27 Feb 2023

Quick calls needed on flood-prone areas - Cyclone Recovery Minister Grant Robertson

10:02 am on 27 February 2023
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson

Cyclone Recovery Minister Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Some areas devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle may not be rebuilt, with the Cyclone Recovery Minister saying a decision will have to be made quickly - in the next month.

And some West Auckland homeowners affected by recent flooding say they want out. Many who have suffered from repeated floods no longer want to live in their low-lying properties and want the council or government to buy them out.

Grant Robertson on Sunday announced grants of up to $40,000 for businesses to help with immediate costs.

Fifty million dollars of immediate emergency support will go to businesses, and $25m will go towards restoring farms and orchards.

But Robertson says decisions will need to be made quickly on whether some places should be rebuilt the way they were - before money and resources are wasted fixing properties and land that will end up needing to be abandoned.

"The first port of call obviously for most people is insurance companies, and many of those assessments have already happened and in some cases repairs have already happened," Robertson told RNZ's Morning Report on Monday."

"There are some particular areas that obviously we're aware of where the residents themselves don't particularly want to go back where they are, and the insurance companies, ourselves and the local councils have got to have those conversations with those people over the next few weeks.

Morgan Allen, spokesperson for West Auckland Is Flooding - a collective of residents formed after the Auckland Anniversary floods - told Morning Report his home was yellow-stickered in the January floods, and he lost pretty much everything.

"This is getting worse year-on-year. We've had practically three so-called one-in-100 year events just this month."

Flooding on Candia Road in Henderson Valley, west Auckland on 27 January 2023.

Flooding in Henderson Valley. Photo: Supplied

Some residents have taken to sleeping with lifejackets by the door, he said. Some have been in the area for decades, but realise the risk is now becoming too much to live with - and insurance companies are too, refusing to cover properties without flood mitigation work first.

"That is the future for some of these properties - there will be questions around insurance and … around the viability of the land. Some people have lived in these properties 10, 20, 30 years and never had any flooding - and now we're seeing some properties with eight, seven floods in seven years - something is changing there…

"Does it make financial and economic sense to build back in the same location?

Voluntary buyouts could be part of the solution, Allen said. But decisions need to be made quickly.

"The need is so urgent for these people. We've got situations where people have no option but to put a tiny home back onto these properties right on the riverbank because there are no other outcomes for them."

Robertson said it was going to be a "challenging conversation", with not all residents wanting to leave, despite the risks.

"But in the very short-term, there are a number of areas we will have to sit down with insurers, with banks, with local communities and work out what those next steps are.

"And the reason I mentioned that timeframe is obviously if the insurance companies are to do the work that they would normally do, they'd wanna get on with that now. If they're not going to and we're actually going to have a conversation about the people not going back there, then we have to have that pretty rapidly.

"So we'll do some immediate work on that. And then obviously there's the longer-term work on an overall policy for how to deal with this across New Zealand."

Robertson, also the finance minister, again did not rule out a 'cyclone tax' to help fund the solution and rebuild.

"We haven't made final decisions on that… Like the previous government after the Canterbury earthquakes, it's important to investigate all of the options and that's what we're doing.

"This bill is going to be a very significant one for New Zealand. We need to look at what spending we can reprioritise. We need to look at how our balance sheet, which is strong, and whether we can use that to borrow against. And yes, we do need to look at what revenue sources there are.

"I'm acutely aware that we're in a cost of living crisis and I don't wanna put unnecessary additional pressure on New Zealanders. But I think the responsible thing to do is firstly, get a better idea of the total cost of this and then secondly, work out exactly how we're gonna pay for it.

"It's what the previous government did after Canterbury. That's what we're doing now."

While more short-term financial assistance "has to come soon", the wider package will be part of this year's Budget.

Business not as usual

Hawke's Bay Chamber of Commerce CEO Karla Lee said Sunday's business support package would mostly to go to "small business owners", who have been hardest-hit by the cyclone and flooding in her region.

"Those who have supply chain issues, who are predominantly affected through their connection with horticulture and agriculture. So we're really looking at those small businesses that needs some help with their cashflow right now."

Some businesses will have had up to five years of profits wiped out, she said.

"Orchardists that perhaps have invested by planting these trees three to five years ago, they've invested all of the pruning. They're looking after these trees. They were ready for payday now, and they've still paid their expenses, but those trees are all gone.

"So what happens with them? They have to clean up their land, make it productive again, and then reinvest for another three to five years. So those are the businesses that are really hurting the most."

Staff are presently going through applications, which started flooding in "as soon as the announcement was made", to determine who's most in need.

"I spoke to my staff at the end of last week and said, you know, we all want to help, we all want to make a difference," Lee said.

"We want to get behind shovels and help remove slip salt and so many ways we can help but we're going to remember this is our lane for helping as many businesses as we possibly can. Keep them going and support them through this really hard time."

Gavin Murphy, chief executive of Trust Te Rāwhiti - one of the agencies managing the relief funds, said it was a solid start but some larger manufacturing businesses will need more help.

"There's a lot of businesses in our rural, remote communities - up the coast in particular - who are still cut-off, very limited or poor connectivity, and who may well be still dealing with personal circumstances."

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