26 Apr 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle: Hawke's Bay council orders independent review into flood protection schemes

8:31 pm on 26 April 2023
Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

Flooding in Esk Valley following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Hawke's Bay regional councillors have agreed the public is owed answers and accountability for the performance of its flood protection assets during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Council voted unanimously at today's meeting to commission an independent review into how its flood protection schemes stood up during the cyclone, and how to ensure better safeguarding in future.

Cyclone Gabrielle caused breached stopbanks in 30 places, most on the Tūtaekurī and Ngaruroro Rivers between Napier and Hastings, and also the Waipawa and Wairoa Rivers.

The review proposal was spearheaded by councillor Martin Williams, who told the meeting the it was necessary due to the scale of devastation - and lives lost - because of the flooding.

The community had a legitimate expectation for an investigation, he said.

"This was a big deal. This is our job, our core business.

"We owe this to our communities, in terms of transparency, accountability, and an opportunity for community voice."

Flooding after the Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay burst its banks during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Ngaruroro River flooding, 15 February. Photo: Supplied / Dawson Bliss

Councillor 'humbled' and 'embarrassed' about poor risk assessment

Some of that devastation could have been avoided if the council had better identified risks and vulnerabilities in its flood protection schemes, telemetry and warning systems, councillor Neil Kirton told the meeting.

As a councillor who had served two decades, he was "humbled" and "embarrassed" that it had not done better, and said the review would reveal what needed to change.

"We're needing as an organisation to face up to that and to recognise that we could have done better, we could have identified those risks, we could have mitigated those to some extent."

That did not take away from the unprecedented nature of the cyclone the catastrophic damage to infrastructure it caused, he said.

"Having said that, I don't know whether we can afford to hide behind the extent of the event to cover over some cracks in those vulnerabilities."

The Waipawa River in southern Hawke's Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle

Cyclone Gabrielle breached the Waipawa River stopbanks. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Review to consider new flood protection as well as improving existing assets

The northern Hawke's Bay town of Wairoa - which has a drainage system but no flood protection scheme - was ravaged by floodwaters.

The councillor representing Wairoa, Di Roadley, told the meeting her community needed answers.

"I want all of the people in Wairoa to have confidence that this review will explore the avenues beyond the existing flood protection that we provide.

"So the people in Wairoa know that the regional council are exploring what we could do better, what the level of risk is, and putting it into layman's terms, that this review will tell us what happened, and how we stop it happening again."

It was confirmed the review would include investigation into a possible need for new infrastructure, on top of recommendations to improve existing assets.

Review findings expected before the end of the year

The independent review panel will be chaired by specialist environmental planner and facilitator Phil Mitchell.

Interim Regional Council chief executive Bill Bayfield would finalise the terms of reference and appoint two to three review panel members before the end of May.

The review was then expected to take six months to complete and cost around $700,000, funded by rates.

Councillors agreed community input into the review was vital.

In a statement following the meeting, the regional council said it would let people know how they can have their say once the panel was appointed and terms of reference finalised.

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