EDITORIAL: In the stilted language of official designations, the West Coast floods were swiftly assigned the label of a “medium-scale adverse event’’.
Medium. Such middling language may describe the scale of the adversity, by some standard, but hardly the intensity of it.
It surely doesn’t capture the stress and heartache many hundreds of Coasters are enduring.
It is, however, the perspective of a country that has been extravagantly tested by flood, quake, fire and pestilence. And the climatic components of that little lot have been hammering us with increasing frequency.
Each time, a twin set of questions arises. What now, and what next?
For all its challenges, the first may prove the less difficult.
At least our reactivity to emergency by now has a measure of careworn expertise. Experience is a harsh teacher, but New Zealand has scarcely lacked for learning opportunities.
Our support services – government, councils, the insurance industry and our communities, are seasoned performers and should be expected to perform as such.
There is no doubt that the famously strong sense of coastal community support will once more show up in spades. It’s also to be hoped that those who find themselves needing help will be increasingly willing to take what’s offered, informally and formally, rather than relying on isolated stoicism.
Practical and emotional needs will intertwine and, with hundreds of people around Westport alone now finding their homes uninhabitable for shorter or longer periods, the scale of displacement will put great stress on housing capacity.
The second question of what’s next is itself an urgent one.
We still have so much work to do to address the issue of how much more often the climate crisis will bring such assaults down on our heads.
Some of the flooding was due to rivers at record levels. We must expect more flooding events, and more serious ones at that.
After which, sure enough, the calls ring out for authorities to do more dredging, build bigger sea walls, and shore up river protection schemes.
These are at best medium-term fixes in a fight against nature, which we will increasingly lose.
Our coastal communities, those living near rivers, and certainly a lot of the hut communities at river mouths, stand increasingly vulnerable.
Less than a month ago Climate Change Commissioner Dr Judy Lawrence told a gathering at Nelson that a built-in inertia in New Zealand systems meant the country responded to events like coastal storms, rather than planning for them.
We are quite good, she said, at recovering, but the problem is when we recover we go back to where we were.
“We can’t live on the coast, in the way we are currently, forever.’’
There was a time, perhaps not all that long ago, when a warning such as this would have been widely dismissed as alarmist. Now it is simply an alarm, and a timely one.
Wilder weather is not on the horizon, it is now overhead. We cannot play Canute with sea level rises and red-alert heavy rainfall will assail us more and more.
Lawrence’s message is that we should not delay talking in terms of where it is safe enough to live. Some can afford to move and some can’t, as she acknowledges, but resource management, climate change and strategic planning legislation must be more clearly seen as survival instinct kicking in where it’s needed.