Explainer: What is a state of emergency and who can call it?

2:47 pm on 28 January 2023
Civil Defence

States of emergency are declared when normal emergency services cannot, or are at risk, of being overwhelmed. (file image) Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A state of emergency was declared on 27 January to deal with the unprecedented flooding in Auckland. But what is a state of emergency and what powers does it grant?

Mayor Wayne Brown denied criticism that he was too slow in declaring a state of emergency after heavy rain caused severe flooding.

In a media stand-up late on Friday evening, Brown said he was following advice from experts and as soon as they recommended for him to declare an emergency, he signed it off.

Brown said he was confident the state of emergency had been declared at the right time as it would have been "irresponsible" to rush ahead and declare the emergency just because the public was calling for it.

It was officially declared at 9.54pm.

The opposition leader, Christopher Luxon, tweeted moments later, calling for an emergency to be declared.

Waikato University Law Professor Al Gillespie said states of emergency were declared when normal emergency services could not, or were at risk, of being overwhelmed.

They give emergency services access to a range of options.

"It allows the people on the ground to do certain things like close off areas, direct people to do certain acts and even if necessary, requisition private property for public safety."

The powers granted also include the ability to provide rescue, first aid, food, shelter or shelter; conserve essential supplies and regulate traffic and enter onto premises to rescue people or save lives.

States of emergency can be declared when there is an event that might cause loss of life or property, which cannot be dealt with by the normal emergency services.

New Zealand has had law for dealing with emergencies since 1953. It evolved every time there was a disaster, Gillespie said.

"The one thing that's been consistent since 1953 is the need to plan in advance; to be prepared for when the disaster hits and each time something happens, we evolve more about what their preparedness should look like," he said.

"What the public doesn't see is a huge apparatus going on now to make sure that this has been dealt with in a coordinated and orderly way so that we're not caught completely off guard."

That could go from volunteers underground and right up to the mayor, he said. "A lot of fantastic work done by very brave people to make sure that the community is safe."

There would have been a whole team advising the mayor, and trying to figure out if the situation could be dealt with within the normal powers authorities have, Gillespie said.

There may be some turbulence right now, but there was a plan, he said. "You're dealing with a dynamic situation with incomplete information. But it is a plan that that's been activated to make sure that we do the best that we can in these uncertain times."

When all the water has been mopped up, there will be a review looking at whether planning was adequate, and if it was foreseeable an event like this could have happened.

Every time there is a disaster, whether it is a cyclone or an earthquake or a landslide, there is a review to ask 'what can we learn from this to make it better next time'.

"Sometimes it's about making sure that there's more power on the ground. Sometimes it's about making sure that the correct decision makers have the tools that they need to make those decisions."

Some of the preparations might need to change, Gillespie said.

"In this age, where things are changing with climate change, we may have to start reconsidering what councils have to prepare for what was once a remote [possibility] may be becoming much more likely in the future."

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