Westport floods triggers emergency management rethink

2:10 pm on 13 August 2021

Last month's Westport flooding disaster has triggered a rethink of the way the Civil Defence hierarchy works on the West Coast.

Flood waters cover a section in Westport.

Flood waters cover a section in Westport in July. Photo: RNZ / Anan Zaki

This week's meeting of the region's emergency management committee agreed to carry out a structured debrief on how the crisis was handled, with support from the National Emergency Management Agency.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine, a member of the committee, said by and large the system worked - but it worked better once Greymouth was taken out of the loop.

"Normally Greymouth acts as the mother ship, and sets up the Emergency Co-ordination Centre and passes on information and requests for resources to Wellington, from the operations centres, in this case Westport," Cleine said.

"But by day three, that's the Sunday, it was clear that Greymouth didn't understand what was happening up here, so we passed a special resolution to fold the ECC there and move it to Westport so we were communicating directly with Wellington and that was more efficient."

Regional director of emergency management Claire Brown told the meeting that early on in the weather event there was considerable concern relating to both the Grey and Buller rivers.

But through Saturday 17 July the risk from the Grey River began to reduce.

Couches and furniture are being carried out of homes and loaded with diggers into trucks to be taken away and disposed of.

Couches and furniture are being carried out of homes and loaded with diggers into trucks to be taken away and disposed of after the flooding. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

"On Sunday, July 18 we determined the impact and risk was mostly centred on Westport area the Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Greymouth was stood down at the same time the centre in Westport transitioned into a co-ordination centre, rather than an operation centre," Brown said.

"This change recognised the flooding impacts mainly centred in Westport, and that the co-ordination centre should report directly to the National Crisis Centre in Wellington and be resourced as such,"

Cleine said there was a strong argument for a more flexible approach to disaster management on the West Coast in future, and the review could look at that.

"We really need to be able to stand up the ECC where the action is rather than centralising it, and have trained people and resources on site to run it - whether that's in Hokitika or Buller."

Westport was likely to fare better than other West Coast towns in the major quake predicted within the next 50 years, because it was more removed from the Alpine Fault, and could well end up being the most functional place to base the co-ordination centre, Cleine said.

Civil Defence policy adopted in 2018 stated there should be a minimum of four 'tier 1' controllers on the coast, but currently there are only two: John Canning and Mike Meehan.

The committee voted to appoint Te Aroha Cook from Westland District Council as a third, and Cleine urged the appointment of a fourth controller, based in Buller.

The committee agreed to commission terms of reference to assess the overall capability and structure of the West Coast Emergency Management.

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