Lessons learned from the big flood

A year ago, hundreds of people across the Nelson region were  forced from their homes as the worst flooding in a generation brought down slips, sending torrents of water and mud across farms and subdivisions, closing roads and stretching emergency services,  local body staff and contractors.  When the bill was totted up across the councils, the Earthquake Commission and insurance companies, it came to well over $50 million. BILL MOORE looks at what has been learned.

Tasman District Council recovery manager Adrian Humphries says last December’s rain dumped so much water on small catchments, it was like trying to empty a bath into a teacup.

In contrast to other  downpours in the region –  more like emptying a bath into a swimming pool, Mr Humphries says –  an enormous amount of rainfall was deposited close to the coast.

That is the explanation for small streams like the one at Ligar Bay bursting their banks, with awful consequences for homeowners on the floodplain, and for at least 1600 slips across the region as the coastal hills were saturated beyond their tolerance.

The result was a huge challenge for the Nelson city and Tasman district councils, their contractors, emergency services and Civil Defence – and in their own estimation, they rose to it.

‘‘It was very intense, and I think the people coped with it very, very well,’’ Mr Humphries says. ‘‘We’ve never activated the recovery phase on a regional basis before – I think in the circumstances, we did extremely well,’’ echoes the Nelson council’s initial recovery manager, Michael Schruer.

There was a strong need for Civil Defence help in the first days, and  Nelson Tasman Emergency Management public information manager Angela Ricker says the Government and the community were ‘‘equally complimentary’’ of the training and capability of the Nelson Tasman Civil Defence team.

This does not suggest that all the groups and agencies got everything right all the time, and none are claiming to have done so. They are as aware as anyone of the frustrations faced by some residents, both at the time of the floods and in the 12 months since as they grapple with the often blurry interface between councils, insurers and EQC.

Like the residents of the hardest-hit areas, on the eastern side of Golden Bay and in pockets of Nelson from Cable Bay to Tahunanui, they had to scramble to cope as the scale of the disaster unfolded.

Many of them, and the contractors whose efforts have received little public recognition, worked virtually around the clock for days, then faced more long days leading up to and through the Christmas-New Year period.

They have all seen upset people firsthand.  The councils have copped complaints about delays and frustrations around who takes responsibility for what.

The importance of better rain radar for Golden Bay has been underlined, and there has been a fresh focus on things like the potential risk posed by forestry slash, and the fragility of the Separation Point granite, which caused so many problems in Golden Bay.

They are still dealing with those issues. The Tasman council is working with MetService, trying to improve radar coverage to give more warning of downpours,  and it will soon be looking at a coincidental but timely report on forestry practices.

GNS Science has completed a comprehensive report on Golden Bay’s vulnerability to floods and what might be done about it.

The Nelson council has reviewed its procedures, and Civil Defence has refined its regional alert system, and is looking forward to the resource and time savings that will come from a planned regional emergency operations centre.

At this time last year, though, it was the hard grind of helping affected residents and getting the fractured infrastructure functioning again that was the preoccupation.
Many areas were untouched, and Tasman council  communications manager Chris Choat recalls the weirdness of taking a coffee break  in Richmond and seeing people happily going about their Christmas shopping, oblivious to the pressures council workers were under as they grappled with problems in Golden Bay  and other parts of the district.

Mr Humphries, who was on the ground as emergency manager in  Golden Bay for the first phase of the recovery and has since been managing the district-wide recovery works, says the biggest lesson has been the importance of good communication – honest, open, fair and frequent.

One of the council’s successes was setting up an email chain letter to keep people informed. It ended up with 500 to 600 names. The council also held a series of public meetings and produced regular newsletters.

Mr Humphries says the rumour mill is a killer.  ‘‘There was a lot of misinformation out there,  so I said, ‘Let’s get the facts out’.’’ In some cases, this meant explaining that the council couldn’t provide direct help, but could guide people on where to get it.

‘‘It wasn’t the fact that the council would turn up on a big white charger with 15 diggers behind it,’’ Mr Humphries says. ‘‘It’s saying, ‘Well, no, actually, you’re going to have to deal with this, but you can get rid of the stuff for free here, somebody will be here at this time to help you’ and all that – just communicating with people and being empathetic.’’

In the beginning, the biggest challenge  was getting people safely out of their houses, and trying to get them back in as quickly as possible.

The ravaged Totaranui Rd was a special problem because of the importance of the campground to the Golden Bay economy,  ‘‘but the biggest concern is the safety of life and public health’’.

‘‘We had to rebuild sewerage systems and water systems. We had to put additional water capacity in and move silt and debris away from people’s properties so they could get on with their lives.’’

There is still a long list of projects to be done, largely around improving stormwater and drainage systems, upgrading bridges and culverts, and some big repairs to the road over Wainui Hill.  The council has 8000 photographs to sort and file.

There’s also the GNS Science report, just received and distributed to affected people and soon to be made public, which will help to determine future building and development in Golden Bay.

‘‘It’s basically going to tell us how frequently we can expect this sort of thing to happen, what intensity, and give us some indications of how they think we can control it,’’ Mr Humphries says.

He thinks that the council’s multidiscipline recovery team has been a success, but another lesson is that it would be better for all the team members to work out of the same office.

He also says the ‘‘big book of how you do recovery in New Zealand’’ is pitched at too high a level, and needs to include practical suggestions on things like dealing with people who will not  take no for an answer, and  how to best manage ‘‘certain members of staff’’ and get the right information to councillors.

Mr Humphries says the most recent Tapawera and Aorere floods were significant, but last year’s disaster was on a larger scale, causing the biggest civil defence emergency the district has seen.

‘‘I think we did pretty well, but we could do better. Anybody who says any different is being a little bit unrealistic.’’

He says one of the real pluses to come from the flood was that Tasman and Nelson worked so well together to jointly face an event ‘‘nobody was geared up for’’.

Mr Schruer agrees. ‘‘It was just fantastic, especially in light of all the amalgamation discussions that were on the go at the time, which could have been a distraction. I saw a level of professionalism there that I was quite amazed by.’’

He too emphasises the importance of  ‘‘open, honest, transparent communication’’ with affected people, something that has been reinforced by the experience of the team working on Christchurch earthquake recovery.

‘‘Even if you’ve got nothing to report, just keeping them in the loop. The absence of communication is when things spiral out of control.’’

With a regional recovery plan operating for the first time, ‘‘it was a case of stopping, thinking clearly, not trying to rush things too much, but understanding there wasn’t time to sit around either. You had to make the best decision you could at the time and then go with it’’.

It worked better than expected, Mr Schruer says.

‘‘In the debrief at the end, we found a lot of areas for improvement –  the biggest learning really was the communication thing. There’s always going to be people that complain because they didn’t get what they needed to know, and it’s just learning from that and improving each time.’’

Both councils and Civil Defence are updating their emergency and recovery  planning to take into account what they have learned.

Mr Schruer says what is coming out of that is a recovery plan ‘‘that will have a touch of reality to it, what actually does and doesn’t work, and things you have to set up ready to go – templates, checklists, action plans with things that we might not have thought of before. In general, we would be far better prepared’’.

His abiding memories of those first days are of long hours and dealing with people whose lives had been thrown into disarray.

‘‘Some were difficult to deal with and some were so co-operative, and you remember those who were out to help,  and the understanding so many people had of what you were facing.’’

Mr Choat takes a similar view.
‘‘We are more prepared,’’ he says. ‘‘This was an extreme event. It’s one in 500 years. The only other place that’s seen more rain in 24 hours is Fiordland.’’

The flood not only reinforced the importance of reviewing systems and strengthened the council’s relationship with residents, it also gave the affected communities the true picture of what they might come up against again.

‘‘They were prepared beforehand,  but now they know  what real preparation is.’’

And the workers? ‘‘A sizeable chunk of the staff haven’t had a Christmas in two years, because of the Aorere flood and then this,’’ Mr Choat says. ‘‘We’re looking forward to a disaster-free Christmas.’’

(Live Matches)