Editorial: Lest we twist again...

Last updated 05:00 08/12/2012

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OPINION: Honestly now, we don't tend to fear tornadoes in New Zealand.

Not in general terms, anyway. If one was suddenly screaming towards us we could probably muster a squirt or two of adrenalin, but for the most part our general unease about violent natural events is drawn from other forces.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and floods have usually struck us as enough to be getting on with. Some of us, further north, may also look askance at the occasional volcano.

The West Auckland tornadoes that killed three people, injured dozens, and damaged 150 homes, many beyond repair, also represent one more thing to worry about.

Strictly speaking, it seems that some of the most damaging wind wasn't from the tornadoes themselves, but from "straight gusts" which came immediately before and after. One of the residents described her neighbourhood as having been in the tub of the washing machine.

A small touch of added poignancy is that the three men who died had been working on the sort of project that makes communities feel good - the site of a new high school.

They had been constructing it with 15-metre-high concrete tilt-slab walls, to be part of a structure intended to stand strong and safe during times of extremity. Yet they died because, while they were seeking shelter, the storm picked up and hurled those very walls at them.

Empathy aside, the thought of fatalities occurring in such circumstances is itself disorienting.

In Southland we know, from experience, the value of flood protection works. We know from vivid proximity the importance of ensuring buildings have enough structural integrity to withstand, as much as possible, the assaults of an earthquake.

But much as it seems inadequate, let alone unwise, to content ourselves with a fatalistic shrug as far as tornadoes are concerned, it's hard to know how to prepare. We are not, after all, in the same situation as the United States' Tornado Alley, where there's a much stronger frequency and predictability to the problems.

It seems timely for a public education component to be pursued, now that tornadoes have sprung to the fore in people's thinking.

Civil Defence advises those inside that a basement offers the greatest safety; otherwise interior rooms or hallways without windows, on the lowest floor. And it paid to get under something sturdy like a heavy table or workbench, and cover yourself with a mattress or blanket. If stuck outside, lie flat and protect your head with an object or with your arms. If in a car, don't try to outrun the tornado. Get out of it and don't get under it. Lie flat and protect your head with an object, or with your arms.

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The reactivity of emergency services was always going to be closely scrutinised and, in Auckland's case, the consensus has been that these responded extremely well.

It is tempting to align this, as Mayor Len Brown has, to lessons hard-learned from the Canterbury earthquakes. There may be a component of that - particularly in the sense that every indication was that when the services arrived there was no doubt who was in charge - but for all the devastation that resulted, this was not an emergency that even remotely approached the scale and infrastructural nightmare of the quakes.

The services deserve praise for their response, even so. The same goes for the wider community. Whether or not we're getting better at this, we're certainly getting more practised.

- The Southland Times

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