Five weeks after Cyclone Gabrielle, some 7,000 Aucklanders remain impacted by the aftermath of the floods, slips and heavy winds that battered the region in January and February.
Auckland Council’s recovery programme is well underway, with yesterday’s meeting of the council bringing both good and bad news for people still waiting for their lives to dry out.
A decision to provide $1m worth of rates relief to people with uninhabitable homes will ease a burden for some, although questions remain around how easy it will be to apply.
Meanwhile, officials said the council was on top of the most pressing aspects of disaster recovery, but frayed patiences and a need to look at more complicated elements of infrastructure damage meant things had become trickier.
Council governance director Phil Wilson, who is in charge of the recovery, said his team was “getting well on top of the immediate and urgent matters”, but “things are getting more difficult at this point.
“What we’ve got now is the harder to resolve, more tricky issues in terms of infrastructure damage and the rest of it,” he said. “We’re at that difficult point now and we will be for some time where people who are affected in our community are tired, they’re distressed about their situation, they don’t have certainty about… whether they will have to be relocated.”
Auckland Council has a floor of its Albert Street offices still dedicated to disaster recovery, with staff seconded from around the organisation.
Wilson said they had nearly redeployed everybody possible and may have to look elsewhere for staff, to fill gaps in areas such as geotechnical assessment.
So far, $25.5m had been given to members of the community in tough situations.
These people were the focus of councillors’ deliberation as they picked through options for rates relief for people unable to live in their homes.
This week there are 427 red-stickered properties, 1720 yellow and 4112 white.
But while the bulk were white – meaning they were potentially damaged enough to be assessed but ultimately deemed okay to live in – mayor Wayne Brown argued that sticker classification had more to do with structural safety than whether moving back in anytime soon was realistic.
“There are a lot of people with yellow-stickered and white-stickered properties that can’t live in their houses,” he said. “I’ve visited a woman this week out in Swanson who is in a white-stickered property and she’s doing it really tough.”
Brown said he personally would have given that woman’s home a yellow sticker, and said these kinds of building assessments always rely on a judgment call on the part of the assessor.
Brown suggested a focus on just red-stickered homes would fail to accurately target need in the community.
Councillors agreed, passing rates relief for the third and fourth quarter of this financial year (January to June) for properties that are uninhabitable, whether red, yellow or white stickered.
West Auckland is Flooding, an independent group formed by flood-affected Aucklanders following the January floods, was “more than pleased” with the decision.
Spokesperson Morgan Allen said: “Although it doesn’t fix all of our members’ problems, it is a much-needed win in what are very difficult times for flood affected people,” he said. “It is also a moral victory in terms of acknowledging the hurt people are experiencing and we hope the beginning of a constructive dialogue with the council itself.”
However, he hoped the relief could continue beyond the third and fourth quarters. His group would campaign to get the relief extended until homes are habitable.
Another area he said the council should prioritise is maintenance and clearing of streams across Auckland.
“These waterways are no longer just simple streams neighbouring people’s properties, they are essential pieces of infrastructure that are performing a critical function when it comes to stormwater,” he said.
“They need to be treated as such, and with the recognition that the job is too big and too complex to leave to private residents alone. We need a management plan of all waterways across public and private land to ensure when the next flood comes systems are operating at full capacity.”
A longer conversation is starting over managed retreat from flood-prone areas and coastal areas vulnerable to sea level rise.
Wayne Brown said he had emphasised the importance of this to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, but said the ball was in the Government’s court to plan for potential buyouts or managed retreat programmes.
“I have impressed upon the Prime Minister the importance of leadership from him across the Government, across the whole country to have equitable and timely solutions for managed retreat,” he said. “There are some people clutching at that as a bit of a straw at this stage but we can’t set any trends that might accidentally reverberate across New Zealand.”
Other councillors raised concerns about the application process for support and rates relief.
Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson acknowledged the Council moved fast in not charging penalties for people who defaulted on payments during the chaos, but said it could have been quicker to roll out rates relief.
“I absolutely believe that as a Council we could have done more and we could have done it faster,” she said. “We should have been looking at rates remittance for those who had become homeless… but there wasn’t a policy, there wasn’t a rule for it. That didn’t bother other councils.”
She pointed to Thames-Coromandel and Hastings as two local that moved quickly to make sure people unable to go home didn’t have to worry about rates.
Simpson said Auckland needed to ensure the relief application process didn’t add to people’s stress.
“This has to be administratively simple. the big criticism from ratepayers is that so far it hasn’t been,” she said. “We cannot underestimate the impact of being stickered on these people. The stress and the trauma has been shared with all of us… we need to act.”
Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson backed the plea for simplicity.
“How are people going to access this quickly and easily?” he asked. “I’ve been contacted by West Aucklanders and I need to advise them on what they are going to do, and the previous resolutions didn’t require them to apply to a fund…. what should I tell them?”
Assessment of need and house safety following a region-wide event is no small task, either. It took 700 working hours for administrative staff to contact just the region’s red-stickered properties.