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Deadly storms in New Zealand are forcing the country to reckon with climate change


New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins described Cyclone Gabrielle as the, quote, "most significant weather event to hit New Zealand this century." Last week's storm came hard on the heels of another major storm that caused widespread flooding and landslides. And, as Rebecca Rosman reports, these weather events have New Zealand thinking about ways to mitigate climate change.

FRANK FAN: This is our paradise.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Frank Fan thought he had found the property of his dreams when he bought this secluded ranch house just north of central Auckland eight years ago. He says it took only 30 minutes to become unlivable late last month, after the city received a record-breaking 10 inches of rain in just a few hours.

FAN: Just something like you putting a plug into your bathtub.

ROSMAN: He faced the same nightmare all over again this week after the Auckland region was hit with another eight inches of rain thanks to Cyclone Gabrielle. It left at least five people dead and nearly a quarter million without power. Sam Dean is with New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

SAM DEAN: We know that climate change has the greatest effect on these really short-duration, convective, flash-flooding events.

ROSMAN: Flash-flooding events that he says are only becoming a more regular and more immediate issue, especially given that many of New Zealand's cities and towns have been built around flood plains.

DEAN: Sea level rise is a long-term problem for climate change that has massive consequences. But flooding is a very immediate problem.

ROSMAN: Jake Parsons is with the nonprofit group Student Volunteer Army. They've gone into more than 1,300 homes, including Frank Fan's, over the last few weeks to help distressed families clean up the damage.

JAKE PARSONS: There are plenty more that need our help. They may be waiting for insurance or waiting for other forms of help and may reach out to us later.

ROSMAN: Frank Fan had insurance, but insurance companies may be far more reluctant to cover homes like his, built in flood-prone areas, in the future, says Paul Williams. Williams is professor emeritus at the environmental science department at The University of Auckland.

PAUL WILLIAMS: Because they're paying the cost at the moment in repairing a lot of the damage.

ROSMAN: Another challenge is New Zealand's aging infrastructure, says Michelle McCormick. She's the policy director at Infrastructure New Zealand, an advocacy group that works with the country's public and private sector.

MICHELLE MCCORMICK: Our infrastructure was designed for weather that we were experiencing 50, 60 years ago, not now, with climate change.

ROSMAN: The government knows it has a problem. Last year, it published the country's first national adaptation plan, a long-term strategy to help adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change in the country of 5 million. One strategy, McCormick says, is a newer urban planning model called sponge cities.

MCCORMICK: To soak up the rainfall that's coming down. We've got more green space, got more grassy areas. Not everything is cemented and concrete.

ROSMAN: It's an idea already being implemented in major cities around the world, including New York and Shanghai. Other proposals being discussed are incentivizing people to move out of at-risk areas and widening rivers to absorb more water. All of this will take time and money to implement. But Professor Paul Williams says these latest storms have been a wake-up call for the country.

WILLIAMS: We do learn in the end. But you're beaten with a big stick, and the big stick in this case is severe storms.

ROSMAN: Severe storms Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the country was simply unprepared for, as he assessed the damage from Cyclone Gabrielle. We can't continue the way we have been going, he told reporters. We're going to see more of these types of weather events, so we have to be prepared. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Auckland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rebecca Rosman