Monday, 30 July 2018
Tolaga Bay: A History of Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Wind, Water, Wood and Earth

The Tolaga Bay Flood

Author: Craig Kenney

The 2018 Tolaga Bay flood was a disaster, making it the Gisborne region’s worst storm of the year so far. While flooding in the area is a common and natural part of the cycle of the land, the damage that occurred this time was far from usual. Was this damage the result of climate change, a freak act of nature, irresponsible use of a particularly delicate landscape, or all the above? No straight answer is yet forthcoming and, it is unlikely the answer will be simple when we eventually have one. Investigations are underway to figure this out. Meanwhile, recovery teams have been working around the clock to support those affected.

But what happened?

This year, early in the morning on the 4th of June the people of Tolaga Bay and surrounding regions (Te Karaka, Waiomatatini and Whangara) woke to the thunderous roar of water cascading through their property. The previous evening, while most of them slept, heavy rain (well over 200ml in some areas) fell hard and fast onto the surrounding hills. The Hikuwai river’s water level rose dramatically, from its usual 4-metre depth to 12.5 metres. Other rivers in the region were affected in much the same way. With this catastrophic rain came debris, slash and logs from local forestry catchments. This added to the overall damage and provided unique challenges for the cleanup crews that Gisborne District Council deployed. Farms, houses, roads, bridges and beaches were all affected by the flooding. Silt covered huge areas of grazing pastures. It is the families who have had their houses buried in silt that bore the brunt of the flood damage. Fortunately, despite the sheer scale of the destruction and the vast movements of the water, no lives were lost. Tensions may be high, and frustration had peaked in many, but New Zealand breathed a collective sigh of relief over the absence of fatalities.

According to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), the magnitude of these extreme weather conditions could maintain, becoming an all too common trend. NIWA's principal forecasting scientist, Chris Brandolino, described 2017 as an unusual year considering the data they had collected, with extreme weather events being the norm. "Lots of extremes was the theme in 2017 between rainfall and dryness and with the end of the year ending in drought across the lower North Island,” said Brandolino. While the extent and regularity of these “extreme” events are almost impossible to accurately predict, Brandolino recently warned, "Going ahead into the future we expect there will be more extreme events, be it temperatures, be it dryness, or extreme rainfall events.”

On the topic of relief

Gisborne District Council (GDC), the local forestry companies (Ernslaw One, Hikurangi and PF Olsen) and emergency response teams launched a variety of rapid operations. The saving of lives was absolutely the top priority, followed by restoring roads and bridges to operational capacities. Once these tasks were complete, teams set to work clearing farms of excess silt and debris. Meanwhile, a recovery plan was being drawn up by the GDC and a programme called Enhanced Taskforce Green was deployed. Alongside this task force, the GDC plans to focus on meeting the housing needs of the affected, supporting the health and wellbeing of victims, repairing essential infrastructure and the removal of debris and restoration, among other actions.

The next steps forward

While this all sounds promising, some locals are still suffering. Unfortunately, this is to be expected after a disaster event of this magnitude. Now that the dust has settled though, some affected citizens have started to blame forestry companies as the cause of the debris accumulation that ultimately led to the damage. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification currently sits with each of the three major commercial forestry bodies involved in the region (Ernslaw One, Hikurangi and PF Olsen) and is actively involved in assessing what happened to reach conclusions. While FSC standards are designed to prevent the sort of erosion and debris witnessed in this flooding, it is currently uncertain whether the protocols put in place could ever have stood up to the amount of rain the region was exposed to. The auditing agencies that assess forest managers compliance with FSC standards were contacted immediately and investigations are already underway to determine what, if anything, could have been done to prevent or mitigate the destruction that occurred. Any information gleaned from this will be used in future standard development groups. The goal of this being to reduce the impact on communities, forests and mills of these sorts of weather events.

© Forest Stewardship Council® · FSC® F000201