Neil Silverwood

New Zealand’s most endangered town

Franz Josef is a town in jeopardy—it straddles the Alpine Fault and the Waiho River, and its tourism income has cratered. Who’s responsible for moving it out of danger? And where should it go?

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The Department of Conservation (DOC) abandoned its original Franz Josef visitor centre in December 2015 after deciding the building was too close to the Alpine Fault. It’s about to be demolished. In preparation for the coming quake, DOC has stocked shipping containers at Franz, Fox Glacier, and Haast with tents, tarpaulins, tools, water containers, satellite phones, blankets, food, and emergency medical supplies. Westland District Council has followed its example, budgeting for another eight containers to support smaller communities.

The first building to be shifted out of harm’s way was the Batson Hotel.

In 1911, it was winched upwards, by hand, on makeshift trestles and sloping planks, from its flood-prone river terrace onto—but who could have known it then?—the scarp terrace of the Alpine Fault.

The hotel expanded to become the gracious Glacier Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in 1953. A couple of years later, the government established the Tourist Hotel Corporation and planned a replacement near to the original site, but the Geological Survey warned it off. Harold Wellman, the first person to identify the Alpine Fault in the 1940s, had mapped the fault line through Franz in 1953, and the Geological Survey had developed policy for government buildings––nothing within 100 metres of the fault. So the hotel was rebuilt to the north. Eventually, it was renamed the Mueller Scenic Circle Hotel, and in 2016 written off by the flooded Waiho River. A boulder as big as a truck still sits inside the ruined building.

The Glacier Gateway Motel was another building in precarious circumstances. It lay in the lee of a stopbank on the Waiho’s south side, but the riverbed gradually rose until it was three metres above the motel. In 2003, the government, fearing any future Waiho flood would breach the stopbank and drown guests in their beds, offered $350,000 to buy it out. The landowner refused, so the government put up a notice on the driveway warning of sudden, serious flooding danger. The standoff lasted 12 years, but the landowner eventually agreed to sell, and the motel was demolished

Franz Josef: the town with a glacier at its back. A glacier with a reputation as the world’s most accessible, steep and fast. Back in the 1920s, it creaked through lowland forest at up to three metres a day. Who wouldn’t want to see it, hear it, climb on it? The glacier’s shrinking now, but tourist numbers have been rising. New Zealand had 3.8 million visitor arrivals in 2019, and around 20 per cent of those international travellers passed through Franz. The same year, the town’s heliport was the busiest in the southern hemisphere, with 100 take-offs and landings a day—but all that activity came to a sudden halt, along with international tourism, in 2020, due to COVID-19. Today, the heliport is mostly silent.

The glacier is Franz Josef’s great taonga, but as its slow descent scrapes vast tonnages off the mountains, it also imperils the town. The Waiho River brings those tonnages down, raising the riverbed beside Franz a metre every five years so that the river’s periodic floods threaten to overwhelm the town. Then there’s the Alpine Fault, whose rupture zone bisects the town. In April, new research revised the probability of an Alpine Fault earthquake upwards from a 30 per cent chance to a 75 per cent chance in the next 50 years, and forecast an 82 per cent chance of that earthquake being magnitude 8 or greater.

No matter which way you cut it, Franz Josef is a town in jeopardy.

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I drive into Franz Josef from the north, along State Highway 6, through steady rain and sheets of surface water. The lashing weather and the onset of winter makes the prospect of a magnitude 8 quake seem closer, somehow.

I’m greeted by the flags and banners of any tourist town, and a main street that steepens towards Glacier Motors at the top of the rise. The petrol station overlooks the town because it’s on a 1000-year-old terrace, a raised step created by the last three magnitude 8 earthquakes. Buried beneath its forecourt sit two massive storage tanks: one contains 50,000 litres of diesel, while the other is split into two 25,000-litre chambers—half holding 91-octane gasoline, and the other half 95.

The Franz Josef Volunteer Fire Brigade has dropped from 11 members to just four: a casualty of the town’s shrinking population as businesses close due to the loss of tourism from COVID-19.

When the town begins to shake during the next magnitude 8 quake, the rupture will be close behind, speeding towards Franz at around two kilometres a second. It will likely jolt Glacier Motors two metres vertically and eight metres sideways—wrenching those storage tanks beneath the forecourt out of place—and be gone in a moment, leaving a rift in its wake.

Glacier Motors is “very clearly one of the highest risk factors for our community”, says Wayne Costello, the Department of Conservation (DOC) operations manager for Westland and a leader of the local Civil Defence unit. The service station is a fire risk, or worse—if petrol leaks downhill into the town’s damaged pipes, it could lead to explosions. And anyway, says Costello, it should ideally have its tanks above ground, within easier reach of emergency vehicles and heavy machinery.

The service station is not alone on the quake terrace. The community hall, two churches, the fire station and the police station are up there too—which means first responders stand to be cut off from the rest of the town by that sudden two-metre vertical step and torn main street. (Westland District Council mayor Bruce Smith has repeatedly asked Fire and Emergency and the police to move away from the rupture zone, but he can’t enforce such a shift.)


Later that evening, I stand outside my motel room and look west to Alex Knob, streaked with snow, a cup of ice oozing off the summit and threads of white water dropping away. Nearer to hand, a large bush-clad hill slopes upward. Dozens of korimako chime in the bush. The Waiho, freshened by the recent rain, is a steady background whisper. Altogether, a beautiful place to be. Peaceful.

Until it isn’t. The hill stands about 500 metres above the town, and a 2016 GNS Science report described signs of a “long sackungen” on the hill—cracking at the top of over-steepened slopes and tectonically damaged rock. That gives it “the potential to fail in a catastrophic large rock landslide”. A rockfall from such a height risks “a considerable portion, if not the entire town, being overrun”. The paper concluded that, since the hill hasn’t collapsed during the last 11,000 years of regular 300-year jolts at its base, a future collapse is “unlikely”. For Franz, though, beset already by an unruly river and the silent threat of a huge quake, the hill stands as a third menace.

[Chapter Break]

Only once you begin to understand the risk-laden geography of Franz Josef do you begin to entertain what’s otherwise a radical proposition. To stay safe, Franz needs to get off the fault and away from the river. The whole town needs to move.

After the destructive flood of 2016, Mike Meehan, then-chief executive of Westland District Council, decided enough was enough.

“Instead of waiting for the worst to happen, we try to deal with this right now,” he told the government. Rather than reacting piecemeal, it should lead a concerted effort to deal with Franz’s multiple hazards.

“Essentially,” he recalls, “we could find a model that works for other places that have hazards. This could be a pathway to having a mature conversation on how we manage these things in the future.”

The government responded by funding a report on the town’s options. It wasn’t exactly a win—they’d had reports before—but Meehan was tipped a high-level wink that you needed four or five reports, good ones, before any wheels would turn.

In June 2017, still waiting for the promised report, mayor Bruce Smith and councillor Durham Havill hung over the Waiho in a chopper, studying its braids. The river had begun to point at the town’s oxidation ponds, and the pair were working out a scheme to build an emergency stopbank to protect them. Havill knew where to get a D11 bulldozer, the biggest in the Caterpillar range, so all that remained was for the two men to hustle their million-dollar plan through council. The stopbank construction began without input from engineers, without resource consent, without calling for tenders. What’s now known as Havill’s Wall has done its job: it has kept the river away from the ponds. It also got an ex-post-facto consent, although the Auditor-General later issued a stern reprimand to those involved.

This hotel’s dramatic history—winched out of reach of the Waiho River in 1911, reconstructed away from the Alpine Fault, then flooded by the river after all in 2016—epitomises the challenges faced by the town of Franz Josef and other communities along the fault line. Today, Coasters are well briefed on up-to-the-minute quake data by AF8, a group of scientists from the universities of Otago and Canterbury, as well as GNS Science. AF8 has produced a blueprint for Civil Defence priorities in the seven days following the next quake. Important, too, the West Coast has more diggers and helicopters per head than any other part of the country.

In any toe-to-toe contest between the D11 and the Waiho, though, the odds remain with the river. During the flood of 2019 the bulldozer was parked in the lee of the Milton stopbank, but the river breached the bank and poked the machine in the eye, inundating it. “The silts went right over the motor,” says its driver, Geoff Havill.

The report, by Tonkin + Taylor and Ernst & Young, finally landed in October 2017. It put forward and costed three options. One: the town could shift ten kilometres up the road to a greenfield site near Lake Mapourika, with a $600-million price tag up front but diminishing costs long term. Two: it could stay and fight the river with stopbanks on both sides of the Waiho, which would have low annual costs, but these costs would never end. Three: it could allow the river its natural alluvial fan by letting it spread south, unchecked by stopbanks, as the town moved gradually north, off the fault and away from the river. That would involve $22 million for buying out land to the south.

Community consultation followed, and a survey by West Coast Regional Council indicated community support for a move north—provided there was assistance. Meehan took a proposition to the government, who in turn employed a consultant, Dave Brash, to provide further guidance. Brash delivered his report to the Department of Internal Affairs, but it remains confidential. When I called him about it, he was shtum, unbudgeable. I asked how big the report was. He couldn’t remember, except that most of it was a PowerPoint.

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When COVID-19 closed the borders, the tourist economy in Franz shrank 85 per cent. Nearly one in five businesses has been mothballed. At the Orange Sheep Campervan Park, owner Logan Skinner, who is also the Franz Ratepayers’ Group chair, is covering only the cost of cleaning and power, not the cost of rates, insurance, repairs or maintenance. Some nights, the campground is down to five per cent of the vans it would get in a good year.

Tourism operators have fallen back on their reserves or on DOC’s Kaimahi Programme, which offers work out in Tai Poutini National Park for skilled people who might otherwise leave town. Tandem skydivers, for instance, have been upgrading the Alex Knob Track and putting their kit-repair skills to use sewing capture bags for kiwi. Franz has also had a share of the around $14 million handed to South Westland as part of the government’s recent $200 million tourism assistance programme to support psychological wellbeing, get business advice, and kickstart the return to market.


But what market? Although New Zealanders have come through Franz in greater numbers than usual this year, it’s not enough. Westland District Council froze rates in the 2020 June year to ease the pain for tourist-dependent businesses, but a 13 per cent rates increase seems likely this year. Meanwhile, West Coast Regional Council is rumoured to be raising its rates 30 per cent in the year ahead. On top of that, Franz is a special rating area that pays for its own stopbank maintenance, and stopbank payments will increase. The government’s offer of $12 million to strengthen and raise the stopbanks on the north side of the Waiho included a contribution of $3 million from Franz ratepayers.

At Gaunt Creek, Alpine Fault Tours guide Elisabeth Frankish demonstrates the angle of the fault’s 45˚ dip as the Pacific Plate’s lighter-coloured hanging wall meets the Australian Plate’s footwall. Here, the fault is mostly delineated in gravels.
Setting out from Whataroa, an Alpine Fault Tours group will head off-road to view a fault exposure at Gaunt Creek. Scientific instruments embedded there record fault temperature and pressure at depth. The data are relayed off-site and, following any seismic activity, will be closely studied for clues of pre-quake fault behaviour, potentially contributing to earthquake prediction science.

“If the rates get too high,” Skinner tells me, “it becomes unsustainable to have a town here. There’s a limit to what you can afford to pay in rates, especially now in the tourism downturn.”

Skinner, like Meehan years earlier, is seeking a long-term strategy for the town, especially for the river. For him, it comes down to that report’s third option: if you took down the south-side stopbanks, then you’d have no need to keep raising the north bank. The river and its gravels would spill south, and that would buy time for Franz Josef’s gradual retreat north.

“There is no best solution here,” says Skinner. “We might have 60 or 70 people living on the south side. That’s part of our community, we have to acknowledge that. And actually, some of those people might relocate into the north side. Or may relocate away from the area, and that’s a loss to the town.”

The Franz community is tight-knit. Loyal. It needs all its people, and whatever lies ahead for the town as it retreats from its threats, there’s pain.

“As we seek a solution, there’ll be winners and losers,” Skinner says, “and maybe everyone will be losers, but some will lose more than others.”

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For years, earthquake scientists have called for a fault avoidance zone in Franz and elsewhere, to stop construction where a rupture could upend buildings. Westland District Council declined to create such a zone in 2016. Now, the coast’s three local authorities are working towards a standardised fault avoidance zone right along the Alpine Fault. But the plan is at least a year away, and won’t solve one fundamental problem: that buildings already on the fault are consented and legally allowed to be there.

So, whose responsibility is it to protect a community from recognised dangers? In 2017, that task fell to local government. Councils in areas of high-risk earthquake hazards were required to draw up a list of all publicly accessible earthquake-prone buildings. The buildings’ owners would then have seven and a half years to fix them. This was supposed to be done by the start of 2020, but so far, Westland District Council has designated 23 buildings in Hokitika, which is 20 kilometres west of the fault, but none in Franz, where 22 buildings sit within the fault’s rupture zone.


Westland District Council chief executive Simon Bastion says it will complete the Franz survey by July 2022.

Glacier Motors, recognised as a significant hazard, hasn’t yet been assessed as an earthquake-prone building. And even if it is, the owner will have seven and a half years to do something about it.

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The government has supported, if somewhat minimally, the community’s main ask—an incremental shift north. As part of last year’s COVID-19 infrastructure grants for shovel-ready projects, it awarded Franz Josef $1 million to extend Cron Street at the north end of town, away from the fault and the river.

Cron Street is not in the rupture zone, and diverges at an oblique angle from the fault. The enterprises dotted along its length have the air of an upmarket alpine village, and much of the development here is new.

The Waiho Loop (extending from the right) sits 3.5 kilometres west of Franz Josef. It’s the glacier’s long-ago terminal moraine, a great six-kilometre arc of rock, whose southern toe intrudes onto the Waiho’s alluvial fan. It’s both a geological treasure and a colossal nuisance. As the river approaches the loop, it slows, and drops aggrading gravel. Franz locals ponder blowing right through the loop, and allowing the river to straighten. The D11 is still in town—“An ideal job for it,” says Westland District councillor Ian Hartshorne. River engineers, though, say any channel through the loop might lower gravel in the immediate vicinity, but not around Franz’s vulnerable infrastructure.

I walk past the West Coast Wildlife Centre, where young rowi probe for food under red lamplight, and reach Franz Josef Glacier Guides, with its laminated beam construction and earthquake-proof engineering. The DOC Visitor Centre is in the same building—and has been since DOC abandoned its old visitor centre on the terrace at the top end of town. The medical centre and ambulance services have moved here, too. The shift has begun down Cron Street, and the rest of town may slowly follow. Only time will tell if that shift is too slow.

When I drive south out of Franz, I pass by the elegant churches at the top of town, one Catholic, one Anglican. I remember an odd fact Logan Skinner told me: the town has two churches, but no cemetery. Its people have been buried elsewhere, at Whataroa or Ross. As though nobody, dead or alive, wants to be washed away. Nobody, dead or alive, wants to be rolled inside the fissures of a great earthquake.

Maybe Franz Josef has always known, at some deep level, that it was a town on the fly.

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