Stuck in two worlds.

I have been loath to write more about the situation in my cyclone-ravaged coastal community, but since we are going on a month since Gabrielle hit and things are not quite optimal, I thought I would offer this brief status report.

Basically, we are largely trapped in place between two dangerous roads. Supplies, food and fuel are being ferried to us and rubbish taken out by helicopter thanks to Auckland Emergency Management (AEM). We have power and cell phone coverage thanks to the lines company. But when it comes to fixing the roads–admittedly a major undertaking– Auckland Transport has basically been indifferent to our plight. Their very poor communications with the community essentially are that a) they will take 3-4 weeks to complete a feasibility study on how to repair the slips; and b) it will be over a year before normal road use can be restored. Meanwhile a posse of local builders have worked tirelessly, using their own tools and money, to shore up the slide areas and place plastic rain seal covers on slips so as to prevent further erosion and falls. But the roads are an unsafe mess and barely passable as things stand today.

AT actively discourages this private party work and hints at liability for those who do it. It has also officially closed the two roads to all but emergency and essential travel, thereby voiding vehicle insurance for non-emergency/essential workers who attempt to transit them at their own risk. This is a major quandary because there are around 50 school children in the valley who need to reach school buses on the main arterial road above the slips, a primary school in the valley that requires some parents to drive kids in between and around the slips, people who have medical and other important or time-sensitive appointments that cannot be delayed, and people who need to work but cannot work from home so must try to commute as if things were normal.

They are not.

AT does not appear to understand any of this and one gets the sense that the bosses safely ensconced in their Auckland offices have decided that we are low priority or the remedies too hard to be dealt with urgently. We get placating words on video conference calls but no practicable follow up. More broadly, employers and the public in Auckland do not appear to fully comprehend what is going out here. People are being told to come back to work soon or suffer the consequences. Day-trippers and tourists drive out blissfully unaware that the entire region is closed to non-residents because the roads simply cannot cope with the weight of traffic.

When it comes to AT and the contractors and other authorities it is using to “assess” our roads, one hand does not appear to know what the other is doing. AT says that the upper road is “hard” closed because of the underslips beneath the remaining road surfaces, but local civil defence authorities say that is because of boulders perched precariously over the road above some of the slips. Meanwhile people sneak in an out across the slip zones because there is no enforcement of the “hard” closure.

It gets worse. A few days back I followed local civil defence instructions and attempted to exit the valley on the hour as instructed, with people presumably manning stop/go signs on both ends of the most dangerous stretch (and sole one lane exit). When I got to that stretch I saw no signs of any sort but was committed to the task because at that point there was no way to turn around. Two thirds of the way up this infamous stretch of road (known as “The Cutting” because of its steep incline and sheer drops (where people have died in the past)), I came around a corner hugging the uphill bank only to find a dump truck and a digger blocking my way. I had no room to turn around and no visibility behind me. Workers milled around while the digger scraped dirt from the bank and dumped it in the truck.

After a while and getting zero response from said workers, who seemed to think that our appearance in the middle of their work zone was part of the scenery, my wife walked over and spoke with them, eventually finding a supervisor. Not only did that fellow not know about the “exit on the hour” rule but he did not know about the local primary school or the school bus runs that happened twice a day as parents try to get to drop-off and pick-up points on the arterial road. He was under the assumption that the road was closed, which it probably should be but it is the only one that is viable (in the loosest sense of the word) given that the other road has been completely closed due to the danger posed by overhanging boulders and undercuts beneath the roadway–dangers that AT has no plan to fix at this point because the feasibility studies have not been completed. Mind you, much of the damage caused by slides was the direct result of AT neglecting to clear culverts and drains throughout the catchment for twenty years in spite of many requests logged to send crews out to do this basic maintenance.

It is not just AT that has once again failed in its obligations. Some politicians are part of the problem as well. Although local council members appear happy to entertain the idea, our local MP dismissed the suggestion that we ask the NZDF if military engineers can come out and have a look at the road damage in order to make repair recommendations and/or install a Bailey Bridge (which is a modular construction that can support the weight of tanks) over the worst slip on the upper road that has less of an incline than the Cutting. That is a pity because the request has to come from the central government, not local councils. Apparently without consulting the NZDF or the Minister of Defence, the MP said that the Army is too busy in the Hawks Bay to help us even though the NZDF does disaster relief/humanitarian assistance and lots of military engineering as a matter of course, and has not exhausted those resources with its efforts on the other side of the North Island. It would have been nice gesture to her constituents if she had at least paid lip service to the request or passed it on to a Minister who could do so in her stead.

Meanwhile, Auckland Council has ordered the closure of the Waitakere ranges and West Coast beaches to non-residents, setting up roadblocks on the main arterial road connecting our communities with the western suburbs. We have to show proof of residence in order to get through the cordons, day in and day out. Even relatives cannot come to visit. Yet at the same time temporary accomodation providers are attempting to circumvent the process, with tourists showing up with no knowledge that they are entering a disaster zone with treacherous roads. Some of these temporary accomodation providers have declined to open their rentals to neighbours who lost their homes or were otherwise displaced by the storm. As the saying goes, crises bring out the best and worst in people.

On top of all this, AT is hinting at permanent road closures and AEM is gently suggesting that residents consider the possibility of having to relocate outside the valley. Needless to say, the idea of selling out and buying elsewhere (even if a sale were possible and a similar property was available) or trying to find rental accomodation in Auckland’s housing market, taking kids out their local schools and placing them elsewhere, paying ongoing bills for the abandoned properties while paying rent and bills on temporary accomodation is not a happy prospect to have to deal with.

As a result, anxiety, stress and in some cases despair have taken root in the community. For every resilient person and the local heroes who work to clear the roads, staff the emergency community hub and unload the choppers, there are others who are suffering a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tempers are frayed and quarrels have emerged between those who ignore the road closures and risk the travel in and out, those who obey the rules but cannot return to a normal routine, and those who are part of the essential/emergency services network (such as members of the fire party and first response) who use the privilege of their association to do as they please even when not on call-outs. That creates a “have, have not” situation that breeds resentment between factions. Anarchy is slowly raising its head in the stillness of the post-storm bush. The bottom line is that the social fabric of my isolated community is starting to fray and worse yet, I fear that someone is going to get killed on the roads while AT dithers about its response.

Here is the irony. Kiwis make a big deal about being part of the “First World” and regularly deride “Third World” banana republics. Perhaps in our politics, diplomacy and material life most of NZ is indeed an advanced liberal democracy. But when it comes to infrastructure maintenance (preventative, regular and events-reactive) and local emergency crisis response, we are very far from that. We are in a form of official response limbo but here is the rub: in Third World countries people just get to the task of rebuilding. They do not bother with bureaucratic red tape, feasibility studies, securing resource consents and pulling proper permits from officials wearing hard hats, lanyards and high viz vests while they study clipboards. In the Third World people just get on with the job of restoring normalcy.

In greater Auckland we get third world infrastructure overseen (and overlooked) by a first world bureaucracy that is big on code compliance but slow on delivering rapid solutions to desperate situations. Which means that for me and others in my community, when it comes to post-Gabrielle disaster response, we have the worst of both worlds.

23 thoughts on “Stuck in two worlds.

  1. New Zealand is not exactly a third world country, but it is a colony owing de jure allegiance to the British monarch and de facto subject to other members of the Five Eyes alliance.
    We also live in an area vulnerable to storm damage, but we have a tight community centred on a marae which has got us through Covid, Hale, Gabrielle and other such recent events.
    Those who rely entirely upon the colonialist New Zealand state for their safety and well-being may well end up facing the sort of difficulties described by Pablo in relation to the community at Karekare.

  2. Does that mean that you’ll be voting for NZ First in the upcoming general election? If perchance there could be a polling booth made available for use by those remaining in the valley come October?

  3. I am sorry for you Pablo. Notwithstanding Auckland Transport and its inept and bureaucratic response – which seems to be par for the course these days, observed from my distance – the anarchy of neighbours who can buck the rules and do as they normally do; perhaps it is true, now: that you have enjoyed the quiet of a beautiful west Auckland beach and environs for some time, but maybe it is time to leave. Maybe it is time to leave places like the wild west Auckland coast, the Coromandel; even the beautiful Esk Valley in Napier. For these regions, areas, have proven faulty in this brave new world of climate change. Vulnerable, and downright dangerous in many instances. The truth we all know is that we have to get out of vulnerable areas for our own safety and peace of mind.
    We ourselves are considering that, as we live in a city built on a flood plain. What happened in Napier can happen here. I learnt, in the midst of the crisis of Cyclone Gabrielle when it hit Hawkes Bay, that our city, as a matter of course, closes our kindergartens and other schools and early childhood centres which are right next to our Manawatu River; which, even though we had had little rain here, receives the floodwaters from the Hawkes Bay, the Pohangina and Mangahao Rivers so that the water comes very close to the top of the stopbanks; and they open the Moutoa Floodgates further dowstream so the water has a quicker exit to the sea. What happened in Napier with its 2 big rivers could happen here.
    So my advice to you, in the midst of all this, is, if you can, get out. Its a beautiful place, Auckland’s west coast – but you have to know when its time to leave. Perhaps these beauty spots should be left to the tourists, the nature lovers, the trampers – daytrips only.
    If you get offered a buy out by anyone, insurance (not likely I know) – government – take it. For your and your child’s safety and peace of mind.
    The world is changing. It is frustrating and almost idle (forgive me!) to criticise the ineptness of local bureaucracy (which is inevitable), the selfishness of neighbours. Look after yourself and your small family. Go somewhere safer when you can.

    With kind regards.

  4. Thanks Geoff. It has been a while since you commented here. It would have been nice to have a marae here but the makeshift community hub has worked pretty well. I hear what you saying about the colonial state but in this instance it is Auckland Council and a specific CCO that have left us down. In a sense we are being treated somewhat like second class citizens by the agencies that we fund via our taxes/rates.

  5. William.

    The likelihood of me voting NZF are akin to a snowball’s chance. I do not see how having Winnie back in would improve the situation out here.

  6. Regarding the Bailey bridges, the problem is that there are none!
    We’ve deployed the entire countries stock of them (about half a doz) to Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti, we sent them up there on the Canterbury the other week.
    Currently there are negotiations underway to acquire another 50 of them from the Americans, but until they get here, there simply isn’t any to deploy to Karekare.
    I’ll pass on your comments though, I’ve been keeping an eye on mentions of Karekare in the isolated communities data coming into the NCMC as it will always hold a place in my heart (Patrol4 for life!).

  7. Much thanks Dave, and hello again from one “old” guard to another. I appreciate your explanation that there are no Bailey Bridges to spare at the moment, but even if it takes some time for them to get here that would be worth the wait. I have a sense that NZDF engineers are more prone to developing quick fixes than their civilian CCO counterparts, so any military help would be welcome.

  8. Mmm, well what would you feel would be needed to progress towards an improved situation, either at central or local level? Some say that we do need to accept higher taxes and higher debt levels in order to get decent levels of investment in infrastructure and community services, any thoughts?

  9. William,

    For starters, I would subsume AT to AEM in times of declared crisis, and perhaps subordinate to or have broader oversight provided by NEMA so that requests for help from central agencies like NZDF/MoD by local emergency authorities can be better coordinated. I happen to also think that the necessary increases in funding for infrastructure improvements can come from a capital gains tax. I find it absurd that one has not been introduced–an anomaly in the developed world–but that also points to an ingrained Kiwi cultural trait: the N.8 wire syndrome and general miserliness. The N.8 wire syndrome has a down side in that people wait until things break before using improvised remedies in order to fix them rather than engage in preventative maintenance (as is the case with the power lines companies’ business model). On top of this, things gets done on the cheap, with quick fixes preferred to durable solutions (our roads are proof of that). All of these pathologies dovetail with a persistent resistance to raising taxes to cover collective goods like public infrastructure and transportation. The combination leads to situations like the one I am living through.

    The final aspect that needs to be reformed is the mindless cost-cutting by local councils and even some national-level public agencies pursuant to a now much discredited market-oriented (formerly known as neoliberal) approach to public sector management. The slash and burn approach to public finances, coupled with an obsession with cutting rates/taxes, has left large holes in the public pursue in many localities and cities. And with the idiot Mr. Brown now mayor of Auckland, we can expect that to be the case in the country’s largest city.

    And no, NZF is not part of the solution. Tt is part of the problem–a pseudo national-populist cult rife with corruption and nepotism posing as a political party.

  10. Excellent suggestions; and yes, it surely takes someone to come from from abroad to have the insight to analyse our characteristic failings,

  11. Much thanks Barbara, and my apologies for the delay in replying. Your advise is sage but I am reluctant to go. My wife, who teaches at a university in central Auckland, is more open to leaving. She does not drive so it has always been complicated getting her two and from the nearest transportation hubs along with school and soccer practices/games (the later all happen at least 30 minutes away). She has been able to negotiate a video teaching schedule this semester but will be required to teach in class in the second semester so we need to figure something out. It has caused some friction in the household because I want our son to finish primary at the local school 300 meters from our fence line–it is one of the few one room schools left in NZ and sits in the bush surrounding by paddocks for the kids to play one–and I want to enjoy the privacy and silence that comes with sitting on a lifestyle block with no neighbours within sight. The idea of going to suburbia is anathema to the life that I have constructed out here before and after I married.

    But options need to be considered. I am getting less mobile as the illnesses and injuries have taken their toll, which given that we are a homestead with many decks and stairs is increasingly difficult for me to navigate. But the house was undamaged by the storms and is solid, dry and very comfortable for all three of us, so there better be a compelling reason for me to leave the place.

    Hence, the months ahead will be a time for decisions for my family and I. Please wish us clarity of mind and openness of heart as we do so.

  12. William,

    I think that more than my foreign origins per se it is the fact that, having been raised in Latin America and spent my first 20 adult years studying and working in the US, my having lived in NZ on and off for 25 years is what gives me a wee bit of comparative perspective on it. Plus I have spent a fair bit of research leave in Southern Europe and lived in Singapore for 4 years as well, so it is that backdrop set against my grounding in Aotearoa that makes me comfortable to speak about it.

  13. Sorry to hear of your plight Pablo. Some of what you’re going to sounds horribly familiar. Road blocks in ChCh were very protracted and when certain CD staff needed to access the building they were working from 24/7, had to navigate and negotiate with Army and police in order to do what they needed to to help their community. Walking many kms each day, with regular changes to entry points, meant it was a very stressful situation. One colleague (who’d just finished her shift at St John’s) was threatened with arrest for trying to get through the cordon to go do a shift helping others as part of her CD requirement. Lack of communication between agencies was a thing too. My heart goes out to everyone in the situation you’re experiencing. It must feel like a very dark and uncertain tunnel you’ve entered.

    What has happened with Cyclone Gabrielle has also made me reflect that any changes to stormwater infrastructure should be the largest part of any 3Waters-type reforms. It cannot simply be an add-on without much thought, as it appeared to be in the first iteration.

    Wishing you and your family all the best.

  14. Pablo, I understand.
    I think there will be a window, medium-term, when we, as a country, and we, individually, can make changes, to where and perhaps how we live.

    And think about leaving Auckland. We have never regretted it, and there are beautiful and quiet yet accessible areas in the rest of the country. Auckland has huge problems at the moment. I think there have been a few rumblings as to whether the ‘supercity’ amalgamation has been a success … certainly reading about it this morning on newsroom and elsewhere, the ongoing walking debacle that is the current mayor, does not inspire confidence in the City’s ability to carry on and look after its people the way it should, to function like a normal city.

    There are other university towns … you don’t need to live in suburbia, I could not stand that either. Poor old PN where we now live bears the brunt of many jokes from near and far, but it is an easy city to live in, no traffic woes, we have room, a large ppty; everything, even the council, is very accessible. It has a brilliant and engaged public library which I would find difficult to live without. I think the city benefits from the presence of the university, there is an openness not found in other small cities. It changes its social (and intellectual) makeup. The emphasis is not all on commerce. And its central locality makes it easy to get to other regions, incl. the ‘lively capital’, Wellington ;-)
    Flood risk not withstanding lol (but its not all on the floodplain! there are some lovely more rural areas up around Massey, up by the hills… hills which remind me of Colin McCahon’s paintings ….)
    Its a quiet and unassuming place.

    Anyway, I do wish you all the best.
    You will have a little window, perhaps while your son finishes primary school.
    And do tell your wife to get her licence. With where you live and your family demographic she really needs to do that.

    With kind regards.

    PS will you be doing any of your broadcasts with Selwyn Manning this year?

  15. Every few years I see myself comparing total tax take ratios with other OECD countries and wondering how we can get away with such a low rate. I think we’re seeing part of the answer now in trying to do things on the cheap, especially at the local level, for so long.

    There is enormous potential to increase tax rates to pay for infrastructure, the kind of things that only government can do well.

    I’d also like to see a return of the Provinces and their provincial assemblies. At the moment the near total absence of political parties in local councils is seriously depressing the participation rates of voters. They would also be better able to resist the powerful urge to centralise that Wellington has.

    I hope you get your regular road access back soon Pablo.

  16. Thanks Barbara.

    TBH I had not thought of PN as a potential hometown. My in-laws have a place in Stratford but my inclination if we do move is to head north and hope that my wife can video lecture. As things stand we really cannot leave the Ak area since academic jobs are scarce in NZ and particularly in the sub-fields of pol. science that she research, writes and teaches in. I can consult from anywhere with a decent internet connection although access to major transportation hubs is a factor for both of us. We shall see what happens…

    Selwyn is a similar position as myself but over in the Hawk’s Bay. His property is Ok but infrastructure in the area has been badly damaged from what I gather. His mental state seems to be somewhat like mine–anywhere but on the podcast. I assume that we will eventually start up again but have put no time frame on that. I am making due by writing a bit and fretting a lot about my family’s short-to-medium term future. I would not be surprised if he is doing something in a similar vein.

  17. I agree with Barbara about PN. Our (now Welly based) family had their start there. Daughter in Law went to teach at Massey and so they made the move and we visited frequently. We found the city very accessible indeed – very walkable (I don’t drive either) from their home which was close to the CBD. Other family members had a lovely home up on the hills overlooking the river. I have always thought what an excellent environment it is for families in particular, as everything is so accessible. Housing stock appeared excellent too – although I know prices have increased as they have everywhere else. I know there are complaints about the weather, but it seems that everywhere is having issues with that now.

    We thought about moving up there (family asked us to after the quakes) but, in the end decided against it as we knew our family had plans to move on and indeed they did move to Wellington where they are very happy. If I were to choose between the two places, I’d choose Palmerston North (or some of the surrounding commutable towns) for all the reasons above.

    Best of luck with all of the issues you are facing at the moment Pablo.

  18. Thanks so much Di, a Palmerston advocate! It has got a lot of bad rap in the past, but is an interesting city … oddly enough after the comments of John Cleese a while back (some while back!), they named the ‘mound’ of the local tip after him (Mt. Cleese); as a dyed-in-the-wool gardener I go there regularly to buy compost; it has some of the best views in the City, over the river again, but from the western bank.
    And the weather has changed since I grew up here. It is more tolerable now, not so much of the prevailing westerlies. As a gardener again, it feels quite benevolent (touch wood).

    Also, re comments from James Green above, PN has several Green and Labour affiliated council members. They get elected and then re-elected, and then sometimes graduate to parliament. Having said that the participation rate in local voting is much the same as any other city, not great.

    And Pablo, regarding Stratford – I find the ‘Naki a tad conservative for me. We looked at housing up there for a while, it was (is) largely stuck in the 70’s, decor-wise; a bit of a shock to us. New Plymouth I also find a very commercial-oriented city. As an ex-hippie-graduate-70’s child I need to feel some kind of liberality in the place I live lol (not just the clinker brick internal archways and loud coloured, printed wallpaper to be objected to ) … with apologies to your wife, I am sure there are exceptions! NP has a great art gallery = Len Lye ;-) -…but there again, there was some controversy over that a while back from the local philistines …
    The mountain is beautiful.

    I am sorry about Selwyn, I did not realise he hailed from the Bay.

    There was a news item earlier on RNZ saying Karekare was to be reconnected by road quite soon – this week, it says. I presumed you would see that. Karekare actually featured in the headline, and I was pleased for you ….

    Cheers for now :-)

  19. Dear Pablo,

    I am sorry to hear this! Thank you for this update.

    I hope you are doing okay. Please do all you can to keep your spirits up!

    My heart goes out to the people in your community.

    I hope you can all be ‘squeaky wheels’, and kick up a polite but firm kiwi fuss with the politicians! Might a community letter to the Minister of Defence another tactic to get things moving? I heard a bit of gossip from one of the people at the road cordons the media were resorting to unscrupulous measures in an attempt to get to Piha/Karekare, could you zoom call a journalist with some ‘scoops’?

    I definitely think there is a strong need for clearer communication from Auckland Transport. This was one thing that was done so well during COVID-19, e. g. the daily briefings.

    I really feel for you, and it feels close to home, as I was recently out at Piha, clearing up mud and gravel that had washed down onto the property. I feel like my struggles were fairly minor, but I also found it stressful and difficult navigating the damaged and lengthy Te Henga detour as well as navigating the awkward and stressful A. T. road closure website.

    I’m very glad that your home hasn’t been damaged.

    My hope is that the road access to Karekare will be built back much better, when it is rebuilt. I know there are some pretty good examples of sturdily constructed roads in places like Arthur’s pass and Fiordland, and Mt Aspiring National park, designed for high rain and the possibility of slips.

    I do find it frustrating that Auckland Council’s long tradition of laid back, laissez-faire, neo-liberal approach to infrastructure is causing so many problems.

    They have been warned over and over again about the impacts of climate change.

    On a side note – I am just wondering, is there currently any walking access into Karekare? Or is it cut off via slips?

    Anyway, best wishes to you and your family.

  20. P. S. Just a thought, but I was just reading about how Auckland inner city apartments have reduced in price in the past year. Maybe a wee inner city ‘bach’ could be an option? If it is possible to work in the city a few days a week and then enjoy Karekare the rest of the time?

    You might be able to rent it when you aren’t using it. An inner city air bnb would be a lot more ethical than those shady types renting places amidst a natural hazard zone!

  21. Jovanella,

    We have discussed that option for a while now but cannot afford to do so given other financial commitments over the last year. That is partially why we are anxious about the thought of having to re-locate.

    Also, one can walk into Karekare on the closed roads and via the closed tramping tracks that traverse it. But it is. not recommended since the beach valley area has not been fully cleared.

  22. Come north Pablo. I live in a rural community near Matakana. Good beaches, fishes and walking. My wife commutes into Auckland on an electric bus. Infrastructure isn’t as vulnerable (relative to KareKare).

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