Plans finally underway to stop Wairoa flooding again


2023-05-26 04:46:28

Wairoa resident Huki Henare's home was damaged during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Huki Henare and his Waihirere Road house bore the brunt of both floods.
Photo: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

After two cyclones, 35 years apart, devastated the small Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa, plans are finally being laid to stop the worst from happening again.

Floodwaters ripped through Wairoa homes, businesses and farms during Cyclone Bola in 1988, and again three months ago during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Warnings have been sounded for decades but there has been no action – the town remains exposed without a flood protection scheme to prevent history repeating itself.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has now indicated it wants to invest in one, but it was unclear where the cash would come from.

Resident Huki Henare and his Waihirere Road house bore the brunt of both floods.

Henare described a moment of déjà vu as he watched water roar down the road towards his property three months ago.

“I’m pissed off. Brassed off.

“Second time, you know what I mean, what’s going to happen the third time?

Wairoa resident Huki Henare's home was damaged during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Huki Henare said watching water roar towards his property was like déjà vu.
Photo: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

“They’ve had thirty-something years to do something, what have they done? Nothing.”

Warnings of severe flooding go unheeded

In 1988, a Hawke’s Bay Catchment Board and Regional Water Board report on Cyclone Bola put it bluntly: “The damage to the Wairoa town occurred because no flood protection scheme exists at this stage to protect the town.”

A more detailed look at the Wairoa floodplain from Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in 1994 doubled down, noting it was lucky there had not been another major flood since then.

“Development on the Wairoa floodplain has proceeded with a flood risk in some areas as high as 5 percent. This means, for example, that a dwelling designed for a 50-year life has a 93 percent chance of being flooded in its lifetime.”

Wairoa from the air shows flood waters and mud throughout the town

Wairoa following Cyclone Gabrielle.
Photo: Nathan McKinnon

It noted flooding generated by Cyclone Bola – which split the town in two – was “not a particularly significant flood”.

The report said there was a one in three chance of the same – or worse – happening again in the next 10 years.

It also quoted a report following a flood in 1948, describing how the Wairoa River rose to a “record height”, the bridge “took a battering”, and “telephone lines 4.3 metres above road level were carrying grass and twigs, showing the phenomenal rise of the floodwaters”.

Due to the infrequency of flooding, the report said there was a “false sense of security” in the town.

It said the acceptable flood risk should be a community decision – but in reality it was political and financially-driven.

It laid out options for mitigating the impact of flooding, including stopbanking, and flood-proofing or relocating buildings.

Plans forming to protect Wairoa

Mayor Craig Little pointed out despite those warnings – nothing has changed.

“There is actually zero flood protection at the moment.

“Back in Cyclone Bola, I think there was a lot of discussions, I’ve gone through our archives, I can’t find anything, about doing some sort of raised stopbank.”

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little

Wairoa mayor Craig Little.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Last month, the regional council bid for $60 million from the government’s Budget for a new flood protection scheme for Wairoa.

It confirmed there was a proposal for one after Bola, but it never progressed “due to the inability of ratepayers to fund this at that time”.

The government put $100m towards flood protection in the Budget’s cyclone recovery package – but that was for all cyclone-affected regions.

Regional councillor for the Wairoa ward Di Roadley said that was a drop in the bucket, and it was not clear yet how much Hawke’s Bay – including Wairoa – would get.

“Keep in mind that is all the way from the Far North all the way down to the Wairarapa, so it’s a huge area that money’s got to be shared across.

“Even the Wairoa scheme would take three quarters of that fund even at the smallest crack at it.”

The regional council said it was working with the government to hash out how the funding would be applied.

With lives at stake, Roadley said the council did not want to be driven by money.

But someone has to pay, so there was a lot of work ahead to figure out who would bear what burden, she said.

But Roadley was adamant there was no way Wairoa would miss out due to a lack of cash.

“Not on my watch. Absolutely not.”

She said the priority was ensuring all whānau were safe in their beds at night.

Work was already underway to find out exactly why Wairoa flooded, and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s review into its flood protection schemes’ performance during Cyclone Gabrielle would also shed some light on that.

Once that was identified, the mayor said it was time to make sure it never happened again – because he was sick of band-aid infrastructure fixes.

“We need to do this for once and for all,” Little said.

“It’s like everything we’re doing, like our roading, once and for all, we’re just patch up, patch up, patch up.”

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