Feasibility of future road access to the Coromandel in question after Cyclone Gabrielle

Roads linking the Coromandel to the rest of New Zealand have been quickly and repeatedly severed during the extreme weather of the last few weeks, bringing into question their feasibility going forward. 

Two weeks ago, Kate Langdon Arms and her partner Dan needed to get their three-year-old son to a Waikato hospital appointment. 

With every other road closed, they took the Thames Coast Road and narrowly missed being caught in a treacherous slip. 

"It was one of those situations. Do you stop or do you go faster?" she told Newshub Nation. 

"I decided, especially with the babies in the car, that I wasn't going to risk it. I would wait for the rocks to stop."

She made the right decision, narrowly avoiding the slip, but it was still a close call - one of many this year. 

"We can't believe how much the roading has been affecting the community here," Langdon Arms said. 

"Getting in and out has almost come to the point where you need to pack a tent and gas cooker because you just don't know. Honestly, it's crazy."

Road closures have always been an issue for the Coromandel, but this summer it's been far worse. 

Thames-Coromandel Mayor Len Salt said they simply cannot afford to keep repairing these roads. 

"We've got an emergency rehabilitation fund that our council and our ratepayers fund every year. That was cleaned out in November [2022]," he said.

This week, Salt and Transport Minister Michael Wood surveyed the latest damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle alongside Waka Kotahi engineers. 

Rob Campbell, Waka Kotahi's regional manager for Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, believes recovery is "going to be a long haul".

"There's going to be a lot of work, probably for years to come, as we recover all of those roads, including 25A."

But the question remains whether recovery will be enough.

For Campbell, "You'd be ideal to go a lot further."

That means weatherproofing the existing roads, an expensive undertaking that may still not be enough. 

Is there any way a local community like the Coromandel can be future-proofed or are we going to have to completely redesign it?

Minister Wood said, "If we just keep doing the things that we've been doing we will not have the infrastructure that we need to face the impacts of climate change in the years to come."

This sentiment is shared by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who said "we have to get real about some of the roads and the fact that we're going to have to move some of those roads to a place where they can be more resilient".

The Coromandel is the second most visited place in New Zealand after Queenstown so, while the roads are rebuilt, businesses suffer.

Before COVID, one in five jobs on the Coromandel Peninsula was in tourism. 

When that's combined with the food and accommodation services on offer, it becomes clear just how reliant the Coromandel is on tourism and the roads facilitate it.

"I think we're all in the same boat in this town at the moment. We're lacking customers and for any of us to survive, they're what we need," said Plantery owner Morag Standbrook.

"It's hard. You wake up in the morning and you think, is there much point in me going in today? Is anyone going to come?" said Jaki Craig who owns Savour and Spice.

The perception of a totally closed peninsula means few people are coming through. 

"We might need a little bit more input from the government to help build this place again because it is a gorgeous place to be. Everybody knows the Coromandel Peninsula," said the owner of Insider Interiors Robyn Forster. 

But making the Coromandel's roads resilient to future weather events is a costly endeavour, with Mayor Len Salt predicting the cost to be in the hundreds of millions. 

This doesn't account for the cost of protecting communities. 

A 2022 study looked at building seawalls to cope with a 1.4-metre sea-level rise which would protect over 5000 houses and commercial buildings in the area.

The predicted cost was over a billion dollars, putting it well out of reach of the Coromandel. 

"We've got 32,000 ratepayers," said Salt.

"It's a very low ratepayer base to cover 400 km of coastline plus all the roading that's in between."

Difficult decisions will have to be made about who pays to protect communities like the Coromandel, and after such a saturated summer there is an increased sense of urgency.

"We thought we had longer," said Salt. "We thought we had another year or two years. Or five years or ten years. There's this reality now, this awakening that actually the problem is now."

Watch the full video for more. 

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