Half a year on from the beginning of Auckland’s wild weather events, many in the city remain in limbo awaiting categorisation of their homes.
But while public meetings in the West this month were full of disgruntled locals wanting certainty, Auckland Council says it’s making progress.
Councillors voted on Thursday to support in principle a cost-sharing agreement with central government that would fund more than $2 billion of storm recovery costs.
That includes $820 million for resilience projects like the blue-green network of the council’s Making Space for Water initiative, $390 million towards recovery costs in the transport network – and most crucially for Aucklanders still unable to go home, $774 million to purchase an estimated 700 category three residential properties.
The final 5,000 flood assessments began last week and 250 geotechnical land stability assessments began on Monday.
Initial hold-ups to slip assessments have been eased this month by bringing geotechnical engineers over from Australia to assist.
But the council deputy recovery manager Mace Ward said there was still a way to go. With over 5,000 flooding assessments to do, he acknowledged that that was “rather daunting for the community”.
“Our real focus is on providing people with certainty as soon as possible – at the same time, we’ve got to acknowledge the scale of doing 5,000 assessments and another 150 for geotechnical assessments.”
But for people still unable to return to their homes, anytime is a long time.
Representatives from the Titirangi/Green Bay/Huia Stickered Residents’ Group appeared before the council's governing body on Thursday to appeal for more remediation funding and a faster results.
Group spokesperson Thibault Beaujot said groups across Auckland remained "anxious and distressed" and it was crucial resourcing constraints were lifted from the categorisation and remediation process.
Another representative of the group, Hugh, detailed how life had been for him and his partner since January, when much of their property gave way and left their home uninhabitable.
"The night of January 27 it was raining cats and dogs and the power had been off since seven. We were in bed and above the noise of the wind and rain we heard a huge crashing and cracking of trees. We rushed to the window and to our horror, about eight metres of our land with huge kauri and pohutukawa trees crashed 70m to the sea below. We fled out in our pyjamas. That week we were red stickered and remain so. That was seven months ago."
A number of community testimonials were presented, including one woman who was driving on a road as it began to slip down a precipice, and many tales of livelihoods lost and peace of mind shattered.
Another couple said they felt humiliated by the fact they'd been made to feel like a problem since the weekend their garden fell into the harbour.
Beaujot's own testimony was that he and his partner bought their Takahe Rd property two years ago, and at the time it felt like a paradise:
"Our paradise has become hell from February of this year. It feels like every organisation that has a duty to help us is working against us."
That's the difficult position people like Mace Ward and recovery manager Mat Tucker are in, as they navigate the long categorisation process and try to give people a sense of certainty.
Ward said it was a difficult position for the council, balancing giving people certainty and following government guidelines on what is category three and therefore entitled to support.
What would he say to people upset at how long they’ve had to wait to return to their homes?
“First - it's about acknowledging that that's a real extremely difficult situation to be in,” he said. “The last thing we want to do though is make a hasty decision and put people back in harm's way. The responsibility of spending public funds is also a burden... the balance of doing it right... it would be wrong if we rushed in and made the wrong decisions.”
Tucker said this aspect of storm recovery was tricky.
“We’re walking a fine line here between moving as fast as possible to give private property owners the certainty they so desperately need, and making quality decisions that are the right ones for Auckland long-term.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Wayne Brown said the time it had taken to negotiate cost-sharing with the government meant Auckland Council has managed to get a good deal.
“While the negotiation process took time, it has resulted in a much better deal for Auckland. This deal will enable us to move faster on our plans to make the region more resilient to future weather events, rolling out the Making Space for Water programme and reinstating a range of transport infrastructure to help our communities return to a sense of normal," he said.
Consulation with the public on these costs will begin next month.
Meanwhile, geotechnical assessments in Muriwai are expected to be done by the end of the month, while in Piha and Karekare, they are due by the end of September.
According to the Treasury, severe weather across the country earlier this year saw $2 to 3.5 billion of damage on houses, $2 to 3 billion on businesses and $5 to 7 billion on infrastructure.
But Treasury documents stress this shouldn’t be looked at as a repair bill – as not all houses, businesses or pieces of infrastructure should necessarily be replaced.
“The actual repair bill will depend on choices as to whether to replace particular assets, or whether to ‘build back better’,” a treasury report from shortly after the storm reads. “These decisions will occur over time.”
This is the essence of the council categorisation programme, which Ward said ultimately places risk to human life at the top of its priority list.
A home that is difficult to exit once floodwaters rise will likely receive a category three designation, meaning the council has decided it’s not worth the repair job.
Ward said this kind of decision-making would allow for even category one or two homes to be bought out in some instances, if in areas earmarked for the forthcoming Making Space for Water programme.
The $1.6 billion programme would see the council buy properties, and level them to create long green spaces able to act as reservoirs for floodwaters.
That programme has just gone to consultation with Aucklanders.
But what should Aucklanders awaiting news on their own homes do in the meantime?
Ward said it was important to keep an eye out for recovery office community updates, and to stay in conversation with banks and insurance companies.
“People can also reach out to us for psychosocial support, and make sure they have support networks around them, friends and family – and certainly take that objective advice from specialists, whether that’s insurance companies or the New Zealand Claims Service.”
The severe weather didn’t just push people out of their homes – it also damaged community facilities, walking tracks, and put a dent in small business communities.
Ward said a wide-ranging programme of recovery sought to address each of these pain points. There had been positive movement for each.
The economic impact of this year’s weather events is expected to be between $9 and 14 billion, with Auckland a substantial role in that.
“You certainly don't want that economic impact occurring for small businesses or the economy at large,” Ward said. “That's one of the things we're taking into account building roads and infrastructure back to be more resilient.”
As with its direct impact on communities, the business impact of the events was not distributed evenly across the region.
Many rural areas were badly hit by slips, while business districts like Wairau Valley saw many companies underwater.
In Muriwai, normality was slowly returning, with Motutara Road opened on Monday.
Ward said it would be a “bittersweet moment” for residents who are still unable to return to their homes, but would take the pressure off Waitea Road – previously the only access point down to the coastal village.
Meanwhile, other communities like Karekare remain largely cut off and locals’ lives remain disrupted.