Editorial: Why is our Civil Defence still not up to scratch?

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said there was an "unacceptable level of confusion" with tsunami warnings ...
AAP

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said there was an "unacceptable level of confusion" with tsunami warnings after the earthquake.

Six years. That is how long New Zealand has had to get its Civil Defence house in order. If you take the first Canterbury earthquakes in September 2010 as a starting point, grant our emergency response system some leeway and accept that not everything worked perfectly then, that is how long the country has been trying, and failing, to get it right.

Last Monday brought the latest instalment in the omnishambles. Minutes after the ground shook in North Canterbury, Kiwis living near coastlines from Southland to East Cape were online, searching for information about tsunami risk. Did they need to evacuate?

The answer was yes, but it was far too long in coming. In Christchurch, tsunami sirens were activated at 2am, an hour after the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) issued its first warning. Canterbury civil defence emergency group controller Neville Reilly said the decision to wait was done in consultation with a tsunami scientist but without the knowledge that MCDEM was already instructing evacuation on its website. He also observed that emails from the ministry contradicted that information.

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Things got worse. When the MCDEM made the evacuation order, it advised people "near the coast" to move inland or to the nearest high ground. This caused a lot of people to wonder whether or not "near the coast" meant them and it quickly became clear there was no easy way to find out. MCDEM referred people to their local civil defence, which meant different websites and different social media channels. In Canterbury, they hadn't even decided if there was a tsunami risk yet.

The problems persisted past the emergency phase. Hurunui District Mayor Winton Dalley this week lamented the trouble in getting essential services to properties on a stretch of the Inland Rd between Waiau and Kaikoura. Access was eventually granted. "The problem," Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said, "is the person who calls the shots on that is based in Christchurch, the issue is in Waiau and the national headquarters is in Wellington."

Tsunami sirens in Christchurch weren't activated until an hour after the warning.
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

Tsunami sirens in Christchurch weren't activated until an hour after the warning.

It almost seems too obvious to ask, but how can any of the above situations even exist? Seriously, how can our national civil defence management be ordering widespread evacuation while advising one of the affected regions something else? How can that region be allowed to duplicate head office's tsunami risk assessment work and take an hour longer to reach the same conclusion? Perhaps most troublingly, how, after six years of heightened awareness, can we still be getting this wrong?

Brownlee has acknowledged an "unacceptable level of confusion" on the tsunami risk and promised an overhaul. "The whole command and control structure of [MCDEM] needs to be looked at," he said. The Government is also working on a national, cellphone-based early warning system.

The change message is welcome, but if you feel like you've heard this before, you have. A review of the Civil Defence response to the February 22, 2011, Christchurch earthquake found "weaknesses and tensions" between the Christchurch City Council and regional Civil Defence: "The duplication of control … was not only inefficient but put people and property at risk".

Access to the Inland Rd between Waiau and Kaikoura has been symptomatic of confused Civil Defence decision-making
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Access to the Inland Rd between Waiau and Kaikoura has been symptomatic of confused Civil Defence decision-making

This was after the two groups were "dysfunctionally divided" following the September 2010 earthquake, the review said.

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The report made 108 recommendations, and MCDEM vowed to implement almost all of them. By last October, all but four were completed or under way. This sounds impressive, but one of the four MCDEM declined to adopt was the recommendation that local authorities no longer have the power to control emergency responses. Then national CDEM director John Hamilton said it would only detract from councils' awareness of the responsibilities they did have.

Well, the time has come to adopt it. Nobody could call the hub and spoke response last Monday a success. Had there been a tsunami of consequence it would have been a disaster, and a very foreseeable one.

One that, despite six years of dry runs, we couldn't get right. When he was explaining the reasoning for the not taking the advice back in 2012, Hamilton likened the civil defence structure to "putting a team on the rugby field who have never ever played together before. You've got everybody from the All Blacks to the juniors from Aranui".

The Government badly needs a new selection policy.

 - Stuff

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