Wairoa Mayor wants National, ACT commitment on town's post-cyclone recovery

6:56 am on 21 September 2023
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little

Craig Little hopes the country's top politicians will visit Wairoa to see its problems firsthand. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little wants political parties to commit to helping his cyclone-damaged town, whose problems have been compounded by suffering a natural disaster in an election year, he believes.

Cyclone Gabrielle still haunts Wairoa, with its force still evident as you drive on the patched up roads in and out of the small Hawke's Bay town.

Past the mangled bridge, in the heart of Wairoa there is a dusting of silt on the streets lined with empty, yellow stickered homes.

Little said more than 100 households were displaced by the cyclone. Almost eight months on, just one family has returned home.

He said a start to the repair work had been delayed because a wet winter has meant the houses have not dried out.

"Your floorboards, everything. So it's huge, silt underneath the homes, silt around the homes. It was just a mud pie around these homes. So finally we can get some work done and it should be great."

Destruction left behind in Wairoa by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Piles of silt in Wairoa weeks after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Jamie Tahana / RNZ

Labour leader Chris Hipkins, in his role as prime minister, was back in the town on Wednesday to announce a $10 million package for business support and another $15m to raise about 200 homes at risk of future flooding, including about 100 in the Tai Rāwhiti settlement of Te Karaka.

"Te Karaka was badly hit during Cyclone Gabrielle when the Waipāoa River flooded, breaching its stopbanks in multiple places and destroying properties," Hipkins said.

"The funding I'm announcing today is to lift at-risk houses in the township to reduce vulnerability and mitigate significant risks. The mana whenua of Te Karaka, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, have driven this project, and I want to thank them for the work they have done on this."

At a media standup Hipkins was asked how many more similar announcements the government was planning before the election. He responded: "Electoral policy is not at play when it comes to these announcements.

"The reason that we set aside a $6 billion resilience fund is we know over several years, there is going to be things that we need to do to build more resilience, for natural disasters and in our infrastructure, our transport infrastructure and so on. We will fund those as we identify them and as they are ready to be funded."

The campaign and the election cycle were not playing a role in any decisions around those funding announcements, he said.

Chris Hipkins meets Craig Little in Wairoa

Chris Hipkins, left, met with Craig Little during his visit to Wairoa. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Little met with Hipkins during his visit and acknowledged the way government, especially Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty, had assisted Wairoa in the wake of the disaster.

"It's been pretty fantastic but obviously we're not there yet so we need a bit of a jump to get to where we want to go ... we've got a lot of roading issues and we need to get these people back in their homes."

Little estimated Wairoa needed another $5m to $6m and had requested the funds during the meeting with Hipkins.

"He's got that loud and clear."

However, polling suggests Labour will not be the ones dishing out the funds after the election and so far the National and ACT leaders have not made it to Wairoa.

"We know probably Labour made the commitment that they'll carry on helping us but the others? Well, we've got to get the commitment, they're saying a lot of things so let's hope there is not a big speed hump."

Little has been in touch with National's leader, however, he has not been to the town since the cyclone although the National Party candidate for Napier Katie Nimon has been a regular visitor.

"He [Chris Luxon] needs to see first-hand now just what we're going through and what people are suffering ... normality is a long way away.

"I'm confident he will [come] and of course ACT need to get here but the ones who are standing [in the election] are here all the time."

RNZ has contacted Luxon's team for comment.

In a statement on Wednesday night, a spokesperson for ACT leader David Seymour said: "David tried to visit Wairoa when he was in Hawke's Bay in April this year, but the road was closed. Wairoa hasn't been forgotten, its recovery is important and he will visit as soon as he is able."

Little expressed a hope Wairoa would not be forgotten and left to its own devices as the election unfolded.

With a small ratepayer base there was no way it could afford to pay for the recovery by itself.

"We're the most isolated community that got hit by Cyclone Gabrielle, we're the most affected per capita and we're the most deprived ..."

For the sake of their mental health people needed to get back in their homes, he said.

Some were insured, others were not and they would require around $115,000 worth of repair work if the river went through their homes, Little said.

"Unless we get this money I don't know how we're going to do it. He [Hipkins] understands that but this is a golden opportunity for training our young ones up and we do that right we've got tradesmen for our future. They are the future of Wairoa."

He estimated that with up to five years of repair work to be done in the town the opportunity should be taken advantage of for on-site training.

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