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Collective, integrated approach needed to manage risks from natural hazards – insurance boss

Debris piled up in front of a damaged house in Wairoa

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Debris piled up in front of a damaged house in Wairoa after Cyclone Gabrielle.
Photo: Nathan McKinnon

Local and central government are being told to push pause on rebuild plans post cyclone and either upgrade out of date infrastructure or avoid rebuilding in at risk areas altogether.

The Insurance Council of New Zealand Te Kāhui Inihua o Aotearoa has said the insured losses from the recent extreme weather events would exceed the comparable losses for all of 2022 – which in itself was a record year for insured losses from extreme weather.

The total economic losses from recent climate events were expected to run into the billions of dollars.

Suncorp NZ, which includes the Vero and Asteron Life insurance brands, has now received 1200 claims from Cyclone Gabrielle, on top of the more than 12,500 claims it has received from the severe flooding in the North Island last month.

However, chief executive Jimmy Higgins said in the long term, simply hiking insurance premiums in at-risk areas or refusing to insure people living in them would be a complete disservice to New Zealanders.

At-risk areas instead needed to be reassessed and future proofed, he said.

“When we think about developing land and the consenting of the developments, we need to be thinking about the broader catchment areas and the upstream and downstream modifications and impact to catchment areas that those particular developments are likely to have,” he said.

“We need to be thinking about communities in the context of not the numbers and population today, but the population in the future and what does that mean, in terms of how we build, where we build and the standards to which we build, including the below surface stormwaters and the like.”

Higgins said a collective and integrated approach was needed across local and central government, businesses and community groups to manage the risks from natural hazards, which were expected to increase and intensify under climate change.

“When you look at New Zealand today, there’s about 12 pieces of legislation that places responsibility on various government agencies for flood risk management,” he said.

“We’ve got the Resource Management Act, the Building Act, the EQC Act, the Local Government Act, the Land Drainage Act, the list goes on.

“But they’re not all joined up, and so we need to have a joined-up, integrated approach across all levels of government and private industry, who are interested in building sustainable communities delivering economic prosperity for New Zealanders, and by economic prosperity, I mean that insurance for those that seek it is available and affordable.”

The Insurance Council of New Zealand said on Thursday it had been in touch with Parliament’s Environment Select Committee, which was considering the Natural and Built Environment Bill which contained draft provisions to reduce risks from natural hazards as a condition of rebuilding after a disaster.

Chief executive Tim Grafton said the legislation would not fully come into effect for several years, however.

“The question that should be asked now is whether we can afford to wait till this Bill and accompanying legislation to replace the RMA, the Spatial Planning and Climate Change Adaptation Bills, take effect,” he said.

The infrastructure in most affected communities was decades old and no longer fit to withstand future hazards, Grafton said.

“Massive and sustained investment is required to address that,” he said.

“Future development needs to take a long view – houses are built to last 50 years or more.

“It is time to draw a very clear line in the sand and not consent to build in dumb places and in a way that can’t cope with what’s to come.”

Higgins agreed that money invested in risk reduction now would save thousands when future disasters eventuated, but said it was important incoming legislation would properly address future risks.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we can do today that you don’t really need a piece of legislation to do,” Higgins said.

He said dedicated taskforce to respond to disasters and future-proof areas could be stood up quickly – something he saw when the Brisbane River flooded before Cyclone Yasi tore through north Queensland in 2011.

“In Queensland in particular, there’s always been a sort of a task force set up by a local government authority that coordinates the recovery aspect of the event, that involves government agencies and private industry working together and communicating up through a centralized body of the obstacles, challenges, blockages that are preventing the speed of recovery.

“I have find that to be helpful in the past and again, following the Queensland disasters, the Queensland Government set up a Reconstruction Authority, that’s now a permanent body within the government and has a vision of being stronger, safer and more resilient for Queensland communities.

“The authority has a purpose of coordinating the resilience, leading disasters, but also leading the resilience and development policy to further improve the protection of residents of Queensland, and so that’s an effective organization that does look at the longer term view of of those communities and and plan ahead.

“So there are models out there that do support a coordinated effort for disasters, such as what we’re seeing right now in New Zealand.”

Higgins planned to travel to Hawke’s Bay on Friday with Suncorp colleagues to assess the needs of their customers there.

The company was prioritising customers in the worst-hit areas and offering support to vulnerable residents that needed immediate shelter and support, he said.

National Emergency Management Agency advice:

  • Put safety first. Don’t take any chances. Act quickly if you see rising water. Floods and flash floods can happen quickly. If you see rising water do not wait for official warnings. Head for higher ground and stay away from floodwater.
  • Do not try to walk, play, swim, or drive in floodwater: even water just 15 centimetres deep can sweep you off your feet, and half a metre of water will carry away most vehicles.
  • If you have evacuated, please stay where you are until you are given the all-clear to go home.
  • If you don’t need to evacuate, support those who do by staying home, staying off roads and staying safe.
  • If you are not able to contact your whānau in the heavily affected areas go to Police 105 website and complete the inquiry form or phone 105 and remember to update if you reconnect through other means.
  • Throw away food and drinking water that has come into contact with floodwater as it is often contaminated and can make you sick.
  • If you are without power eat the food from your fridge first, then your freezer. Then eat the food in the cupboard or your emergency kit.
  • People should stay up to date with the forecasts from MetService and continue to follow the advice of civil defence and emergency services.
  • A National State of Emergency is in place for an initial period of seven days and applies to regions that have declared a local State of Emergency.

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