Tsunami response evaluation needs to involve entire district – councillor

7:20 pm on 8 April 2021

An Eastern Bay leader is disappointed a review of the response to last month's tsunami threat excluded rural areas.

Maraenui between Te Kaha and Ōpōtiki township on State Highway 35

Maraenui between Te Kaha and Ōpōtiki township on State Highway 35 on the day of the tsunami last month. Photo: Supplied / Louis Rapihana

Whakatāne district councillor and Matata Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Gavin Dennis said more than 400 people evacuated to the small rural community of Awakaponga during the tsunami threat, so it was imperative their voices be included in any review of the district's response.

Dennis raised his concerns at Whakatāne District Council's strategy and policy committee held last week.

He said he had heard a meeting had been held between national emergency management and local emergency management staff - although only those from Whakatāne were invited.

"Matata needed to evacuate too and over 400 people evacuated to the Awakaponga Hall, which caused huge issues with quarry and milk trucks passing by," he said.

"Next time all relevant parties need to be invited. That includes volunteer fire brigades, rural police and neighbourhood support groups."

Matata has its own Civil Defence group, which includes these three groups.

Whakatāne council staff confirmed there was a meeting but said Fire and Emergency New Zealand was responsible for inviting fire staff and they could not comment on why only the Whakatāne Volunteer Fire Brigade was invited.

"I think you'll find that FENZ in Tauranga don't know how we operate here," Dennis said.

"We had our own debrief because we weren't invited to this one."

Dennis' comments were a reaction to a small paragraph about the community's response in a report by general manager development and environment services David Bewley.

His report stated key priorities of the debriefs were to clarify messaging, encourage walking or cycling over driving, provide public information about tsunami mapping and evacuation routes, as well as preparation to leave (Grab and Go bag), and assisting groups such as schools and retirement villages with their future planning for such events.

"While not required in this instance, the provision of shelter, food and water for a prolonged evacuation needs to be worked through, as well as infrastructure planning that could help by providing access to water, public shelters and toilets in areas where people will go," he said in the report.

Bewley's report noted that the "Long, Strong, Get Gone" messaging and national alerts worked well in alerting people to know what to do when events like the tsunami evacuation occur.

"While some issues were identified, the key highlight was the willingness to open their homes for shelter and other needs to strangers."

Counciilor has misgivings

Councillor Victor Luca asked how the council could consider the event a success if it had no data on how many people were evacuated.

Bewley said the council would probably never know how many people were evacuated but it was clear it was a large number.

"We are aware of some people, for example elderly, who did not evacuate because they didn't get the text alert or who couldn't get out," he said.

"The overarching response was very good."

Luca questioned why no one drove through the streets and knocked on doors to ensure everyone had evacuated.

Work needed on improvements - council chief executive

Our Community Project chairperson Stephanie O'Sullivan

Stephanie O'Sullivan Photo: RNZ / Jo O'Brien

Whakatāne council chief executive Stephanie O'Sullivan said there were health and safety protocols that had to be followed in events such as this.

"We've learnt a lot and recognise there is a lot of work to do better next time," she said.

Councillors then discussed what could be done to ensure people did not evacuate with no supplies next time.

Mayor Judy Turner said getting out was "one thing" but should a tsunami eventuate people might need supplies to last them two to three days.

There were suggestions that areas away from the coast should be stocked with supplies for evacuees, however councillor Wilson James pointed out supplies could be brought from outside the affected area.

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