8 Mar 2023

What regions need, three weeks since Cyclone Gabrielle

From Checkpoint, 5:39 pm on 8 March 2023

Local leaders in three areas badly-affected by Cyclone Gabrielle have flagged up wage subsidy support and investment to future-proof roading networks as recovery priorities.

Three weeks on from Cyclone Gabrielle and flood victims are still waiting to hear more details of the government recovery plan.

Major state highways are out for several months for Wairoa, Hawke's Bay and Coromandel, with some communities cut off from school work and life-line services including health care.

Hundreds of houses, farm land and orchards are still thigh-deep in silt and displaced flood victims need long-term homes.

The government has allocated $250 million into a road rehab fund and about $75m into a support package for businesses, growers and farmers. 

Cyclone Recovery Minister Grant Robertson declined to be interviewed on Checkpoint about what was next.

But the regions' local leaders told Checkpoint the government needed to understand that communities' immediate and long-term needs and meet these.

Thames Coromandel Mayor Len Salt said road access was "like the blood supply" for the entire district. 

"All of the business, the industry, the services, health services, education, everything else depends on being able to get in and out. So yes, it's a critical factor for us."

He confirmed the State Highway 25 section between Tairua and Hikuai through to Whangamatā would be opened to one lane and light traffic under stop/go traffic management from about 7pm - 9am.

Mayor Len Salt

Thames Coromandel Mayor Len Salt Photo: supplied

"There is a huge effort going in, to open up a section of that to make sure that we keep the wheels turning, because if we don't have that southeastern access, then it leaves us only with the west coast up through Thames, which is one access to the entire Coromandel. And obviously that's a real problem for us," he said.

But he said having long-term certainty and future-proofing in a time of climate change and an increasing severity and frequency of weather events was essential.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little echoed those concerns.

Accessibility south to Napier and State Highway 2 and State Highway 35 inland is an issue for the town, with estimates for reopening standing at two-to-three months, and that would be six months. The road north to Gisborne also needs work.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Businesses were struggling and the need for a wage subsidy was all too apparent, he said.

"There's a lot of businesses all over the show. I think a lot of businesses could walk away. Unless we get support immediately it will happen and it could really kill our town.

"They can't afford to pay their staff. We're in absolute dire straits, because these businesses can't open at the moment. A lot of their gears coming from down the way and some of them have been flooded. So they've got staff they're still paying, but it's just crippling for them."

He said $1m had been raised for the Mayoral Relief Fund and none of it was government money and government needed to step up.

Napier deputy mayor Annette Brosnan said businesses in her district also needed a wage subsidy to help and lack of access would have a huge effect on the local economy.
The city was set to lose hosting events and the revenue these brought in.

"As we all know, it's a bit of a tourist town and a big part of that is domestic tourism... We've got a number of really big events and one of the considerations for us as a city, as well for our facilitators of those events, is can our city handle large scale events at the moment.

"We have issues with our core infrastructure, especially our wastewater treatment plant, being in one of the highest hit areas after the cyclone. So we've got a lot of weighing up to do. 

"We're really excited to have cruise ships coming back in, but we were putting some caveats around that, topping up with water and power and things like that when they're in port."

NAPIER PORT,  Cyclone Gabriel, Napier, New Zealand, Monday, 13 February 2023. Photo by John Cowpland / alphapix

Napier Port during Cyclone Gabrielle on 16 February. Photo: John Cowpland / alphapix

Those ships cannot top up power and water supplies at Napier port.

Thames Coromandel Mayor Len Salt said access wasn't as restricted in his district, but the fragility of the roading network was a continuing worry. The tourist sector and other businesses needed to know bookings  would be met by having reliable access to the region, or the situation would become unsustainable.

"It's not just about patch up, fix it, move on. If we don't have long-term roading resilience and future-proofing in there, then the business people would look at it and say 'you know what, we need certainty, we need to know what the future holds for us. Otherwise, we might just reconsider our options."

A business recovery fund had been launched primarily for hospitality businesses and firms affected by supply chain issues, he said.

"If a wage subsidy was on the table, our business people would be very thankful, but in reality, we've had very good support," he said.

Both Brosnan and Salt wanted a clear commitment to invest in robust infrastructure based on sound planning in an increasingly volatile natural environment.
Brosnan said she wanted to know what the government's 'build better' mantra meant in real terms.

"They're talking about building back better, which I think is a really great aspirational goal. But what needs to be worked through is 'what does that mean? 

"In Napier, we were left isolated for a number of days without any of our lifelines - so cellphone, power, all roading networks in and out a city of 67,000 people. 

"So, 'building better' for us is about better resilience for for next time, and we can't be naive enough to think that there won't be, or we shouldn't plan for, next time. We absolutely should. And this should be the opportunity."

Salt agreed. "A clear and commitment for investment in future infrastructure and future-proofing of roading networks."