The people of Ōmāhu marae know about retreat from the devastation of the floods that periodically sweep down the rivers of Hawkes Bay. They’ve been here before.

In April 1897, under pressure from heavy downpours, both the Tutaekuri River and the Ngaruroro River broke their banks. The last telegraph from Clive was to the point: “For God’s sake send us some help.” A news photographer recorded swamped houses, dead stock, and the railway bridge with half its trusses knocked out by the swollen river.

Upstream at Ōmāhu, the only place residents had to shelter in was a high wooden bridge, but their position became perilous as the bridge was cut off and the Ngaruroro River hurled its tremendous weight against the wooden piles.

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Research agency Niwa says total damage to the province was estimated at £150,000 ($36 million in today’s money). 155 square kilometres was inundated. But the real cost was to communities. A monument stands today on Napier’s Marine Parade to 10 men sent to rescue the residents of Clive; their two boats were overcome by the surging floodwaters and all 10 drowned.

At least seven settler farmers and their workers were drowned, the Auckland Star reported. It made only a brief mention of the toll on Māori communities. “Two Maoris were seen to be washed off their horses while attempting to cross the Tutaikuri rive, and have not been seen since.”

Diptheria broke out in the ravaged area and caused some deaths. Schools were closed while the outbreak lasted. An estimated 50,000 sheep were lost, as well as pigs and cattle.

Heavy rain inundated Hawkes Bay in April 1897. The floods that followed caused serious damage to infrastructure. This flood-swollen river knocked out half of the trusses on the railway bridge at Clive. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library PAColl-8256

Ōmāhu marae is between the two rivers; it was smashed by the floodwaters. “The Omahu Bridge has been washed away,” the Star reported and, almost as an afterthought to its lengthy report of the floods, “the natives left the villages and their whares have been destroyed”.

First, the people of Ngāti Hinemanu and Ngāi Te Ūpokoiri hapū focused on the immediate recovery. Then, as they regathered, they made the difficult decision to move their marae and some surrounding homes 800 metres inland.

“Leaving a home and a community is not an easy decision. But for some people the opportunity to start afresh, without a fear of future flooding or landslide, is the right choice.”
– Grant Robertson, Finance Minister

This flood was categorised as a one-in-100 years event.

But residents of rural Hawkes Bay can catalogue the arrival of such events with ever-increasing frequency: 1924; 1938; 1963; 1974; Cyclone Bola in 1988; four dead in storms and floods in 1994; more deaths in 2004; and evacuations in 2012.

And now, of course, Cyclone Gabrielle with its enormous toll.

Then and now

This week, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced Hawkes Bay mayors had agreed to a cost-sharing contribution from the Government, for the voluntary buy-back of high-risk residential properties. Napier needs a projected $1.5 billion to rebuild; Hastings needs $1.15b; Central Hawkes Bay puts its infrastructure costs at $260m, and Wairoa needs $50m to $100m for river mitigation alone. 

Some of that will be funded from rates increases – Central Hawkes Bay is hiking rates by 11 percent, and Napier plans a 2 percent disaster recovery rate.

It’s understood that this week, the Finance Minister is offering up only a small portion of that $3b needed to buy-out irreparable properties and build infrastructure such as stop-banks to protect other homes – though the Government has committed to other infrastructure spending, including rebuilding the state highway network through Hawkes Bay and Tairawhiti.

Councils are meeting on Wednesday and Thursday, with the public excluded, to decide whether to accept the Government deal, which comes with more funding for flood protection, routing rivers, and urgent roading and bridge repairs.

Cyclone Gabrielle threw cars and watertanks around like toys in Ōmāhu. Photo: Supplied

But Renata Hakiwai and his hapū at Ōmāhu marae aren’t waiting on government, big or small.

They’ve set aside 24.6 hectares of land at their old pa site, on the rolling hill overlooking the devastated marae and village, and they’re preparing to relocate their whole community up there. Because of its history, the hapū had placed a covenant on the land to stop development.

“But what the chairman of our trust did say was that, in the future, we would need to start moving to higher ground for climate change. And now that’s happened.”

Renata Hakiwai, managing director of Piringa Hapū Authority 

At Ōmāhu, 153 of their homes and properties were damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle; 16 of those severely.

For those who want to stay, they are seeking funding from the Government and Hastings District Council to build up stop-banks again, and elevate the houses. “But for those who want to move, there’s that option.”

Hakiwai, the managing director of Piringa Hapū Authority, says in earlier days their communities were up on the hills, but in the past century or more they, like others, had moved down to low-lying lands surrounded by lakes, rivers and creeks.

“We’re looking to our modified retreat to move back up here,” he says.

“We need to manage it. Probably only half of the community are saying ‘yeah, we’ll move up there’. The other half, they say they will not leave. You know, ‘this has been in our family for generations’.

“So that’s been the balance we’re trying to strike. But moving to that development on higher ground has been part of our long-term 10-year plan.”

That’s something Grant Robertson agrees with. “Leaving a home and a community is not an easy decision,” he says. “But for some people the opportunity to start afresh, without a fear of future flooding or landslide, is the right choice.”

For residential property owners, the buy-out deal is voluntary – but the brutal reality is those who choose to stay in condemned homes will likely be unable to get insurance for the next floods; similarly, councils and government agencies will pull out of flood-prone communities. Roads, power, water, waste and broadband services will fall into disrepair. 

Nonetheless, there is broad agreement that voluntary deals are preferable to mandated evictions.

Relying on community, not mandate

At the Local Government NZ conference in Christchurch last week, mayors and councillors heard from Australian managed retreat experts Jamie Simmonds. 

He cites his experience in negotiating the relocation of the township of Grantham, after the Queensland floods of 2011. Those floods claimed 12 lives in the small town, prompting the council to enact a plan no other had: a land-swap with a local cattle farmer, to move the town to safety.

To get buy-in, Simmonds tells Newsroom, these relocations must be voluntary, and rely on the power of community to persuade those who are reluctant to leave their flooded homes.

The first family to sign up to a house in a new council-built subdivision on the hill were Cathy and John Mahon.

“They would have chained themselves to their homes, despite it being a logical thing to leave.”
– Jamie Simmonds, Watertech

“They and their grandkids were in their home when the flood hit, and it went from lapping at their ankles up to their neck very rapidly,” he recalls. “So they got the family up on the roof, but John couldn’t get up there – he was too late. He just hung on to the side of the home. And eventually the helicopters came in and pulled them out. They were all saved.”

In Grantham, if the relocations had been mandatory, he says people would have refused to move. “They would have chained themselves to their homes, despite it being a logical thing to leave.”

But as first one household, then another, agreed to relocate, suddenly those who had been reticent realised there was a chance to move with their whole community.

The 2011 Grantham floods claimed 12 lives in the small town; survivors were rescued from their rooftops by helicopters. Photo:

“John will tell you that when we first started talking about the relocation, he said ‘nah, it’s not for me, we’re gonna stay here’. But the grandkids were like, ‘no, this is no good’. They were young and they were scared. It’s a really hard decision.”

In the end, 110 families moved up the hill. Just 50 houses remain occupied on the flood plain below. 

“When people move out of harm’s way after a disaster, they don’t go far – they stay within five kilometres,” Simmonds says. “And I think the reason for that is this connection to community, this connection to place, and who knows that better than New Zealand and its Māori culture?”

Council and iwi negotiations

The Hawkes Bay negotiations are the only ones that have progressed as far as a formal offer. 

Robertson says talks with Auckland and Tairāwhiti on cost-sharing arrangements are progressing well, and he is hopeful to have agreements for those regions shortly.

And alongside those negotiations, the Crown is working through a process and support package for affected Māori land and communities in affected regions. Funding for this work sits outside of the cost-sharing arrangements with councils.

“We’re hoping for something significant, because we can’t afford bugger all, to be quite honest. We’re only a small rating base.”
– Craig Little, Wairoa mayor

The first Hawkes Bay council votes on the Government offer are being taken on Wednesday, by Hawkes Bay Regional Council and Wairoa District Council.

Unlike Napier and Hastings, Wairoa has no properties listed as Category 3 – properties where future severe weather event risk can’t be sufficiently mitigated and “there is intolerable risk of injury or death” if people keep living there. 

But mayor Craig Little says that all hinges on getting funding to build adequate flood mitigation infrastructure – top of river mitigation, river protection and river bypasses – and that will cost $50m to $100m.

“We’re hoping for something significant, because we can’t afford bugger all, to be quite honest. We’re only a small rating base.”

He dreads to think what might happen if some Wairoa homes can’t be protected, and are reassigned to Category 3. Families at Wairoa’s Takitimu marae say they’ll never leave – a point he’s made to Government ministers.

“There is a misunderstanding about the scale of what councils can do and can contribute – 93 percent of public taxation is collected centrally, compared to only 7 percent locally.”
– Alex Walker, Central Hawkes Bay mayor

“We’ve just got to work around how we can make sure this doesn’t ever happen again. A lot of these homes, God, they’ve been there since day dot. They just want to get back into their homes and onto their whenua, and I completely support that.”

Little says he’s disappointed the negotiations over Māori land are being conducted separately, and that this week’s council meetings have to be held in secret. “I’m not happy about that. But it is what it is, I don’t want to lose any money. It’s pretty frustrating to be quite honest.”

All the meetings are behind closed doors; an agenda for the Central Hawkes Bay meeting shows the public and media are being excluded for reasons of commercial sensitivity, including commercial and industrial negotiations. It’s not clear what commercial or industrial organisations might be party to the deal to justify the secrecy.

Ōmāhu marae was at the heart of a tight-knit community. That needn’t change, says hapū managing director Renata Hakiwai. Photo: Supplied

On Thursday, Napier, Hastings and Central Hawkes Bay councillors will vote on the deal. As the offer from the Crown would provide funding support to all five councils, the region will need to unanimously agree for the deal to be finalised.

“There is a misunderstanding about the scale of what councils can do and can contribute,” says Alex Walker, the Central Hawkes Bay mayor. “Ninety-three percent of public taxation is collected centrally, compared to only 7 percent locally.”

Like Wairoa, her district has no Category 3 homes – but also like Wairoa, she says that could change for the worse if the council and government aren’t able to fund flood mitigation and remediation work to protect homes from the next floods.

There are 140 2A and 2P properties in Central Hawkes Bay, that might tip either into remediable category, or write-offs, depending on what infrastructure work is done to protect them.

“Our community of Porongahau are currently in a Category 2A, and there’s quite a long process to go through with them about what the future looks like, and what our options are. There could be a mixture of community level and individual property level intervention.”

How close will the Government come to meeting a fair share, in her view? “I think it’s a long, long journey.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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