As Ben Buttimore stood waiting for high tide on Kauaeranga spillway by Thames Airport on 10 February, he knew everyone involved in Coromandel Peninsula’s roading network was ready to play their part.
Cyclone Gabrielle started to hit the Coromandel at about 10.30 pm, heralded by 100 km/h winds and sustained heavy rain, so Ben and members of the Higgins team were out with regional civil defence partners near the point of impact to make some key decisions.
“Someone’s got to be out there making the call about when the road closes. You know when you close a road it may be closed for a long time – possibly days – so that’s a hard call to make.”
Higgins maintains state highways across East Waikato for Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and the damage wrought by the cyclone means there is a massive recovery effort underway.
Ben, who has recently been appointed as Higgins’ cyclone recovery manager for East Waikato, says every member of the team plays a vital role in keeping the community moving.
He says there have been many unsung heroes in the fortnight since the cyclone hit: excavator operators clearing routes, abseilers rappelling down slopes to secure or remove unstable rocks and trees, and geotech engineers making decisions about when to close or reopen roads to ensures public safety.
He stresses that the backbone of road maintenance and the roading cyclone recovery effort are the traffic control teams, many of which are out there in all kinds of wild weather.
“We just can’t forget about traffic control or any of the cogs in the wheel.”
Ben says he is proud of the progress his team has made on re-opening many of the roads around the Coromandel Peninsula for essential travel, including State Highway 25 which runs around much of the coast. The route was completely washed away in some places during the previous storm, ex-cyclone Hale, and suffered even more damage when Cyclone Gabrielle hit.
“We were able to achieve reconnection of communities much faster than may have been anticipated – by Friday we had full connection all around the peninsula.”
He says relationships are a big part of the job, and he works closely with local subcontractors and local authorities. Some of them have dropped everything to help members of the public, despite damage to their own properties.
“When the community reacts favourably to what you’re doing it makes all the difference to people. There’s lots of stories of people being brought Powerades or hot meals – that’s brilliant and it’s those little touches that genuinely make people pretty happy.
“It brings the team together to know you are delivering for the community.”
Ben says Higgins does “an awful lot” for the welfare of its team to ensure they are looked after and have access to anything they need, whenever they need it.
Over the past fortnight, many team members have put in long shifts to re-open roads or ensure the safety of motorists, often going over and above the call of duty.
“And cell reception has been poor so at times workers haven’t got to talk to their family overnight.”
Dealing with the challenges recent weather events have brought gives real personal satisfaction, which is critical if you’re going to work in a job that sometimes takes you away from your family. The unstable geology caused by heavy rain and high winds has even led to some team members becoming cut off during their work, because of landslides and slips coming down on the road, he says.
“You hope the place you’ve been trapped in has got power going because otherwise you’re away from home – you don’t have clean undies and you can’t have a hot shower. And there’s a big difference between being trapped for a night and trapped for three nights, which is just what happened to some of the teams.”
Effective collaboration is the reason Coromandel road maintenance teams are able to respond effectively to weather emergencies, he says. Following the cyclone, Higgins has worked in concert with regional and district councils, the police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand and other infrastructure services providers like Ventia to re-connect the roading network between communities.
“Even when we’re cut off in five different towns, the rivers are raging and things are going wrong all over the place, it’s just handled so well by the co-ordinated civil defence strategy involving all these different parties.”
Ben says there are many different jobs for career seekers in the road maintenance sector: from traffic controllers, to excavator operators, geotechnical engineers and operations managers – especially with the cyclone recovery ongoing.
“If you want to deliver for communities and work in a career that makes a real difference, road maintenance is the perfect choice.”
Whether your role is in the physical works, the professional, administration or operating side of road maintenance, it’s an opportunity to contribute to the public good that isn’t just a desk bound public sector type role, he says. Road maintenance also allows for rapid career progression and a private sector wage.
Ben previously oversaw the contract with Higgins to maintain the highways in the East Waikato sector for Waka Kotahi. On 20 February he transitioned into the overall cyclone recovery manager for East Waikato, based out of Morrinsville.
Ben’s road maintenance career began in the early 2000s when he started with Waka Kotahi’s predecessor Transit NZ as an environmental planner straight out of university. After a brief stint in London working as a transport engineer, including liaising with security services to assist with design of anti-terrorism measures for buildings and railways, he returned to New Zealand in 2011 and has worked in road maintenance ever since.
He says contributing to the public good has been a key driver throughout his career and that’s one of the things he most loves about it.
“I think that’s deep down why a lot of people who do maintenance work stay in it”.