The Auckland Anniversary Weekend monsoon deluge followed days later by ex-tropical cyclone Gabrielle must act as a turning-point for thinking about extreme weather events.
With the first event, heavy rain was forecast, but no-one was warned the city would get on average 250mm in 24 hours, exceeding the previous record in a day by 90mm. Why was that? For Gabrielle, all the warnings were in place.
High quality, consistent forecasting and being prepared in advance are critical to reduce the immediate risks to people and property.
Let’s raise awareness about how often these events can occur. Talking about 1-in-100 year or 1-in-200 year floods is misleading. It does not mean a flood will occur only once every 100 or 200 years. It means that in any given year there is a 1% or 0.5% chance a flood of a certain intensity will occur or be exceeded. Such floods can occur three years in a row!
Someone taking out a mortgage for 25 years has almost a 1:4 chance of experiencing a 1-in-100-year intensity flood during that term.
Surprise is the new normal. Last year was the costliest year for insurance losses from extreme weather events at over $350 million – the third consecutive year of record losses due to weather. We don’t know the final insured losses from either the anniversary weekend weather bomb or Gabrielle for Auckland and the upper North Island. What we can say is that insured losses from these two events will exceed 2022’s total by hundreds of millions of dollars and by many thousands more claims.
Infrastructure was woefully unprepared for what happened. The gateway to New Zealand, the international airport, had to shut down. The motorway north from the city was flooded in both directions. Water levels increased dramatically in minutes as stormwater systems proved totally ineffectual. People died.
Clifftop properties collapsed or teetered precariously on the edge. Sodden land caused landslips wiping out homes.
Much has been done to make cities more resilient to earthquakes. Rightly so. We live in the shaky isles and we know just how devastating they can be. Building standards reflect seismic risks and still need improving as we understand more about those risks.
Flooding, our most frequent natural hazard, has never had the same level of attention. Some authorities continue to consent development in flood plains. Stormwater drains fail, leading to swift rivers of water wreaking widespread destruction.
There is no excuse now for not knowing how damaging extreme weather can be. We also know these events will be more impactful and more frequent in the years to come. It is time reducing the risks from climate change is given as much attention as has been applied by central and local government to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
So, with climate change and the experience of what extreme can look like, now is the time to build a more resilient country.
Across the Tasman, in the wake of catastrophic flooding and bushfires, the Insurance Council of Australia has successfully got the federal government on board to create a Hazards Insurance Partnership.
Insurers want to see greater investment in community infrastructure to prevent flooding, programmes to retrofit homes to make them more resilient, buybacks of homes where no suitable mitigant exists, changes to land use planning so no more homes are built in harm’s way, strengthening the building code, and the removal of levies and taxes on insurance.
The Australian Government has also committed to a AU$1 billion disaster ready fund.
General insurers are uniquely placed to understand the impact of worsening extreme weather on New Zealand communities, as well as the solutions needed to reduce risk.
Now is the time to act.