Strategies for surviving mother nature's wrath

03:17, Sep 05 2012

Clutching a rope strung high above the Graham Valley, I fossicked for my footing on the steep slippery slope. I misjudged my foothold, slipped and swung out over the valley before landing awkwardly on my back with my camera bag tangled in tree roots.

"Good thing you hung on to that rope," said the Conservation Department ranger behind me, no doubt imagining the PR fallout had I plunged down the slope.

I got a brief rush of adrenaline but I don't think I was in any real danger.

However, the stumble did emphasise the risks being taken by the contractors clearing a massive slip that has wiped out the road up the Graham Valley.

We were clambering up the slope opposite the slip to visit Nikita Hubber, who was acting as the spotter for her boss, Dusty Diggers owner Barry Mogford.

Protected from the heavy rain by only a small bivouac, she was attached by a harness to a rope anchored to the steep cliff face. From her precarious perch, she kept an eagle eye on the unstable rocks above where Barry works and radioed him if she saw any rocks moving toward him.


Her predecessor as spotter had his arm shattered by a falling rock when he was working below the slip.

Nikita, who had only a small MP3 player for company on her vigils, had to concentrate hard because even small rocks could do a lot of damage to Barry's 24-tonne digger, and to Barry himself.

A large dent showed where it had been hit by a falling rock, and all the cab's windows except the front one been smashed by flying stones, some as small as a golf ball.

DOC had taken me up the Graham Valley to visit the slip and some of the families who had been cut off by the 20,000 cubic metres that had come sliding down over the road on the night of June 24.

Since then, there had been at least three more slips in the same place and residents estimated at least twice as much material had come down.

Their only way out was to pick their way carefully over the slip face, a roiling mix of mud and rocks, some the size of a Mini, piled about 15 metres deep on top of the original road.

Because the slip is unstable, in wet weather most of the residents chose to stay put, for fear that the limited access they had would be destroyed before they returned.

On Karsten and Elfriede Schroeder's patio were the signs of emergency preparedness: a hard hat and bottles of water. His wife had been unable to get to work for several weeks and when her leave ran out, they were planning on living without an income until access was restored.

That was because, although she could sometimes get out, the uncertainty made it hard for her employer to schedule her and they didn't want to make it more awkward for them.

They were grateful to the employer for their flexibility and were also full of praise for the road's custodians, DOC and the local council, and especially for the workers clearing the slip, who were "risking their lives every day", said Karsten.

The Schroeders and the other stranded family I met, the Rileys, had both lived high in the valley for about 15 years.

They were well equipped to deal with their fate and not inclined to complain about it. In short, they were resilient, a buzzword these days.

Had they been complaining, I might have been tempted to reach for another word to describe those whose homes sit perched at the top of steep valleys or on cliffs next to wild oceans or on the edge of rain-soaked Nelson hills: hubris.

That Greek word describes the fall that comes from displaying excess pride in the face of the Gods. It used to occur to me while watching million-dollar Malibu mansions being eroded by the Pacific ocean, or wildfires over-running similar mansions built high in the Malibu canyons that are tinderbox dry over the summer.

But I was not immune. My house in Northern California sat directly on the Hayward fault, said to be more likely than the famous San Andreas fault to be the site of the next massive California earthquake and now I live beside the flood-prone Motueka River.

As we are seeing from the increased frequency of extreme weather events (hello Hurricane Isaac, Golden Bay floods, Nelson slips), none of us is immune from mother nature's wrath.

Who would have predicted that Christchurch, where I had long thought the only natural risk was dying of boredom, would turn out to be a seismological hotspot?

We all have a lot to learn from the practical stoicism of those Graham Valley families.

I tend to think of people like that as rugged pioneers, who have moved to remote places partly to escape society. But perhaps they are really bellwethers at the leading edge of society, whose experiences may visit us all.

Wild weather, food shortages, fights over water - it's enough to turn us all into survivalists.

At the turn of the millenium, I was dumbfounded by an otherwise sensible friend who, fearing the havoc he expected Y2K to bring, bought huge bags of rice and beans that he stored in his garage, imagining he would feed the neighbourhood when the apocalypse arrived.

I don't think a programming glitch will be the end of civilisation.

But natural disasters will give it a good hammering. The more we can cope ourselves, the better prepared we will be.

Perhaps all of us, no matter how urban, should learn to walk that fine line between practicality and screaming fricking hippie.