Flood victims in New Zealand are too scared to go home

Cyclone Gabrielle has triggered a national state of emergency

Last month, Cyclone Gabrielle made landfall on New Zealand’s North Island, killing 11 and displacing at least 10,000 more. It has sparked a national debate about climate change and whether vulnerable homes should be rebuilt or obliterated.

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

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

She and 50 of her neighbors spent a terrifying 48 hours trapped without electricity, water or phone signal.

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

“I feel if we get flooded a third time it would be our fault,” he told the BBC from his mother’s home in the nearby town of Napier. “Unless we put our house on stilts, I’d be terrified every time it rained.”

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

Damage from the cyclone is expected to cost NZ$13.5 billion (US$8.4 billion; £6.9 billion), similar to the financial impact of the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, the costliest natural disaster in the history of New Zealand. Last month’s event prompted a national state of emergency that only ended on Tuesday.

Cyclone Gabrielle also hit just weeks after unprecedented flooding in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, when the amount of rain of an entire summer fell in a single day.

New Zealand climate change minister James Shaw attributed the scale of the disaster to climate change, exacerbated by rising global temperatures.

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

“We are working on it right now… This is a climate change related event”, Source: James Shaw, Source Description: New Zealand Climate Change Minister, Image: New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw

Speaking to the BBC, Shaw said that while many homeowners have taken out a ‘total replacement’ insurance policy, which compensates them if their home is destroyed or made uninhabitable, it only covers the cost of the property, not the land value. built on.

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

The country is likely to experience more extreme rainfall and regional cyclones to become more frequent by 2100, according to New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. During the warm months the days are already hotter, drier and windier, increasing the risk of bushfires.

About 55,000 homes in Auckland are prone to flooding, according to government figures. Another 76,000 homes across the country are located in coastal areas, vulnerable to erosion and sea level rise.

“[When] people are sleeping with their life jackets by the door, you know it’s bad,” said Morgan Allen, a displaced West Auckland resident. “The anxiety has reached an all-time high.”

Landslide near a cliff top house in Auckland

Tens of thousands of homes are now thought to be at risk in New Zealand

Along with a group of dozens of Auckland flood victims, Morgan launched a campaign asking the government to buy 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 climate change for recent events, but also for dense housing developments, where rows of houses have been built on concrete, replacing single houses on grassy areas.

“Our city has lost a huge capacity to absorb all this water.” She said this increased the risk of flooding for homes built near valleys and wetlands.

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

He also introduced new weather emergency legislation, designed to help rural landowners sort out their properties and rebuild, without the usual red tape.

The impact for New Zealand’s food-prone regions has also been significant. In one sector alone, half the crop of kumara, a type of sweet potato found in New Zealand, was wiped out.

Just down the road from Amy Bowkett, in the small rural community of Puketapu, were two orchards owned by Brydon Nisbet, filled with apple trees ready to be picked.

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

Brydon’s orchards were covered in mud and silt

When the cyclone hit, the infrastructure designed to prevent flooding of major rivers collapsed, completely burying its orchard in potentially toxic mud and silt.

“It was just a disaster area and really shocking,” said Brydon, who couldn’t get to his property until three days after the disaster. “Everything was ruined. The water rose about three or four meters in the house.”

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

“We are all quite resilient. I still have tears and hugs with my wife and different people. But we have to stay positive and have hope.

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

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

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