What went wrong with Civil Defence's earthquake and tsunami response, and how can we fix it?

ANALYSIS: After the last few years of seismic activity, one would think New Zealanders are all too familiar with how to handle a sizeable shake.

Last week's magnitude-7.8 earthquake, following 2010's 7.1 and 2011's 6.3 Christchurch shakes, brought back familiar feelings of insecurity and helplessness.

Almost as alarming as the faults beneath our feet, however, are those exposed in our emergency management officials' performance on the day – particularly around the tsunami threat.

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says an overhaul of Civil Defence is "inevitable".
ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says an overhaul of Civil Defence is "inevitable".

Residents from Napier to Southland complained of mixed messages about the tsunami risk in their areas, with sirens not sounded and conflicting advice on whether to evacuate.

READ MORE:
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* Why is our Civil Defence still not up to scratch? 
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Civil Defence overhaul 'inevitable' after tsunami confusion 
* Councils' powers may be considered in Civil Defence review
Did Civil Defence react quickly enough to the East Cape quake?

A timeline of the earthquake response highlights an array of problems, some of which could have been catastrophic had the conditions been slightly different.

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has hinted at a shake-up of the way Civil Defence operates, saying changes are "inevitable" after the latest failings.

So what needs to be fixed, and what are the figurative landslides blocking meaningful changes?

NATIONAL, REGIONAL AND LOCAL

Christchurch's tsunami sirens did not sound for over an hour after last week's earthquake, angering some residents.
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch's tsunami sirens did not sound for over an hour after last week's earthquake, angering some residents.

Many think of Civil Defence as a single organisation.

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In reality, it's a complex combination of national, regional and local officials and volunteers.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) provides strategic guidance and national co-ordination, but doesn't call the shots when it comes to regional emergencies.

Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black, right, says the organisation will carry out a debriefing once the immediate ...
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black, right, says the organisation will carry out a debriefing once the immediate response winds down.

That's handled by the 16 Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM) groups – set up in 2002 as part of new legislation, and made up of councillors from different local authorities within a region.

On top of that, individual councils still have the power to declare a state of emergency within their boundaries.

The idea is that councils and regional authorities make the most of their local knowledge, with MCDEM stepping in for larger crises.

Former Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says a radical overhaul of the Civil Defence system is not needed.
DAVID ALEXANDER/FAIRFAX NZ

Former Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says a radical overhaul of the Civil Defence system is not needed.

It seems sensible, but the different levels of hierarchy can create problems.

'CUMBERSOME' SET-UP – BROWNLEE

Take a potential tsunami risk. GNS Science shares its analysis with MCDEM, which then makes a decision on whether to issue a tsunami alert before sharing that with the CDEM groups, who then decide how, if at all, to alert local residents.

As Brownlee says, "just saying that sounds cumbersome".

Stuff reporter Henry Cooke, trying to keep readers informed of the situation on the night of the quake, wrote that finding the relevant information was "really messy", with each region having its own website, social media channels, and approach to communicating risk.

Labour Civil Defence spokeswoman Clare Curran says the "patchy response" to the tsunami threat exposed flaws in the current set-up.

"There was this silence from local groups that went on for several hours before anything was done or appeared to be done, and that has created a lot of confusion."

LACK OF ALERTING SYSTEM

The lack of a nationwide alerting system is a particular concern: MCDEM says a cellphone-based system may still be up to 18 months away.

Former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, who led the city's response to the deadly February 2011 earthquake, believes there is a strong case to be made for a centralised tsunami warning system, given the nationwide impact of any wave.

"There's no difference whether you're in North Canterbury or on the Marlborough coastline, essentially – the tsunami's never going to recognise a provincial boundary, it just doesn't happen that way."

With Prime Minister John Key promoting the idea of cellphone alerts, MCDEM will be under pressure to speed up its work on a new system.

'WEAKNESSES AND TENSIONS'

Beyond tsunami alerts, there is a wider debate about whether our current Civil Defence structure, with its division of powers, is the best fit for responding to a disaster.

A review of the response to the February 2011 earthquake found "weaknesses and tensions" between the Christchurch City Council and Canterbury's CDEM group.

John Hamilton, the MCDEM director during the 2011 quake, afterwards likened combining regional emergency management teams with his national team "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."

Despite those problems, one main recommendation from the 2012 review – to take away the power of local authorities to control the response to emergencies – was dismissed by Hamilton.

'RADICAL OVERHAUL' NOT NEEDED – PARKER

Brownlee says that is now back on the table; he appears to have some concerns about the Wellington City Council's decision not to declare a local emergency and to reopen the CBD so quickly after the quake.

However, any move to centralise decision-making powers will be fought hard by local councils and opposition parties wary of a power grab.

Parker warns against any "radical overhaul" of the current system, saying it should instead be a case of continuous improvement.

"The structures that we've got by and large are really good: there are some weaknesses that have been shown from time to time, but we should treat that as the learning opportunity that it is and not throw it out."

Parker says local councils should be allowed to take the lead after a major event using their knowledge of the area, with others providing support rather than "steamrolling" over the top.

"When you bring in the national agencies, you  keep the local spokespeople up there – that's where the emotional connection and trust for most of the communities exists."

LONG HOURS WORKED

None of this is to take away from the work of Civil Defence staff: Brownlee, Curran and Parker have praised the volunteers who worked long hours to provide essential services in trying circumstances, while their efforts in Kaikoura and elsewhere has largely been backed.

Yet Auckland University emergency planning specialist Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor, who will carry out research on the response to last week's quake, sees it as a "wake-up call" for Wellington and other parts of New Zealand.

"There's been years and years and years of reviews, and we've all had lessons learned . . . this has given another chance to test out whether the systems have been put in place to ensure there's a quick recovery."

While it is still early on, Sullivan-Taylor says the earthquake response has exposed some weaknesses, particularly around critical national infrastructure such as roading and transport which appeared "not very robust" in a crisis.

REVIEW SET TO START

Brownlee will sit down with political parties next week to talk about potential legislative changes, while MCDEM's Stuart-Black says the ministry will carry out a "debriefing process" after relief efforts wind down.

Curran says there must be a swift, independent review of the current tsunami warning systems to ensure action is taken before the next big shake.

"We can't wait around for there to be another year or two of reviews around this . . . and it shouldn't be shrouded in internal politics either."

We may not be able to stabilise the earth, but a steadier response to the next quake and tsunami threat would be greatly appreciated by many.

 - Stuff

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