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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Coastal dwellers left stranded -- insurance companies no longer issuing coverage

Coastal dwellers left stranded

by Marty Sharpe, The Dominium Post, Wellington, New Zealand, July 25, 2009

WELL SHORED UP: Haumoana resident John Bridgeman has built and impressive concrete sea wall in his efforts to hold back the tide.

They are being cast off by insurance companies no longer willing to cover them, and government policy that discourages them from doing anything to stop the sea claiming their homes.

For a decade, John Bridgeman has watched his neighbours' homes getting washed into the sea. In the 1970s, the houses alongside his Hawke's Bay property had long back lawns -- and a council road reserve -- between them and the Pacific. Today, the sea laps just short of their living rooms.

Mr Bridgeman is determined to not give in to the sea. Or bureaucracy. "It's my family home. I'm not going anywhere."

He is lucky he owns a concrete firm; he has the skills, and the machinery, to build a massive concrete wall to fend off the waves. His home is well barricaded with a two-metre-high concrete wall, which goes four metres deep into the beach shingle.

The defence has worked well since being built 10 years ago, but he has always had his home insured, just in case.

But that's no longer an option. This year he was rejected by every major insurance company.

"It's bloody devastating to be honest, not being insured against the sea," he says. "This has been my home for 20 years and my parents' home before that. I might be all right with the wall, but I really feel for the others who'll have to watch their homes wash out from beneath them."

Mr Bridgeman is one of thousands of coastal homeowners who have discovered -- or are about to -- that their insurance company may be reluctant to cover them due to the threat of erosion or inundation.

This week The Dominion Post reported the plight of Haumoana resident Mark Lawrence, who is battling the tide, and his council.

He has rebuilt a seawall, made of hundreds of concrete blocks, to shield the property he shares with his wife and their four children. But he has been served with an abatement notice from Hastings District Council, giving 30 days to tear down his wall. Mr Lawrence plans to disobey the order.

The Insurance Council's Chris Ryan says coastal homeowners should no longer assume they will be covered against an angry sea.

"Ten years ago you were virtually guaranteed to get insured for any risk on a house just about anywhere. Now brokers are going right across the market and most insurers are saying, 'No, that's one risk we're not prepared to take.' "

Mr Bridgeman's house and 20 others at Haumoana may be among the most prominent to succumb to the sea, but they are not alone. The Kapiti Coast, Riversdale and Castlepoint in Wairarapa, Mokau in Taranaki, virtually the entire west coast from Raglan to Muriwai, Waihi, and Ohiwa spit in Bay of Plenty, all are dealing with a similar threat, leading coastal scientist Richard Reinen-Hamill says.

"Coastal erosion is happening to a greater or lesser extent around most of the country. Governments and councils around the world are saying to people, 'We can't control erosion' and the best way to deal with it is by putting distance between developments and the coastal edge."

The Government's approach will be clearer when a report on the proposed New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2008 comes out next month. The proposed policy suggests councils manage coastal hazards by "locating or relocating development away from risk areas, protecting or restoring natural defences and discouraging recourse to hard protection structures."

It will essentially reinforce the direction adopted by the Environment Ministry, which takes the view the sea is rising, erosion and inundation are inevitable and any engineering attempts to prevent it are at best short-term fixes and at worst will increase the potential for further damage.

Councils have already started to restrict development in coastal erosion areas, forbid alterations or extensions and discourage construction of defences such as sea walls. Many have done coastal hazard assessments, with maps showing areas expected to be affected over the next 50-100 years. Notably, neither the Greater Wellington nor Auckland regional councils have done comprehensive assessments yet.

Tens of thousands of properties already lie in council-designated coastal hazard areas. Many more lie in areas yet to be designated as such. Each will have the hazard noted on their Land Information Memorandum report.

Keith Newman heads Walking on Water, a group of citizens at the Hawke's Bay settlements of Haumoana, Te Awanga and Clifton, who object to the way local councils have dealt with the threat of coastal erosion.

Hawke's Bay regional and Hastings district councils have told residents they have two options: pay $18.5 million for 13 groynes that may protect the coast, or move their houses away from the coast as the sea encroaches -- known as a "managed retreat."

Mr Newman doesn't buy that. "This business of just let the ocean come through is reprehensible. It's created such fear in the community."

He says the councils have a responsibility to protect the community. He has mobilised hundreds of people to make submissions to a joint council working group urging them to consider a cheaper option of five to six groynes and a seawall around the 21 most-affected houses.

"There is no way we can afford the $320,000 per property as they're suggesting. There has to be a cheaper way, and we should at least have a crack before throwing our hands up and giving in."

Local Government NZ head and Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule says the consequences of coastal erosion and inundation are just starting to dawn on most councils. "This is a very emotional issue. We're talking about people's homes here, people's lives. But why should other ratepayers pay for it? Why should somebody on a farm up in the hills pay to protect houses in Haumoana?"

In the event of "managed retreat," Mr Yule says it is in councils' interests to work with the community to find land for them, but not help with purchase. "I haven't got the solution. I know what the science says and I know what the community wants . . . at some point we're going to have to make a decision."


John Bridgeman has lived on the Haumoana coast for two decades -- long enough for the concrete-firm owner to see several of his neighbours' houses wash into the encroaching Pacific.

He has barricaded his home, owned by his parents since the 1950s, with a self-built two-metre-high concrete wall that goes four metres deep into the beach shingle.

Mr Bridgeman doesn't think erosion is any worse than it was 60 years ago, and he wants to build a sea wall around the 21 most threatened houses -- a structure likely to be resisted by the region's councils, which favour "managed retreat" from the area.

Coastal defences such as Mr Bridgeman's have a short lifespan and don't offer as much protection as thought, according to the Environment Ministry. It says there is "typically high public (and often political) demand for coast protection measures to 'hold the line' and protect private property, infrastructure or utilities." But they tend to be ineffective and unsustainable in the long term and lead to a "false sense of security and often encourage further development behind the structures," which only adds to the risk.

Be that as it may, Mr Bridgeman plans to stay right where he is and sees no reason to give in to the sea, or to bureaucracy.


* Last century, sea levels rose by 16 centimetres. By the end of this century, the sea is forecast to have risen by between 18 cm and 59 cm.

* But it could rise by as much as 80 cm if ice in Greenland and Antarctica melt faster than predicted, as suggested by Professor Peter Barrett of Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre at a recent Annual Antarctic Conference. Some scientific evidence suggests that is already the case.

* The sea has risen and will continue to rise -- this is not being debated. What is being debated is whether climate change will result in the rise accelerating to more than about 18 cm this century.

* Higher sea levels will increase the frequency with which coastal defences are overtopped by waves or high tides.

* Climate change will exacerbate existing erosion and storm inundation.

* Some accreting sandy beaches, such as those in Manawatu, may continue to accrete, but more slowly.

* Gravel beaches, such as Haumoana in Hawke's Bay are most sensitive to erosion.

* The intensity of severe storms is expected to increase and storm tide levels will rise.

* Waves in Wellington will be 15% higher by 2050 and 30% higher by 2100.

* Areas with smaller tidal ranges, such as Wellington, the Cook Strait area and the East Coast will have bigger problems, with the high tide mark exceeded more often.

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