OPINION: The review into the emergency response to the events of February 22 and their aftermath is an important document.
It provides a chapter in the narrative that Christchurch people are striving to complete about that terrible day and the weeks that followed, which helps satisfy the human need to make sense of traumatic events. But perhaps more importantly, the document should improve the response to emergencies that New Zealand will inevitably experience.
The Press headline that announced the findings correctly highlighted the criticism directed at the handling of the emergency. Faulting it was the main focus of the investigation because identifying what went wrong helps prevent those things going wrong again, but the criticism needs to be kept in perspective.
Most of the response to the earthquake's emergency was effective and well directed. It saved lives, prevented panic and kept the city running as best it could.
People and property were put at risk, the investigation found, because of weaknesses and tensions between the city council and Civil Defence, but that does not counteract the reality of emergency services getting people out of the rubble, tending their wounds, keeping roads open, beginning to mend the fractured supply of power and water and arranging emergency supplies. That was an outstanding achievement, especially in the face of the tensions at the top that the report identifies.
Those tensions are attributed by Mayor Bob Parker to a clash of personalities that was quickly resolved, but it is clear that the meshing of the council, the Canterbury Civil Defence Emergency Management Group (CDEM) and the national CDEM caused problems. Some were inevitable but it is worrying that the council and the local civil defence group were "dysfunctionally divided" after the September 4 quake and seemingly remained so when February 22 arrived. That was a failure of civic leadership.
It is similarly unacceptable that when the national CDEM took over, its meshing with the local civil defence group proved challenging. In fact, such a combining operation had not been thought about or practised. It is remarkable that such a fundamental thing was overlooked, but in keeping with the decades of basic flaws coming to light in Civil Defence's plans and operations.
John Hamilton, the manager of Civil Defence Emergency Management and a force in Christchurch after the catastrophe, promises to attend to the issues of combining the emergency organisations' responses, which is welcome. So is his rejection of the report's recommendation that councils be sidelined in future disasters and that Civil Defence be put in sole charge.
His stand, and his support in that from the Cabinet, recognises that councils are best suited to act in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. They have the networks on the ground and the material resources that Civil Defence cannot hope to match.
Moreover, as the Christchurch experience shows, it is the council and its organisations that are vital in putting in place temporary reticulation and in servicing the journey back to normality. Similarly with the police. In an emergency they must be free to get on with the job they are best set up to do.
This should not be the last word on the response. Those who experienced it - particularly in the east - need to be heard because they can give personal accounts of its quality. They are likely to be critical.
- © Fairfax NZ News