Too many questions over tsunami muddle to leave unanswered

Quake affected locals at the daily public meeting at the Kaikoura community hall.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ

Quake affected locals at the daily public meeting at the Kaikoura community hall.

OPINION: Natural disasters have a way of turning Parliament into a politics free zone. No one wants to be guilty of scoring political points off the hardworking volunteers and professionals working round the clock, usually under huge stress, to bring relief to those worst affected.

But someone was always going to break the political accord that broke out after the Kaikoura quakes and that someone was probably always going to be NZ First leader Winston Peters, who broke ranks on Sunday to call for an inquiry into New Zealand's resilience in the face of natural disaster.

The scale of the ongoing relief effort in Kaikoura was underscored yesterday when a convoy ground its way through damaged roads at a painstaking 20 km an hour, covering just 60 km in three hours, as shell-shocked evacuees were shipped to Christchurch.

It's not surprising then that Peters' was careful in his wording around the call for the inquiry not to point the finger at any agency in particular. And New Zealand's earthquake czar Gerry Brownlee was mostly right in his assessment that Peters was just being politically opportunistic.

But enough questions have been raised about the response to Kaikoura that Kiwi's can legitimately ask whether New Zealand has learnt all the lessons that should been learnt from the tragic Christchurch earthquake five years ago.

The first alarm bells rang over the muddle surrounding tsunami warnings, with people initially being told there was no tsunami risk, only to receive subsequent warnings that were belatedly followed with evacuation sirens.

GNS science boss Ken Gledhill raised further questions with his suggestion that New Zealand's lack of a 24/7 monitoring system contributed to that confusion.

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Gledhill's comments blind-sided Brownlee who spent the weekend insisting the expert advice to the Government was that a 24/7 monitoring system would have made no difference.

Brownlee probably feels like he was hung out to dry given that it seems GNS has not previously raised a 24/7 monitoring system with the Government.

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GNS bosses can expect to be on the receiving end of his wrath this week.

Gledhill's comments certainly left a question mark as to whether New Zealand has the sort of state of the art systems that most Kiwis would expect of our earthquake monitoring and surveillance systems given our recent history and shaky geology.

Follow-up questions to Gledhill clarified that we are indeed "right up there", both in terms of the skill levels of our scientists and the technology they have access to. But Gledhill's concern is that we can make better use of that technology.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed from Peru that the Government is looking at a cellphone based system that sends out a blanket warning to everyone in affected areas.

This technology might be cutting edge but it has been in place in other jurisdictions for some time; the Prime Minister himself had experience of it in New York when the FBI used it to issue a wanted terrorist warning during the UN leaders summit earlier this year. The warnings over ride everything else on the users cellphone and issue a strident siren.

That's a lot more sophisticated than the system Civil Defence wasted $500,000 worth of taxpayer money on - a system that relied on people buying a "box" that sounded an alarm but relied on them then tuning into a radio or similar to find out more about the threat.

That project was scrapped but there seems to have been a lack of urgency about finding its replacement. That will change in the wake of Kaikoura, as will the fragmented civil defence structure exposed by Kaikoura, and before that Christchurch.

That fragmented structure in fact seems to be the biggest lesson that we failed to learn from Christchurch. Brownlee acknowledges a number of failings, particularly in the reporting and decision making lines, that Brownlee says the Government can't - and won't - allow to continue. Those comments point to a sweeping review and a radical revamp of civil defence.

But Kiwis may be looking for more than that to reassure themselves we are ready for the next big one.

 - Stuff

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