Opportunities from disaster

Peter Andrew is no stranger to cyclones but says Gabrielle showed the progress we’ve made in some areas and has highlighted ways to do things better.

In Business, Environment8 Minutes

When Cyclone Bola struck in March 1988, I was a farm adviser with the Ministry of Agriculture based out of the Gisborne office.

I was also part of the team that assessed the damage in the district and prepared a report that we faxed off to Wellington. The report assessed the damage, the consequences and then suggested the best options.

The resulting Bola payment for damages was controversial, but was an investment as it was ruthlessly targeted around need. It was a great example of when one of the team is having a hard time, the rest rally to help.

When our regions get hit by these big events the hurt is both financial and moral. It is a long way back and there are no winners. The world and particularly New Zealand needs to have a strong and vibrant provincial fruit bowl and vegetable bin. A speedy recovery is in everyone’s interests.

When the chips are down and you are up to your armpits in silt, there is nothing more powerful than “we have got your back”.

Bola v Gabrielle: which was worse?

Cyclone Bola was worse as it impacted significantly on just about every farm right across the district. In contrast, Gabrielle had a pretty random path as she wandered across the district causing havoc. Some farms got munted, even worse than Bola and then other farms had little to no damage.

In 1988 there was no internet and communications were at a primitive level compared to today.

A positive to come out of Gabrielle was just how far we have come with weather prediction and the monitoring of these events. We had the computer models satellite imagery accurately predicting Cyclone Gabrielle six days out. There is then the opportunity to double check the meteorological suggestions on any one of the four weather forecast sites.

Critical data monitoring is better

On the night Gabrielle struck I used a combination of rain radars and real-time rainfall data loggers that Gisborne District Council had spread right across the catchments to monitor the precipitation.

Many of our more troublesome rivers are also monitored on an hourly basis for height and flow. A couple of our rivers are even live-streamed for those who struggle to believe the river levels.

The coolest part is the predicted river state which works off the level and then adds the predicted forecast rain to bravely predict where it might be going. The modelling and predictions have (unfortunately) been very accurate.

The next thing is my mobile phone buzzing with a multitude of alerts.

All of this is pretty damn slick when you compare it to 1988 when we would have had TV, radio and a newspaper to tell about the pending arrival of Bola.

Sure, it all went to custard afterwards with our internet and phones crashing out, but we don’t want to detract from the huge progress that has been made. I’m sure a little more resilience is being built right now in many of the communication and internet businesses around NZ. Listen and change to build a better future.

How did pastoral farming get on and what can we learn about the future?

In Bola days we had lots of small pot dams that lasted till a drought, but not through one. They also had a high risk of filling up with silt in an event, which they did. Now, thankfully, we have moved to either reticulated water supply or huge dams.

There is a huge opportunity with onfarm recovery to have more dams set up to manage the rainfall intensity to reduce the runoff that heads downstream.

There are a few certainties in life, but death, taxes, potholes and losing power in a storm are a few of them.

Solar panels have been a hero in Gabrielle. Solar-powered water and electric fences have charged on without missing a beat. There is a huge opportunity to continue to expand this area to take out the need for generators right through to totally going off the grid.

Hill soils protected

Some of the oldest trees planted for erosion control on our farms are now more than 70 years old. After Cyclone Bola rolled through, the poplar and willow planting ramped up with just about every farmer planting poles in the most vulnerable spots.

So how have they fared in Cyclone Gabrielle? As you look around the district, the farms with a sensible amount of poles have protected the soils to a very high level. Hidden behind the slash is a huge success story.

Yes, we do get some erosion, especially on some of our steeper soils. However, in this district this happens with any land use, even native bush. A classic example of erosion being a natural process is erosion that continues to occur deep in the Raukumara ranges.

As long as you have tectonic uplift, rainfall and gravity, you are going to have some erosion. It is a natural process. Isn’t the name of the game to minimise erosion and to minimise any negative impact on your neighbours and community?

If you take away the impact of the logs and the slash then the sheep and beef farmers in these regions have survived Gabrielle extremely well.

Farming is far more resilient now than it was at the time of Bola, but there are still lessons to be learned from cyclone Gabrielle.

Fences and paddocks

Paddocks and fences are an important part of successful farming and needed for pasture control. Back in the 1980s we had quite a big push for intensive grazing systems in this district. To control the pasture, we had big mobs with regular shifts, which meant lots of small paddocks.

Now, through policy changes, we have bigger paddocks, meaning fewer fences are in dodgy places.

Slash just loves riparian fencing, so it’s not really an option unless you are one of the lucky ones who don’t have forestry in the catchment.

The fence rebuild presents many opportunities to do it better. We also need to have an open mind to fenceless solutions, such as smart collars, Shepherd and Halter.