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Safe as houses? The biggest risk to your greatest asset

Pam Whalley on the deck of her home at the western end of Matatā, where the Whakatāne District Council says it’s no longer safe to live.

When it comes to natural hazards, New Zealand is one of the riskiest places in the world – from the threat of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis to the slow creep of sea-level rise. Joanna Wane finds we’re overdue for a national conversation on where it’s safe for people to live and what should happen if it’s not.

Bill Whalley died in this house, in a hospital bed set up by the window so he could look out to sea and with the horse races on the telly.

The day before, his son Rick had taken him down to the water. “I said, ‘Come on, we’re going to the beach.’ I chucked him into the wheelchair and put all the oxygen things on. By the time we got to the sand dunes, I was just about on oxygen myself... the old fat fella was puffing!”

In those last few months, the family had tried to protect the 78-year-old from the latest manoeuvrings in Matatā, and what it might mean for the home he and wife Pam built some 25 years ago in this small coastal township. “He’d have himself so wound up,” says Pam.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

So, the family stopped talking about it around him. And in the end, Bill didn’t live to hear the worst news of all: that the Bay of Plenty Regional Council had approved a plan that would require the Whalleys and the owners of 33 other homes and sections in a designated “high risk area” to abandon their land by the end of March 2021.

Flipping through an old scrapbook of tattered newspaper clippings, Pam stops at a photo of her husband, amid the chaos and mud that began it all, and juts out her chin. Part of it’s stubborn loyalty to the memory of Bill and the home that anchored so much of their life together. Part of it’s uncertainty and the fear of being cast adrift, a pensioner with her own health problems and limited financial resources. At Christmas, three generations of the family used to gather here, barefoot kids in togs and tents pitched on the lawn. Today, the sea is a moody grey and fat raindrops splatter against the window.

Pam, who’s 76, turns away to make a pot of tea. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Rick and Rachel Whalley moved to Matatā from Taranaki, where they reckon they were in greater danger living near an active volcano that could erupt within the next 50 years. “We know the risks and understand them here,” says Rachel.
From childhood, we’re warned never to turn our backs on the sea. That’s even more crucial now, in a warming world where the Ministry for the Environment’s latest estimate puts more than 130,000 New Zealanders and some 43,000 houses at risk of sea-level rise. But at Matatā, the danger came from behind them.

A record 300mm of rain had dumped on the region that day in March 2005, causing floods and road closures down the line. In the steep catchment above the western end of the township, the land was already unstable, prone to slips and erosion. A pilot on a tourist flight to White Island the day before saw a huge pool of water banked up in the hills.

One thing everyone can agree on is it’s a miracle no one was killed when 300,000 cubic metres of rock, logs and other debris swept down the Awatarariki Stream, knocking out a railway culvert and destroying 27 homes, causing $20 million worth of damage. People talk about boulders the size of houses, but some of these really were. The largest measured 7m across and weighed 20 tonnes.

Pam and Bill Whalley saw a 2m wave of water barrel through the front gate and swirl past their two-storey house. Out back, three mature Norfolk pines overlooking the sand dunes “went like matchsticks”. A couple of kilometres up the coast, half a dozen caravans from Murphy’s Holiday Camp were picked up and dumped out at sea. As the Whalleys stood on their deck, watching the torrent flow by, one of their neighbours floated past clinging to the bonnet of his ute.

A few doors along, Michele Beach was thigh-deep in water inside her house. Frantically, she hauled a heavy dresser onto the dining-room table, then put a chair on top of that, and clambered through a manhole in the ceiling with her 13-month-old baby and two older kids, just as their villa was lifted right off its foundations. For the next three hours, they were at the whim of the water, crashing into the place next door and then lurching back in the other direction.

It would have been heartbreaking if the community had been told then that their land on the Awatarariki Stream fanhead was unsafe and unsalvagable, but they’d have stomached it and moved on. Instead, the council eventually put the water and power back on, and told everyone they could go home. Many did, repairing their homes or building new ones, as engineering reports were prepared on how to protect the settlement from future debris flows.

“Everyone got on with their lives, because the council said, ‘We’ll fix it.’” says Rick Whalley, who heads a residents’ group at loggerheads with the council.

A school principal in the Chatham Islands when the flood hit, he and wife Rachel moved to Matatā to be with his parents after Bill got sick, then stayed on to support Pam. The first inkling of trouble, they say, was in 2012 when a letter from the Whakatāne District Council informed them plans for a debris barrier had been abandoned as unworkable. Despite this, three properties subsequently changed hands, with the most recent sale going through in June 2015.

That year, Wayne and Victoria Irwin were doing up their kitchen when one of the tradies told them a mate at council reckoned the area was tagged for voluntary retreat, where residents would be permanently moved off their land.

In 2009, the Irwins had sold up in Australia – where Wayne had worked for 25 years as a health and safety advisor doing risk assessments for major construction companies – to retire in Matatā. The property they bought had suffered only minor damage to the garage in the debris flood. Now they’re “hostages in our own homes”, because they can’t sell and the bank won’t lend them money to buy somewhere else.

The Whakatāne District Council has appealed to the Government for help funding an estimated $15m managed-retreat package. Mayor Tony Boone says Local Government minister Nanaia Mahuta has indicated a contribution will be forthcoming, but far less than the 80% he’d hoped for. The council has committed to covering a third of the bill, despite having no legal obligation to pay any compensation. Boone, who’s just announced his retirement, hopes the regional council will contribute, too.

“It’s been 13 years of anxiety for those people,” he says. “Some don’t want to leave, and I can understand that. But others want this settled so they can move on with their lives. They’ve had a gutsful and I don’t blame them.”

A scar on the cliff face at Whakatāne Heads from a previous slip shows the instability of land along the Bay of Plenty coast.

Victoria Irwin is Australian and would be out of Matatā like a shot if she and Wayne could afford to start over. They  rejected an early “indicative” offer of $250,000 – well below the $380,000 they paid for the property before renovating. “You wouldn’t do this in my country,” she says, with disgust. “We put $140,000 into this bloody house. A big deck out back, new kitchen, new bathroom, new windows, a conservatory. Now we’re told we’ve got to get out.”

For others, like sisters Marilyn Pearce and Lesley Hema, the roots go far deeper. They and their brother have been coming to Matatā since they were kids, and inherited an acre of land when their parents died in the mid-90s. Lesley, 60, didn’t rebuild until three years after the flood. “It’s not as if we rushed into it.”

The residents’ group  disputes engineering assessments that another life-threatening debris flow could be triggered by heavy rainfall. They believe a series of dams had been formed over time by native logs falling into the catchment (the forest was logged at the turn of the 20th century), trapping boulders and other debris. “Now everything that was up there has gone,” says Lesley. “It’s been scoured down to bedrock. Yet they’re making out this is the most dangerous place in New Zealand.”

In this, they have some support from land management consultant John Douglas, who was a soil conservator at the Bay of Plenty Regional Council for 22 years. He reckons it used to take him two hours to trek up into the catchment, scrambling through bush and hopping over waterfalls. After the flood, the same hike took him 30 minutes, climbing over chiselled rock faces he’d never seen before that were “smooth as a baby’s bum. It had washed out everything.”

Debris dams will slowly reform, says Douglas. But right now, he’d feel safer living in Matatā than round the coast at West End, on Ōhope Beach, where houses flood during storm surges and huge pōhutukawa cling precariously to the cliffs behind them. In 2011, a 17-year-old was killed there when a landslide engulfed his home. Says Douglas: “There are trees the size of this room perched on the edge and if they come down one day, they’ll bowl everything.”

A house on the main road reflects the community’s anger over council plans to rezone their land.

Ousting the community will require a change to the council’s district plan so the land is no longer available for residential use. However, only regional councils have the power to remove existing land-use rights, and it’s believed this would be the first time the Resource Management Act has been used in this way for avoidance of natural hazards.

The “Matatā situation”, as it’s come to be called, is being observed with interest  by other councils with vulnerable communities, whether it’s from inland flooding, unstable land or creeping invasion from the sea. A new report by the Hutt City Council revealed large parts of Petone could be under water before the end of the century.

Unlike much of the Bay of Plenty, this end of Matatā isn’t rated as a particular risk for coastal flooding, although it’s likely to see more intense storms and rainfall. But the community’s plight highlights the uncertain ground around managed retreat. “We’re all watching Matatā as an example of extinguishing existing use rights,” says Niwa senior scientist Rob Bell.

Another expert, who asked not be named, claims it’s widely acknowledged the impasse would have been resolved years ago if the community was affluent and had more lobbying power. She says local councils don’t have the expertise or money to deal with such complex issues, and urgent action is needed to stop other facing the same “dark journey”.

“We live on an island and the water is going to get higher; there’ll be more rain, more storms and some parts won’t be safe to live. Do you go community by community, or do you look at it nationally and go round New Zealand drawing lines in the sand? What does it mean for those communities, and what does it mean for the councils who are still selling and subdividing land?

“We don’t have the solutions, and everyone is afraid to have that awkward conversation because no government wants to be liable for what’s coming.”

Matatā landowner Greg Thorby, with some of the enormous boulders that were swept down from the hills.
When North & South writer Fiona Barber wrote about Matatā in 2005 (“Warning: Flooding Ahead”), then-Insurance Council chief executive Chris Ryan told her he already knew of properties that had been refused flood cover, on the Queenstown lakefront, at Scotts Ferry on the Manawatū coast, and Haumoana in Hawke’s Bay – now one of the poster towns for coastal erosion. He foresaw a time of retreat from high-risk areas of the seashore. “It may be over 100 years,” Ryan said, “but it will happen.”

The reality has come much sooner than that. New Zealand might have a reputation as an apocalypse bolthole for US billionaires, but the landscape’s dramatic beauty is both a gift from our volatile geography and a curse. In October, we were ranked the second-riskiest country in the world to insure – behind Bangladesh – in a major international study by Lloyd’s of London that factored in damage caused by the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes, and several big floods.

Among our largest cities, Wellington sits on five major fault lines, Auckland is on a volcanic field, Christchurch is a high-risk tsunami zone, and in South Dunedin thousands of homes are being slowly drowned by rising groundwater. Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of New Zealanders live in areas vulnerable to coastal or inland flooding – while Franz Josef, which is bang on the Alpine Fault, faces such high risk of earthquake, landslide, rockfall and flooding there’s serious talk of relocating the entire township 5-10km to the northwest.

One of the safest places to live is Hamilton, but even that’s in a medium-risk seismic zone. (“Go the Tron!” laughs a natural-hazards planner who’s originally from Hamilton, but taking her chances in Wellington now.) And as if Matatā hasn’t suffered enough, in 2016 scientists discovered a magma build-up underground that could signal the beginnings of a new volcano there.

Ilan Noy, Victoria University’s chair in the economics of disasters, is pretty sanguine about how dangerous it really is here compared to, say, living in Damascus. He’s also confident the economy can comfortably manage the cost of adjusting to sea-level rise, but says difficult political and ethical issues lie ahead.

A nationwide risk assessment is due to start early next year, and there’s debate over how much information should be mandated on Land Information Memorandums (LIM reports), where there’s a legal obligation only to disclose what’s happened to a property in the past, not what might happen in the future. In 2012, Kapitī Coast council put coastal hazard warnings on 1600 homes, but removed them again after a revolt by owners worried real estate values would fall. They needn’t have feared; a study of sales over a six-year period showed almost no impact all. And by 2017, almost a third of the homes had changed hands.

For all those selling up, there’s no shortage of others buying in, or signs the value of coastal real estate is taking a hit. The turning point in property prices is expected to be driven by different market forces – insurance retreat – as increased risk first drives up premiums, then cover is refused altogether. A scattering of properties have already been declined insurance around the country, and the Hutt City Council study suggests homeowners in Petone could find their homes uninsurable in as little as 30 years. Some insurers are already modelling flood and earthquake risk, and a report released in late November by the Reserve Bank noted a shift to risk-based pricings that reflect exposure to climate change. 

Escalating premiums and eventual refusal of cover would see property values tumble – and people who don’t get out fast enough could find themselves trapped in homes they can’t sell. A loss of insurance also puts mortgages in default, giving banks the option to foreclose.

Those with the financial resources may be happy to build or buy on the coast, knowing their house will be uninhabitable within 20 years, says Noy. He doesn’t have a problem with that. “The coast is lovely. As long as it doesn’t put a burden on the public purse and there’s a clear demarcation zone in terms of who owns what risk and who should pay for it. So information is crucial.”

There’s no clear direction on how people may be compensated if their properties become uninhabitable – or whether they should be compensated at all. Under the Public Works Act, land can be bought at market value or compulsorily acquired (in which case compensation is mandatory) to make way for major infrastructure projects, such as the Waterview Tunnel. That’s not the case at Matatā.

In September, Auckland lawyers Rob Enright and Ruby Haazen made submissions to the Whakatāne District Council and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council on behalf of the residents’ group, opposing the removal of their existing land-use rights. They claim the proposed plan changes breach the Resource Management Act (RMA), and makes the property owners “environmental refugees on their own land”.

The group wants the move put on hold while more work is done on ways to mitigate the risk, such as early warning systems and regular monitoring of the catchment – options already rejected by the council. “It’s ultimately about what’s tolerable from a community perspective and to what extent you allow for community voices, as well as expert voices, to be heard,” Enright says. “It’s quite different to talk about future planning, where it’s entirely reasonable to avoid low-lying areas. But you only have to stand on the Whalleys’ deck to understand that sense of connection they have to the land. 

“If [the council] genuinely takes a position of unacceptable risk of fatality, why have they waited 13 years? And if you’re going to kick people out of their houses, you’ve got to compensate them as a reasonable starting point.”

A second round of submissions closes mid-December and a joint hearing with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Whakatāne District Council will be scheduled for early 2019, with an option to appeal to the Environment Court.

Despite widespread sympathies for the residents, councils have a legal obligation to manage risk, which will become increasingly relevant with climate change. A recent public policy paper noted councils could be liable for private damages if they make planning decisions that significantly increase exposure to coastal hazards.

Marilyn and Rob Pearce rebuilt their home at Matatā, a small community on the coast between Tauranga and Ōhope. “What they’re trying to do is a land grab, pure and simple,” says Marilyn, who fought the council alongside Bill Whalley before he died.

Prompted to an extent by Matatā, Otago law lecturer Ben France-Hudson is part of a project looking at the legal and social implications of changing existing land use. Issues around compensation include whether people should be treated differently if they’ve knowingly bought or developed in a danger zone.

France-Hudson says the government payout to uninsured homeowners in Christchurch’s red zone has increased expectations everyone will be bailed out in a crisis. “But there are questions over whether we can afford to do that for an area as large as South Dunedin – and where you draw the line. If the sea is coming in, maybe that’s a good case, but what if there’s a massive fault line running under your house. Is that different? And how? It’s better to think about that now because it’s a very different discussion if there’s an obligation to pay compensation than if there isn’t.”

One researcher told North & South people are already worried about experts from Auckland showing up and telling them they have to move. “And how do you like the principle that the rich get sea-walls and the poor get moved? Most New Zealanders are going to object to that.”

A 2017 paper released by Victoria University made the case for establishing a new national fund to help build a war chest to pay the costs of future managed retreats. Yet to be widely canvassed is what losing property rights will mean for Māori where the land was part of a “full and final” Treaty settlement.

At the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, CEO James Palmer is looking at targeted coastal hazard rates, and bold public-private partnerships in initiatives to help make the province more sustainable long-term. On his patch, decisions are ratepayer-led. Communities in a 40km strip from Tangoio to Clifton have developed a 100-year plan on how they’ll adapt to coastal invasion, from renourishment of the foreshore to building defences and, in some areas, an eventual retreat.

“Naturally, in the first instance they want to defend,” says Palmer. “And if the community is willing to pay over the odds to continue to enjoy that lifestyle, even if there’s some risk, we’re a democratic institution there to serve the interests of the ratepayers.”

Palmer believes councils will be dominated by climate-change issues in 30 years, rather than worrying about water quality in rivers and lakes – and he thinks the focus on mitigation rather than adaptation has been a huge mistake.

On that front, at least, the tide has started to turn. Nick Cradock-Henry, a senior scientist with Landcare Research in Lincoln, is leading a project on building resilience in rural communities. A few years ago, he spent most of his time explaining why climate change wasn’t a hoax. Now he’s seeing orchardists and farmers adapting the way they work and use the land, in recognition that some crops won’t be sustainable in the future. “Events have made people believers.”

Janet Stephenson, director of the Centre for Sustainability at Otago University, says it’s often assumed only the wealthy live on the coast, but that’s not the case – and the impact of both natural disasters and climate change take a huge emotional toll on communities like Matatā.

“People are incredibly attached to place. Partly it’s an economic attachment, but a lot is in the heart. How we deal with that long term, I really don’t know.”

Ocean Beach, in Hawke’s Bay, a popular summer spot accessed by a single road that descends steeply from the surrounding hills. The entire east coast of the North Island would be at risk if a tsunami was triggered by an earthquake offshore in the Hikurangi subduction zone, and coastal communities are encouraged to become familiar with emergency evacuation routes in their area.

Buyer Beware

Around two-thirds of New Zealand communities are at risk of severe adverse natural events, according to Resilient Communities, a two-year research programme that’s produced a series of online tools to help people protect their homes and communities. Niwa principal scientist Rob Bell, who’s managed part of the project, says information isn’t always easy to find. He helped develop Waikato Regional Council’s coastal inundation tool, which gives a “high level view” of low-lying coastal areas susceptible to tides, storms and projected sea-level rise; other councils have information online or natural hazard maps available for viewing. “But it’s variable,” he admits. “I had a very frustrated woman who’d gone from district to regional council and still couldn’t work out how high the land was [relative to the spring tide] on a property she was interested in buying.” Here’s a checklist to help identify a property’s vulnerability to natural hazards (adapted from resilience.goodhomes.co.nz):

Ask your council:

Is the site a hazard zone for tsunami, river flood, coastal inundation, soil contamination or liquefaction?

  • Are there any warning bells relating to the development (such as the need for resource consent, special reports, risk mitigation or an RMA hearing being required)?
  • Are there any changes coming that might affect your site?
  • Has the site been flooded more than once?
  • Has the site, roads or property nearby been affected by slips, debris flows or sea storm surges?

Ask the seller/real estate agent/developer:

  • Have any engineering, geotechnic, soil, contamination, flood, liquefaction or other hazard-related reports been undertaken or required for the site (ask for copies)
  • Have any mitigation works been required or undertaken (ask for a description and compliance certificates)?
  • Has insurance on property or contents ever been refused?
  • Have there been any insurance claims related to adverse natural events?

Research for red flags

  • Dig around at your local museum, library or online sites such as Papers Past to check the area’s history (floods, storms and slips; power, water or communications blackouts) and whether new developments are proposed.