Many lessons learnt, says post-quake boss

PORTALOO GLITCH: Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton says failing to get  portaloos to some people who needed them is one of his biggest regrets.
PORTALOO GLITCH: Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton says failing to get portaloos to some people who needed them is one of his biggest regrets.

John Hamilton went from being a Wellington bureaucrat to taking control after New Zealand's biggest natural disaster and back again in less than three months. Ben Heather reports.

Outgoing Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton regrets not acting faster after the February 22 earthquake, promising a better response to New Zealand's next major disaster.

Hamilton flew back to Wellington yesterday, his time as the most powerful man in Christchurch almost at an end, officially finishing today.

It has not been plain sailing for Civil Defence since it took control in Christchurch, with controversy surrounding unauthorised demolition work and business owners becoming so enraged they stormed the central-city cordon to gain access.

Hamilton was criticised, with claims he had taken an almost dictatorial approach.

Sitting in an empty Christchurch Art Gallery auditorium where he has held court before the media, Hamilton is relaxed about relinquishing power and returning to his day job as director of Civil Defence.

"I'd like to think you can draw a line under this episode and say I've done my bit."

He was less comfortable when asked to judge his performance in the quake response. "I'm all right. I have some personal frustration about things we could have done better."

The problem with distribution of portaloos in the early weeks was one of his biggest regrets, he said. Despite an adequate supply of toilets, some quake-wrecked streets never received portaloos.

"The portaloos – they are going to be the bane of my life, I think. That was a frustration for me because there was a bunch of people out there that weren't well served."

Allowing access to the central city for residents and business owners was too slow, with a proper system established only after much public criticism, he said.

"We were slow in getting our procedure right for access for businesses and residents into the red zone," he said.

"I can attribute those results to all sorts of things in hindsight, but, of course, hindsight is bloody good."

Hamilton is a military man. He started his career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1971 and climbed from helicopter pilot to chief of the air force in 2002.

In 2006, he became the director of Civil Defence, charged with improving New Zealand's preparedness for a natural disaster.

Hamilton's conversation is marked by military reference, and his style of leadership since the quake has been unashamedly hierarchical.

Early on, with people being rescued from buildings and swaths of the city without basic services, this was the right approach, he said.

However, as time wore on a shift was needed.

"Because of my military background, I apply a military approach to it, rightly or wrongly. I think it's right in the urgency of the response, but that approach doesn't work in the recovery side of things."

His military background set him up for frustration because a group of enthusiastic Civil Defence volunteers did not respond with the same rigid discipline as military personnel.

"One of the frustrations would be building a team together out of a raft of different people who have never done this s... before," he said. "A huge number of them were highly enthusiastic and energetic volunteers and most welcome, but it tends to slow things down."

Hamilton has been involved in many military operations, but nothing compares with the scale of the Christchurch quake.

His closest previous experience was organising, although not commanding, the first deployment of troops to East Timor.

"In my service career, I'd never been exposed to managing something as broad and as deep as this. You can't possibly be on top of all the bits and pieces going on in the response on any one day."

When the conversation shifts to his return to Wellington, Hamilton becomes more enthusiastic.

His job for the foreseeable future will be taking the lessons learnt in Christchurch and applying them to the rest of New Zealand.

"I think it absolutely vital that other councils have the benefit of Christchurch's unfortunate experience."

One of the most obvious gaps is an inadequate focus on recovering from disaster beyond the initial response, which could require broader legislative change similar to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.

Councils needed to be more flexible, ready to "up sticks" and move their emergency operations anywhere, he said.

"You need to have a standby operation centre because not everyone has an art gallery."

Desperate central Christchurch business owners unable to access their premises should serve as a warning to every New Zealand business that vital information needs to be backed up remotely, he said.

If the long-anticipated quake struck Wellington, it would be far messier than in Christchurch, he said.

With only three routes into Wellington, including the Ngauranga Gorge running along the fault line, whole communities would be cut off and essential services would be much harder to restore.

"The water supply crosses the fault line six times between the reservoir and downtown, and whole suburbs would be isolated," he said. "What that says for Wellington is, `Boy, you better have your plans sorted out as to how you're going to deal with it'."

There were lessons in Christchurch for other countries, and the recovery was being watched with international interest.

Hamilton will accompany Civil Defence Minister John Carter to the World Reconstruction Conference in Geneva next month and expects to liaise with other countries on the quake response.

"This is huge international interest from developed countries on how we get on with this," he said.

The powerful new Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) will assume many of Civil Defence's roles and will be watched closely by other nations.

Hamilton will not be drawn on whether Cera is the right model, but says its priority should be engaging with the Christchurch community.

"Don't just do it; have a conversation about it," he said. "If you don't have this engagement with the community, the process not only gets bogged down, but you won't get acceptance by the community of the plans and your whole recovery strategy is put at risk."

Without this approach, Cera could fall victim to the same criticism levelled at Hamilton – overzealous and dictatorial.

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