Cyclone Gabrielle has caught the Government with its legislative pants down.
A Bill which could have played a critical role in defining how individuals and communities might build back after the cyclone is not expected to make it into law until next year.
In most cases, that will be too late.
And a Government review of building regulations to ensure buildings are designed and constructed to withstand more extreme climate hazards is not expected to see the revised regulations in place till 2028.
Again, most of the Tairawhiti-Hawkes Bay rebuild will be well over by then.
The risk is that the legislation and regulation are lagging so far behind the reality that the rebuilds will simply reconstruct the same buildings, structures and roads that have failed this week in the same place only for them to fail again when the next climate shock comes.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins seemed conscious of this when he told reporters in Gisborne yesterday that “almost certainly” some roads would have to be moved when they were rebuilt.
“We’ve already had that conversation around the Coromandel and some of the disruption that we’ve seen there with roads that were literally only just reopened, then being washed out again,” he said.
“That’s not a sustainable picture.
“We’ve experienced this in other parts of the country, too; the Manawatu Gorge, for example.
“We actually just have to get real about some of the roads and the fact that we’re going to have to move some of those roads to places where they can be more resilient.”
His reference to the Coromandel would have been to the Kopu-Hikuai road, which is a relatively new one, opened in 1967 but driven up a stream valley and over steep and unstable hillsides.
There will be questions too about State Highway One over the Brynderwyns, which was slated for replacement in 2017 but which the first Ardern Government then stopped, with some critics calling it “the holiday highway.”
It has been closed since the beginning of February, and Auckland-Whangarei trucks must add nearly another 80 kilometres to their journey by detouring via Dargaville, which itself was flooded this week.
But it is clear the rebuild challenge goes beyond roads.
“We are also going to have to think about the long-term implications of this,” Hipkins told his media briefing last night.
“We have some infrastructure in New Zealand that we’re going to need to look very closely at.
“We’re going to need to think about our roading network, our telecommunications network, our energy distribution networks, and make sure that we have them as robust as possible.
“We are going to see more of these types of events, and making sure that we are prepared for them is going to require a significant amount of time, energy and investment.”
The biggest challenge the Government will face in making those changes will be the cost; the rebuilt Manawatu Gorge road, which takes a different route to the old one destroyed by slips from Palmerston North to Woodville, was budgeted at $620 million in 2019.
Replacing Kopu-Hikuai or the Brynderwyns could easily exceed that cost.
What will be more problematic will be the decisions about privately owned housing and other structures.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw is planning this year to introduce the Climate Change Adaptation Bill, which will enable people to better deal with climate change, particularly ‘managed retreat’ (the strategic relocation of communities or assets prone to natural hazards – like increased flooding or coastal inundation).
The Bill was originally conceived of as being a part of the whole resource management reform package along with the Natural and Built Environments Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill but it has become separated and looks unlikely to become law until next year.
It is complex law, and because it deals with such a sensitive topic as where people live requires comprehensive consultation.
However, it will address the central issue of how to build back better after a cataclysmic event like Gabrielle.
In particular, it will (presumably) give local bodies some powers to enforce the retreat of structures from particular sites and will also lay out the process for funding this.
But because it will not become law until next year, it will be too late to be apply to houses destroyed by Gabrielle.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says he is now looking at what might be able to be done in the wake of Gabrielle to deal with this issue.
One possible solution might be that which applied to the 600 residents of the Queensland town of Grantham in 2011.
They all agreed to move to rebuild on higher ground after a three-metre-high wall of water destroyed their homes and killed 12 people.
The Queensland Government loaned the local Council money to buy new land on higher ground, and the residents were able to use the insured value of their flooded homes to buy new ones on the land purchased by the Council.
National’s Climate Change spokesperson, Todd Muller, has written to Shaw offering his support on moves like the Queensland one.
Nevertheless, the future costs of a managed retreat policy could be massive.
An Environmental Defence Society paper last week said that for each 10cm rise in sea level, 7000 buildings with a replacement cost of $2.4 billion would be at risk.
“A 1-in-100-year flood could affect close to 20,000 square kilometres of land and over 675,000 people and 400,000 buildings,” the EDS paper said.
“Also at risk are some 20 airports, including the Auckland and Christchurch international airports; major industrial developments such as the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter, Marsden Point Oil Refinery and Taranaki Methanex methanol production facilities; and major roads, railway lines and electricity
Hipkins has conceded that not only will Gabrielle have an impact on this year’s Budget, but the rebuild out into the future will also require substantial funding.