14 May 2024

New Zealand - Disaster resilience and tailored responses mitigate impact of Cyclone Gabrielle

In 2023, New Zealand recorded 14,000 internal displacements, its highest number since 2010. Cyclone Gabrielle, a category 3 storm, accounted for 11,000 of these when it struck North Island on 13 February. In a country more usually affected by floods, Gabrielle’s impacts were in many ways unprecedented. The event triggered ten times more displacements than all the storms in the previous five years combined. It caused more than $8bn in damage, making it the southern hemisphere’s costliest tropical cyclone.

The eastern region of Hawke’s Bay, home to 183,000 people, was the most affected with around 9,000 displacements. Strong winds and heavy rain caused power cuts and hindered communications, while floods and landslides damaged and destroyed roads, delaying rescue efforts and the emergency response, particularly for remote communities. This increased a push for greater local self-reliance, response mechanisms and infrastructure investment.

Map of 11,000 internal displacements by cyclone Gabrielle

In the months after Gabrielle, many IDPs registered for support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Temporary Accommodation Service, which assists households displaced by disasters to find safe, secure and accessible temporary accommodation while their homes are repaired or rebuilt. The government also supported recovery and reconstruction efforts, allocating resources to help local businesses reactivate the economy and providing families and individuals with financial support. Non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, including Māori communities, played an important role in supporting local-level initiatives to support recovery.

Around 70 per cent of damaged homes in Wairoa District were occupied by Māori whānau (families), many of whom were uninsured tenants. In acknowledgement of the burden borne by Māori communities and businesses, the government dedicated specific funds to those affected.

The extent of housing damage also led the government to develop a land categorisation system in affected areas to ensure homes would be rebuilt safely and better prepared for future disasters. The Hawke’s Bay regional council determined areas in which properties could simply be repaired by their owners, areas that required individual or community-level risk mitigation to make them safe, and those in which future risk was high enough that it may no longer be safe for people to live there. In the latter case, the government offered property owners a voluntary buy-out option.

Auckland, the country’s main metropolitan area, experienced its wettest January since 1853, which triggered floods in and around the city and led the city council to declare a state of emergency. Around 2,500 internal displacements were recorded. Gabrielle brought further heavy rain two weeks later, triggering another 1,500 displacements. Here too, the government provided temporary accommodation and offered financial support to those displaced.

Years of innovative climate and flood mitigation measures, including the expansion of permeable surfaces such as rain gardens, green roofs and wetlands around the city’s riverbeds helped to better manage water runoff. These initiatives are likely to have helped reduce losses and damages, as well as displacements.

Gabrielle’s impacts reinforced the need to continue implementing the country’s 2022 national adaptation plan, the first in a series that will be revised every six years. It is intended to identify risks and adaptation options, and to embed climate resilience in all government strategies, policies, planning and investment decisions. The storm was also a reminder of the importance of strengthening local-level initiatives to build resilience to similar events in the future.

For references and additional information, please see the full report.