West Auckland flood victims are working together to persuade ministers to set in place a compensation scheme to enable the managed retreat from homes they are too fearful to live in again. Jonathan Milne reports.
Morgan Allen and Jodie Heron say they can’t go back to the little two-bedroom cottage they bought together as their first home, knowing they’d never be able to sleep with the sound of rain on the roof.
The couple bought their Massey home soon after the big West Auckland floods of August 2021; if the house had escaped those floods, they thought, it was safe from the worst the weather could throw at them.
This summer they didn’t go away on holiday; instead they spent early January painting their cottage – Dulux Motu River green, for what it’s worth. The colour was intended to fit in with neighbouring Momutu Stream, and the deep gully it runs through across a small reserve from their house.
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But on January 27, that seemingly harmless stream rose about seven metres to inundate their house, and all those around it. They looked out to see their springer spaniel Meg paddling frantically around the yard; a neighbour rescued their elderly labrador Abby before she drowned.
They lost much of what they owned; the worst loss of all being Jodie’s father’s family photo albums. A generation of memories.
For their neighbours, it was their second big flood in just 18 months. The woman who lived down their right-of-way had only recently returned to her home, after insurers and builders spent 12 months making it liveable again. Months later, she and her four cats were again trapped by floodwaters. Two of the cats didn’t make it. She’s traumatised.
Another neighbour, Trushar Maisuria, say the flooding hit fast and his entire family were forced to flee their home. He too fears to return – his daughters can’t swim.
One expert advisor, climate leader Emeritus Professor Jonathan Boston, is calling urgently for a cross-party agreement on a long term strategy for funding and compensating the managed retreat from vulnerable homes, businesses and communities. “Almost above everything else, I think that is what we need,” he tells Newsroom. “If we can get a cross-party agreement that is workable, and durable, that would be absolutely tremendous.”
“Some of it does involve communities thinking again about where they’re located, but also, it involves better resilience and involves making sure that those stop banks and those stormwater drains and everything work better than they did.”
– Grant Robertson, Cyclone Recovery Minister
Allen and Heron are now working with other west Auckland flood victims, and Te Atatu MP Phil Twyford, to persuade ministers to set in place an immediate compensation scheme to enable the managed retreat from homes. “There’s a lot of fear,” says Heron, 31.
The group West Auckland Is Flooding (Waif) wants a scheme to relocate people using insurance payouts and public money, and their properties turned into parks or reserves.
The Government had been slowly designing a managed retreat strategy as part of its Climate Adaptation Bill – now, there’s new urgency. The West Aucklanders say it would be madness to use billions of dollars in insurance payouts from these floods to rebuild more vulnerable houses on the same vulnerable properties; it’s critical the money is used better and smarter.
Twyford – who was a Government minister until last month – has this week published an open letter to ministers. It asks that the owners of the most at-risk properties have the option of voluntary buyouts.
“The scale of this disaster, the severity of the floods, and the fact that many in my electorate have been flooded twice in the last year and a half, indicates the old system of property owners getting an insurance payout and rebuilding in the same location simply cannot continue for these people,” he writes.
That’s the case for Allen and Heron. At best, their insurance would pay out about $300,000 to cover the rebuild of their home, says Allen, 28. But the value of a property is made up of the value of the house plus the value of the land it sits on. So the insurance payout won’t come close to the $800,000 they paid for the property in 2021.
If they abandon the stinking, water-damaged, flood-prone home they will be left paying the mortgage for a home they can never live in, on land they say no one should rebuild on. And of course they will also have to pay rent somewhere else.
The young couple (he’s an audio engineer, she’s a user interface designer) thought they’d done everything right, saving to get onto the property ladder. But their dream has been dashed.
“It’s an escalation of a situation that’s been fed by a number of factors,” Allen says.
“There are some properties – and you could argue our property is in that category – where managed retreat is really the best solution.”
– Morgan Allen
He’s had a rapid learning curve around extreme weather events, urban designs, stormwaters and insurance compensation schemes. “My opinion is that we’re talking about climate change, stormwater runoff, development, all of these things increasing the risk.
“Maybe it means the Auckland Council coming to the party, and purchasing some properties to clear more space for overland overflow, floodplains. And then also, better maintenance, better planting, I think.
“You know, there’s a number of areas around Auckland like Mt Albert and Stonefields, as examples, where some innovative ideas around stormwater have been implemented. And that’s worked really well.
“But there are some properties – and you could argue our property is in that category – where managed retreat is really the best solution.”
But, Allen says, without a managed retreat scheme, they may be forced to return to a contaminated home they can’t ever feel secure in. “We might have no choice,” he says. “We can’t feel safe living in that house. We don’t want to be in a house where every time it rains, we can’t sleep.”
Grant Robertson, who was this week appointed Cyclone Recovery Minister, visited Twyford in west Auckland and met some of those worst affected Henderson homeowners last week. “It’s a traumatic situation for them,” he says.
The Government is setting a fire under the officials and the expert working group led by Sir Terence Arnold, who are responsible for designing the longterm managed retreat strategy. Ministers are expected to first consider a tool to identify and compensate those permanently forced from their homes by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.
“The events of the past three weeks have highlighted that people are vulnerable, even if they aren’t on floodplains, or on the coast. People can be vulnerable, even if they’re not living in a high risk locality – yet.”
– Professor Jonathan Boston, experts group
At the same time they will hasten the introduction of the Climate Change Adaptation Bill, after consulting last year on how managed retreat should work. That is intended to set in place a more enduring model for moving people out of vulnerable homes and communities – and building entirely new communities and facilities like shops and schools for them.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says he will meet with Climate Change Minister James Shaw next week, to build climate change adaptation into the disaster response. “The need for greater resilience and adaptation to climate change is going to be embedded within that,” he says. “So I fully expect to the Minister for Climate Change will be involved in the process of helping us to shape that up.”
Professor Boston, who is on the expert working group on managed retreat, has this month published a paper on funding the exodus. The headline gets straight to the point for taxpayers: “Designing a public compensation scheme for private property losses“.
To decide who is entitled, the report says, questions will include the location of the property, the type of property, when the property was built, the financial circumstances of the owners, the occupancy type, whether the property is insured, whether the property has been damaged, whether there is a mortgage, and whether there is specific hazard information of the property’s Land Information Memorandum.
“Affirming community responsibility and social solidarity in the face of climate change-related impacts does not require the state to bear the full costs of all losses associated with climate change, property-related or otherwise. But it does imply a willingness by society to shoulder a substantial proportion of the costs that afflict affected citizens.”
“The level of any public compensation provided will need to be adjusted to take proper account of the relevant insurance pay-outs. Such practices are common internationally.”
– ‘Funding Managed Retreat’ report
The report contains one comment that is particularly pertinent to Allen and Heron, and others like them whose homes have been destroyed by the floods and cyclone of the past weeks.
Where a managed retreat is initiated following a major flooding or inundation event, it is likely that many of the affected properties will have been insured and thus eligible for some compensation, Boston’s report observes.
Where properties were damaged beyond repair and were fully insured (like Allen and Heron’s home) the property owner will receive compensation for the loss of the building in accordance with the cover provided – but the insurance won’t include the loss of land in the event of managed retreat. “In these cases,” the report says, “the level of any public compensation provided will need to be adjusted to take proper account of the relevant insurance pay-outs. Such practices are common internationally.”
Boston tells Newsroom there are several key questions: how the areas for managed retreat are designated; the extent to which businesses are included in the compensation package in order to lift and move entire communities; the vexed issue of who pays for what, especially when some people are uninsured; and finally, who manages that funding. Does the Earthquake Commission take on the responsibility, or is it overseen by a new or different agency?
“Whatever you decide to do now, or in the next few weeks or months, what are the implications for the future?” he asks. “Critically, what are the precedents that it sets?
“The events of the past three weeks have highlighted that people are vulnerable, even if they aren’t on floodplains, or on the coast. People can be vulnerable, even if they’re not living in a high risk locality – yet.
“I think that has probably surprised and deeply concerned some people. But, forgive me, it’s not a surprise for people who’ve been thinking about climate change for a long time.”
“It’s actually the smart economic decision. Because why would insurance companies want to keep paying out year after year, on one-in-100-year floods that happen every 18 months. It’s a waste of money.”
– Morgan Allen
Can the Government shape a solution for homeowners and tenants hit by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle without setting a precedent that ties its hands for the future?
“I’m sure that’s one of the questions they’re thinking about. That’s the sort of question that would be on my mind if I were the minister at the moment,” Boston says. “My short answer would be, yes.”
“What I could see might be a Government response of a modest nature, perhaps over months, which recognises that there will also be a need for a longer term programme – for which they may wish to seek cross-party support.”
Grant Robertson agrees the managed retreat question might now need to be separated into immediate solutions (for the victims of the Auckland’s floods and Cyclone Gabrielle) and long term solutions for moving communities out of the path of climate change.
“When it comes to the broader issue of how we look at managed retreat within the context of adaptation, there are a lot of different ways forward,” Robertson says. “Some of it does involve communities thinking again about where they’re located, but also, it involves better resilience and involves making sure that those stopbanks and those stormwater drains and everything work better than they did.
“So Phil’s doing his job advocating in that way. We have to make decisions about the whole country as we do that.”
Morgan Allen says he’s aware that central government is looking at clifftop properties, low-lying coastal areas and floodplains, all under the same umbrella. “There’s definitely a central government issue there,” he says.
“And I like to have faith the central government is trying to work something out. But this is bigger than the leaky homes crisis. It’s a massive thing. And it’s such a slow juggernaut to get any progress.”
He points to the Twin Streams managed retreat project set up by Waitakere City Council 20 years ago, to get people out of flood-prone homes. “They purchased 98 properties in a managed retreat solution. They were on floodplains, and they managed to do it without using the Public Works Act, and without resorting to compulsory purchase.
“In some places it’s actually the smart economic decision. Because why would insurance companies want to keep paying out year after year, on one-in-100-year floods that happen every 18 months. It’s a waste of money.”