Houses trashed, lives ruined, anxiety through the roof. A group of homeowners in Auckland has suffered two debilitating floods in two years. Now they’re pleading with the council and the government: Buy us out. Kirsty Johnston reports.
This story was first published on Stuff.
At the first sign of rain, West Auckland mother Amrita Banger begins to obsessively check her phone.
She loads the weather app, and if the forecast is bad, and she’s at home, she will go outside and move her car to higher ground.
If she’s at work, she will turn on the cameras that monitor the stream near her house, and watch anxiously in case the water begins to rise.
“It’s at the point where I can’t sleep if it’s raining. My anxiety is through the roof. And it’s been like this for a year-and-a-half,” Amrita says. “I just want my life back.”
Amrita and her husband Rupinder bought their house on Candia Rd in Swanson two years ago. The day after they moved in, the neighbours told them it was prone to flooding.
Their three-bedroom home is in a hollow, next to a stream, but the LIM report only mentioned the risk of a 1 in 100 year event. The real estate agent also hadn’t warned them of danger.
The first few times it rained heavily, the aftermath wasn’t so bad. The stream would rise and recede quickly. But in August 2021, when Amrita was 39 weeks pregnant, the water rose so fast she and Rupinder got trapped inside the house.
It was midnight, and in the pitch black with the water more than a metre deep. The fire service were unable to reach them. A week later, Amrita delivered baby Jovan. By then her anxiety had already kicked in.
For 18 months, she checked and re-checked MetService, often waking in the middle of the night. On January 27 this year, Amrita’s worst nightmares came true.
A huge downpour hit Auckland, and didn’t let up. Around 2.30pm, Amrita raced home to check on the house. The water was already pooling around the bridge on their driveway.
Rupinder packed a bag for the baby – who was still at daycare – and handed it across to his wife. When he came back outside with a second bag five minutes later, the water was so high he couldn’t get across.
Amrita watched as the water drew higher and higher, and Rupinder eventually disappeared from view.
“I couldn’t see him anywhere. I thought I’d lost him,” Amrita says. By then, she was standing on the other side of the floodwaters, screaming. As she waited, a neighbour’s tiny house floated down the street.
Rupinder eventually made it to safety, escaping out a window at the back of the house to a neighbour’s property, after the water inside reached his waist. But the couple are clear: they can’t live here any more, it’s too dangerous. And neither should anyone else.
‘We lost everything’
Amrita and Rupinder are part of a group of West Auckland homeowners in the Swanson stream catchment asking authorities to step in and buy their flood-affected properties, so they can leave.
West Auckland Is Flooding (WAIF) is advocating for a “managed retreat” – a process where people are relocated, and their properties turned into parks or reserves.
The campaign is backed by the MP for Te Atatu Phil Twyford, who has been working with about 60 families in eight neighbourhoods in the Swanson catchment since the floods in 2021.
A report found the flooding was partly due to blockages in the Waimoko stream, and partly due to geography and the overpowering force of the “1 in 100 year” flood.
Aftwards, Twyford petitioned the council to put in place a management plan for the stream, which it seemed keen to do.
But by early this year, nothing concrete had happened, and the residents had instead focused on repairing their homes – many living in makeshift accommodation while the rebuilds were underway.
One homeowner, Tracey Pilgrim and her husband lived in a container at their Urlich Rd property for a year. The August 2021 flood had damaged their house so badly the insurance company wrote it off entirely.
Worse, when the insurers eventually paid their claim, they say the bank took the money to pay down their mortgage, and so Tracey and her husband had spent the past 18 months rebuilding their home themselves, from their weekly income.
On January 27 2023, Tracey was at work in St Heliers – half an hour drive away from Henderson – when she got a call from her neighbour saying she and her husband better come home urgently.
Pilgrim and her husband downed tools and got in the van. As they drove through the rain, she began to panic.
“By the time we got back, it was all over,” Pilgrim says. “The water in the house was neck height. We lost everything.”
Pilgrim, who is currently living in a cabin at her husband’s cabinet-making factory in Henderson, is one of those who would consider a buy-out if the price was right.
“My greatest fear with anything to do with the council is they’ll say ‘here’s $20 have a nice life.’” she says. “But I don’t feel safe any more. The neighbours are the same. The whole block has been abandoned.”
Twyford has written to the ministers of finance and climate change, arguing the group’s case.
“In hindsight we now know [those houses] should never have been built there. And we know surely that it makes no sense for those homeowners to just rebuild in the same place,” he wrote.
And, he said, with climate change, the flooding was only going to get worse.
The 2021 flood was a “1-in-100” year flood, and the 2023 event was “1-in-250”. But those figures were based on past measures – meaning what was a 1-in-100 year flood 20 years ago might now be more like a 1-in-60 year flood. Equally, what the 1-in-100 measure actually means is that, in any given year, there is a 1% chance of an event occurring.
Last week, finance minister Grant Robertson visited West Auckland, and went to the Bangers’ home. He said Cabinet would be working through decisions about displaced homeowners in the coming weeks, but could not commit to when the group might have certainty about their future.
‘Do we leave people to suffer?’
One problem the group faces is the lack of legislation governing managed retreat in New Zealand. Until now, authorities have favoured physical protection measures – like stop banks or retaining walls – over avoiding the risk of flooding or erosion altogether.
As such, the government’s Climate Adaptation Bill, which will legislate a response on managed retreat, is due to be introduced to Parliament this year.
While advocates viewed that as a positive step, Twyford points out that even with added impetus, the process of passing the plan into law is likely to take too long for the West Auckland group.
Equally, there are still “many tricky issues” to resolve, such as who should be compensated, how much it will cost and who will pay.
“These go to the core of our values as a society,” said Environmental Defence Society policy director Raewyn Peart. “Do we leave people to suffer losses and manage as best they can on their own? Or do we collectively provide the resources to assist those who are most affected?”
Managed retreat has occurred in New Zealand just a few times before. The red-zoned area in Christchurch is one example, where the entire “red zone” was declared uninhabitable, and through voluntary buyouts, the Crown acquired and demolished or removed over 8,000 properties.
In Matatā, south of Tauranga, residents were evicted in 2021 after the council removed their existing land use rights through planning changes. In that case, where 34 houses had been destroyed by a flood in 2005 and then rebuilt, residents fought for ten years before accepting a buy-out funded by local and central government.
History repeats: Twin Streams
Ironically, the Waitākere region, where WAIF is based, is home to one of the most celebrated local examples of managed retreat. The former Waitākere City Council negotiated a buyout of the purchase of at more than 150 properties under the “Twin Streams” project, begun in 2002.
Tony Miguel, the engineer who led that programme, said the buyouts were part of a broader plan to improve stream health in the catchment, but were also designed to prevent recurrent flooding.
Until 1978, there were no controls on building in flood plains, he said, so the houses had been put in places that were unsafe.
“At first we looked at building dams, but then became convinced buyout was the only option,” he says.
“We were lucky, Waitakere had the right political environment at the time, because it had just become an eco-city and our project was about the environment.”
Funding was sourced from an infrastructure fund, and through rates, and homeowners were given a lot of time to come to a decision, Miguel said.
The council decided to pay people what their houses were worth before they were damaged, so it would be fair.
The whole process was voluntary. Twin Streams cost about $50 million. In Auckland alone, there are about 5,500 properties in a flood plain, which at an estimated value of $1m each, would be $5.5 billion – more than the $4 billion City Rail Link. Nationally, it could cost more than $100 billion if everyone in a flood zone wanted to sell up.
Of course, not everyone will. And experts have suggested that only the most vulnerable houses – the first to flood and the last to drain – will need a buyout. Others could be lifted up, or back.
For some in the West Auckland group, however, lifting or moving is not an option.
“It’s not safe,” says Bex Hurley, whose house has been flooded 10 times in seven years. Even though her house is on poles, she says she wants out. “It’s no way to live – your car gets trashed, your fence gets trashed, everything in your garage gets trashed every time theres a flood that leaves 30cm of silt.”
Like Amrita Banger, Hurley can’t sleep if it’s raining at night. She says even if she moved out, and rented the house to someone else, it would still cause her anxiety.
“I’d lie away all night worrying about them,” she says. Selling it isn’t an option now, as who would buy a flooded home?
“I feel there’s no escape from these houses unless they’re demolished and turned back into natural flood plains, like they’re meant to be.”