This old aphorism should act as a warning for New Zealand politicians – at national and local government levels – as they respond to the damage wrought by the Cyclone Gabrielle weather system.
Clear, focused, articulate leadership is needed. “Normal” is not what people enjoyed before February’s storms. People should not be allowed to return to living where and how they did previously. While many affected families and businesses may want to do this, they should not be put in a position where future weather events may affect them to the same degree as Gabrielle.
Extreme weather events are the new normal. No part of New Zealand is immune from these.
Gabrielle has showed planners where at-risk areas are, just as Christchurch’s earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 did for that city. Vast tracts of Christchurch have been cleared of residential and commercial properties and affected people and businesses moved elsewhere. The same now needs to happen for North Island storm-ravaged areas.
The answer isn’t bigger pumps or higher stop-banks. It should be people living in safer locations.
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub once coined the term “zombie towns” to describe some New Zealand provincial centres impacted by the downsizing of rural economies and the associated migration of people to larger centres with better services and opportunities. Unfortunately, there are some zombie towns decimated by Gabrielle. While rebuilding these is possible, hard questions need to be asked about whether that is a good idea in the longer term, particularly when another Gabrielle is possible. If a local service town is needed, then it should be rebuilt on higher, safer ground, rather than where it was.
If politicians don’t act, then insurance companies and financial lenders will. Insurance companies are quite good at assessing risk. That’s how their business model works – they bet their customers that they will pay more in premiums than they will get in return. This means either massively higher premiums for people and businesses that want to live and work in risk areas, or no insurance at all. No insurance at all becomes an issue and a cost for a government cleaning up after a natural disaster.
As well as making decisions that reduce the risks and impacts of natural disasters, politicians also need to focus on investing in infrastructure that doesn’t fail when it’s really needed. Communication systems are particularly vital. Unlike fibre broadband and cellular systems, copper wire phones don’t need mains power to let them work. Analogue radios have greater coverage than digital ones. The internet is pointless if people can’t reach it.
Planning for emergencies has a similar model to responding to them. There are some simple questions that need to be asked: What do we what people to know? What do we want them to do? What do we want them to have? Where do we want them to go?
Building electric substations at a level lower than the stop-bank that is supposed to protect them isn’t clever. Neither is having back-up power systems that only last for a few hours, in the case of cell tower masts. A cashless society also quickly grinds to a halt when EFTPOS systems and money machines don’t work.
Council planners should have known that some newer subdivisions faced flooding risks. Instead, they have probably been seduced by information provided by “experts” paid for by developers as part of the gaming process that surrounds Resource Management Act planning.
People affected by the recent storms are restless. They want answers and they want help. Quickly. They don’t care that the help they need may be in short supply and allocated to locations that are deemed to have a priority higher than theirs. They don’t trust central government. They trust local government even less. This is why clear, focused, articulate leadership is essential. Hard decisions are needed. Quickly.
Unfortunately, it is likely that only the alligators with the biggest teeth will be sorted and the swamp won’t get drained before next time. It’s an election year, which means that contentious decisions and the conversations that need to be had around those are unlikely to happen.