Quake-hit residents now face flood risk

21:41, Jun 03 2013
NEW THREAT: Flooding along Anzac Drive.

Are Christchurch people having houses repaired where they can expect to be swamped by high waters in another few years? JOHN McCRONE reports.

Down in Brooklands, pink paint stripes mark the power poles at about chest height. How high the "stayers" would have to lift their houses to be above the council's 1-in-200-year flood mark.

Over in South New Brighton, worried residents are poring over Lidar charts - the aerial radar mapping of post-earthquake ground levels - to see where the water will get to if it over-runs their sunken stopbanks and spreads along their sunken roads.

In Sumner, Parklands and Avondale, even way up river in Fendalton, homeowners have been realising what it might mean: after the earthquakes, Christchurch has dropped by 20 to 30 centimetres in many places and, in others, by quite a lot more.

Flooding was always Christchurch's major natural hazard - a more immediate threat than earthquakes. But after four big quakes and, faced with a metre of sea-level rise over the next century, many more properties have become vulnerable to tidal surges and overflowing rivers.

And the question is, are the authorities doing enough? Is Christchurch's recovery taking sufficient account of its increased flood risk or are people having houses repaired where they can expect to be swamped by brackish muddy waters within a few short years?


It could be just a sign of the dark times, but there is widespread suspicion of a dodge and cover-up going on.

Evan Smith of Eastern Visions and the Avon-Otakaro Network (AvON) says insurance companies are trying to fix houses as they stand, even where the ground has fallen inside an official flood management area. And no-one seems to be warning homeowners to consider the long-term consequences.

"There are people on TC3 land in the flood plain and they are aware of their TC3 issues but not yet in many cases aware of their flood- plain issues because nobody's wanting to rock that boat.

"There should be a managed retreat from the affected areas. But ultimately it's too expensive. For the Government, there's so much else happening that it's leaving it up to the individual households."

Brian Parker, of the Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network (CanCern), feels just as strongly.

Parker says he has had five months of run-around from the Government's Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and Christchurch City Council in trying to get detailed ground-level information.

"It is a big thing when it comes to people being knowledgeable about the right questions to be asking at the moment. The residents have become bystanders who have a strong feeling they're being shafted."

Burwood-Pegasus Community Board chairwoman Linda Stewart, who has been struggling to get information on the flood risks of her own Parklands home, says the city's red-zoners are looking the lucky ones now because those remaining on affected land are liable to have insurance patch-ups rather than proper rebuild solutions.

"People living in the flood areas are in a dark place. Because what you could have here afterwards is a big slum."

Stewart says the Government's big promise was that the equity of people's property would be protected.

Yet, unless there are payouts that allow houses to be lifted and put on solid foundations, there is the real prospect of the council slapping on hazard notices at some later date, making people's homes uninsurable and unsellable.

Fears are rising rapidly in the east. The flooding issue is being seen as the latest symptom of how the residential recovery is being "smoke and mirrored".

Call it the Campbell Live effect perhaps. Everyone has witnessed the pain of east Christchurch residents in John Campbell's caravan of despair, the trail of emails winding out of TV3's studio door.

But are the authorities handling the recovery improperly? Are they captive to the wishes of the insurance industry, looking for the fastest exit from an overwhelming problem? Where does the truth lie in a very complicated situation? ? ? ? Go talk to Hugo, people say. He has got the facts.

He presented to a meeting of the South New Brighton Residents' Association a month back. Then last week, he took his concerns to the Burwood-Pegasus Community Board. More than anyone else, Hugo is the guy who will get the community mobilised.

Hugo Kristinsson turns out to be a 51-year-old Icelandic computer consultant who migrated to Christchurch with his wife Emma Magnusdottir and two children 18 years ago. Their house in Blake St, South New Brighton, borders the estuary.

Kristinsson's view of things is simple. Insurers are not honouring their responsibilities, he says. The laws of the land are being flouted.

With the complicity of Cera and the council, houses are being repaired in a shoddy, dangerous fashion, and the owners will find that the future financial liability for this is being quietly passed on to them.

"I had a blind trust in the Government and council before this event. But, today, that trust has just gone. I don't trust anything they say," Kristinsson rumbles.

The issue is floor levels. The Building Act requires consented new building to be built high enough to avoid the risk of a 1-in-50-year flood event.

Then over the top of that, in the parts of Christchurch most prone to tidal surge flooding, the council has instituted a new 1-in-200-year flood level.

Because sea-level rise caused by climate change will increase the inundation risk for coastal and rivermouth settlements over the next century, flood-management areas have been written into the district plan that require consented buildings to have floors "11.8m above Christchurch datum" - a drainage standard meaning around 3m higher than current sea level.

Yet Kristinsson says the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has come out with a set of rebuilding guidelines that will allow a considerable degree of house and even foundation repair without heed of flood risk. Rather than paying out for homes to be raised above whichever official watermark applies, insurers will be able to fix houses at their existing floor levels, even where the land has sunk and the quakes are directly responsible for increasing future risk.

"This is a major deception that is going on. The guidelines that the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and Fletchers are working with, and what's been done with the consenting process, means that all the risk and liability for the houses and the land are going to end up on the residents."

Kristinsson has been steadily amassing his evidence. A wad of charts and print-outs is tucked under his arm. But looking out his second floor window, you can see the problem plainly.

Across a swampy stretch of grass is the low stop-bank holding back a swollen Avon River. Kristinsson says his house used to sit atop a small crest, yet now the section has subsided half a metre. The level of the river looks pretty much the same as his garden.

Kristinsson was in fact building his second-floor extension when the February 22 quake hit. "The roof was off." But February caused no real damage and engineers said it was safe to finish up.

Then came the June and finally December's magnitude-5.8 earthquake. "Yeah, the last one happened pretty much under the house," says Kristinsson ruefully. That was when the land really dropped and his home ended up half-tipped off its piles.

Like most people, at first Kristinsson waited patiently for the authorities to act. Bexley just across the water, and parts of Southshore further along the estuary margin, were red-zoned. South New Brighton was first orange, then eventually went green.

Most of Kristinsson's neighbourhood, several-hundred properties, was deemed TC3, needing special liquefaction-proof foundations. But the early reports spoke only vaguely about a small degree of land drop.

Kristinsson was alerted it could be worse when he noticed stormwater flowing back the wrong way and ponding in the reserve next door.

He started to badger Cera's geotechnical experts, Tonkin and Taylor, and finally had it confirmed his house had dropped 55cm. To get it right with the council's 1-in-200-year flood level, his ground floor would have to be raised about 80cm.

Yet when he got on to his insurer, Southern Response, it was having none of it. Southern Response said that, if Kristinsson's house had been badly enough damaged to demand a full rebuild, then a council consent would be required and insurance would have had to pay to achieve the flood-plain height.

However, as simply a repair, the foundations only needing relevelling, his increased flood risk was not its problem.

"That's not right," says Kristinsson. "We've paid our insurance and the policy says 'as new'. But they just want to straighten the house and walk away."

The more Kristinsson considered the implications, the more his alarm grew.

He found statements in regional plans that warned stopbanks and other coastal defences will not be used to combat climate-change sea- level rise. Low-lying property owners needed to expect a national policy of steady retreat.

Checking council bylaws, Kristinsson discovered the council could turn around and issue a hazard notice on his property in a few years' time. With that, insurance cover would likely be withdrawn, any outstanding mortgage immediately called in.

And, with the insurance repairs unconsented, the council would hold no Building Act liabilities. There would be no-one to come back on. "We could lose everything."

That was when Kristinsson started spreading the word. Tonkin and Taylor admitted some 140 other South New Brighton properties had sunk at least 25cm as a result of the quakes.

Karen Atkinson just up his road was on the verge of agreeing to a $280,000 repair job on her home. She called a rapid halt after her insurer told her that, if she wanted her house lifted, she would have to pay for it herself.

"Why the hell should I remortgage myself just to get out of a flood zone when it's not my fault?" Atkinson asks.

In Cradock St, local Civil Defence leader James Vivian-Neal is now worrying too. His section has dropped but, because his whole house has to be jacked up to fix the foundations, he is hoping he can persuade his insurer to add the extra height.

"The property in front of me was thinking of building a garage and was told it would have to be a metre higher. That gives an indication of how far we would have to go."

Eastern Visions' Smith says this seems a basic injustice. The recovery was meant to be fair to everyone, but now it is becoming apparent Christchurch will have winners and losers.

Indeed, in a few years, you will be able to see this just walking down the streets in flood- management areas. Smith says depending on who got a repair, who got a rebuild, "you'll have one house right down below the flood plain, the next one built right up high on stilts. It will be all a hotch- potch."

Smith says the red-zoning was at least a collective solution for damaged suburbs. But now the recovery is turning into a grinding individual battle where property owners will need to fight the insurance system to get what they deserve. "If we focus on individual households like this, we're going to get a total mess. The flood-plain problem should be looked at strategically at a global level. There needs to be a neighbourhood-wide approach on this." ? ? ? Ah, so you have been talking to Hugo, says Patrick Schofield, the council's technical services building manager. Schofield has his own plump file in front of him, much of it recent correspondence with Kristinsson.

Officials are keen to answer questions, put concerns to rest.

In Cera's eighth floor boardroom, no less than three city council team leaders, three Tonkin and Taylor geotechnical experts, EQC principal adviser Peter Fraser and Cera's deputy chief executive Diane Turner have turned out for an interview.

Their bottom line is quickly spelt out. There has been nothing secretive here, they say. Don't exaggerate the extent of the changes. Insurance companies cannot be made responsible for betterment. The decisions have been carefully thought out. And parts of the response are still working their way through.

Cera's Turner says the first general point is that most of the properties were below, and even well below, any flood management height long before the earthquakes.

They already did not comply with flood-management-area standards. And the earthquakes only added another 770 properties to that number.

"The flood risk existed before the earthquakes so, in some respects, nothing has changed for a lot of these properties," Turner says.

He says insurance companies have to abide by the building act and district plan, but there is no requirement in those regulations to future-proof a house against climate change unless there is a full rebuild.

"Owners always have an opportunity to make changes, to seek betterment. All over Christchurch people are adding bedrooms or double garages as insurance work is done.

"But then they need to be prepared to pay for that themselves. They can't expect for improvements to be paid for by someone else."

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton confirms that well understood insurance principles are at stake.

Grafton says New Zealand is unique in having the EQC insuring people for land damage. "That is absolutely novel in the world." And for Christchurch, it is a great advantage. However, it is also complicating people's expectations, he says.

Grafton says private insurance covers only the structure of a house and so any consideration of damage must rightfully start with that. The general decision of repair or rebuild depends entirely on the condition the building is found in. Then, once that choice is made, the insurer can look at the land to see whether returning the structure to "as new" is indeed possible.

Grafton says that, if insurers instead began with the state of the land, they could end up having to build brand new homes even where the earthquake had resulted in nothing more than cracked Gib or a missing pile. The insurance industry cannot be held responsible for houses that have previously been constructed at levels now considered a future flooding risk.

As for Kristinsson's fears about hazard notices and insurance difficulties, Grafton says the real world does not work that way.

He says insurance companies have already promised they will continue to reinsure any property that they repair, even if it is below flood-management heights or on TC3 land. And councils respond to political pressure, so it is impossible to imagine the city not maintaining its stopbanks or taking other steps to protect areas that have sunk but remain inhabited.

Grafton says that, given the stress residents are under, it is no surprise they may be lacking trust and fearing the worst. However, it is in everyone's interest to reach sensible solutions.

Ticking off some of the other concerns, the city council's Schofield says the information on household ground levels is in fact freely available online.

He says there was no special publicity given to flood- management areas simply because they were not something new and council staff are always happy to give advice on people's individual cases. On the fairness of people losing out because their land has dropped significantly - as with Kristinsson and his 55cm subsidence - EQC's Fraser says there is in fact a compensation deal in the pipeline.

Fraser says EQC has accepted its land damage cover should pay out on both liquefaction and increases in flood risk. He says the details are still being worked on, yet worst-affected owners should get something that could be used to pay for fill or higher foundations.

Returning to bottom lines, Turner says the Government's position is that there is an insurance process in place and it just needs to be allowed to do its job. Green-zoned areas like South New Brighton have sufficient land strength to remain inhabitable, so now it is up to the EQC and private insurers to sort out each property case by case.

Questions have to be asked in the correct order. Is a house a repair or a rebuild? If a rebuild, what are the regulations around floor levels and foundations? If the rebuild then looks uneconomic because the land is too soggy or too much fill is required, should the householder be paid out to buy a whole new home elsewhere? Methodical and by the book.

However, the official answers are unlikely to satisfy. Kristinsson believes there is a clear injustice happening and it will soon be challenged in the courts. MBIE's guidance is stretching the consenting process beyond what is fair.

So the flood-risk issue may be only the latest grievance to develop on the east side. However, don't expect this one to go away.

Quakes mean lower-lying Christchurch already faces next big problem

Christchurch's problem is that it got about 50 years of sea level rise in a single year says National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) climate researcher Rob Bell.

Much of the city slumped by 20 to 30cm, while properties near rivers and estuaries sank by up to 1 metre. And 1m is how much sea level is predicted to rise due to global warming and melting polar ice over the next century.

Every centimetre makes a difference, Bell warns.

"With just a 30cm sea level rise, a fairly rare event like one that occurs once in a hundred years may become something that occurs every two or three years. And when you get to a half metre rise, it becomes something that will occur once or twice a year.

"It doesn't take very big sea level increases to really ramp up the frequency of these events."

So a lower-lying Christchurch is already facing what was going to be tomorrow's next big problem. And what is complicating the recovery for Christchurch is that coincidentally on the eve of the quakes, it brought in new planning restrictions in an attempt to deal with future sea rises.

Bell says the whole country is having to think about how it is going to cope with climate change. The official projection is that the sea is going to rise 80cm by 2100 and 1m by 2115.

So New Zealand has two options. Either it can wall its cities behind dykes or mount a "managed retreat". In other words, accept the sea will take people's land. And realistically, the first is not an option.

"We may spend to hold the line, buy some time with stopbanks and sea walls," Bell says. But as spelt out in the 2010 New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, the general plan is to rely on land use regulations that will steadily move Kiwi homeowners back from the sea over the next century.

Bell says there are a number of tools local authorities could employ. Endangered coastal properties could be bought and rented back at a good rate until the sea eventually washed them away.

But so far councils are only considering the less expensive route of using zoning rules to force people to lift homes over time and halt development in risky areas.

Auckland, Tauranga and the Kapiti Coast have recently begun looking at such laws. However Christchurch City Council (CCC) has been ahead of the game. It began talking about the issue in 2003 and was ready to pass Variation 48 of the District Plan about when the earthquakes hit.

Variation 48 drops a "1 in 200 year" Flood Management Area (FMA) over the map of Christchurch. Any extension or rebuilding of an existing home, and every new home, has to be completed with a floor level some 3m above current sea level.

CCC land drainage operations manager Mike Gillooly says over the course of a century, the FMA would have done much to move houses out of the way of potential climate-change flooding.

"A lot of houses would be rebuilt over a hundred years, so properties would have gradually been lifted to meet the goal."

Now however, the FMA rules have become a complication for those repairing houses in affected parts of Christchurch. Home owners also need to consider the Building Act's current lesser 1 in 50 year flood level requirements.

There are other problems. The FMA's boundaries have yet to be updated to take into account the way the land has actually dropped in the earthquakes. Another 770 properties probably ought to be within its zoning.

Also, because Variation 48 was based on early climate science, it allows for only a 50cm sea level rise by 2100, not the 80cm that Niwa currently recommends.

So building higher than even the council's official watermark would seem a sensible idea in Christchurch's flood-risk suburbs.

The Press