collapsed, completely burying his orchard in mud and potentially toxic silt.

“It was just a disaster area and it was really quite shocking,” said Brydon, who was only able to access his property three days after the disaster. “Everything was ruined. The water rose about three to four meters in the house.”

Brydon, who represents fruit growers in Hawkes Bay, estimates that up to half of the region’s orchards have been hit, some completely wiped out. Farmers are desperate to salvage what they can.

“We’re all pretty resilient. I still have a lot of crying and hugging with my wife and different people. But we have to stay positive and have hope.

“When we made the decision to try to save this orchard, it actually brought hope,” he said.

“We thought we want these trees to flower again, we don’t want them to die.”

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