18 Apr 2024

Lines of communication patchy, skilled volunteers turned away in aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle

11:20 am on 18 April 2024
Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Research into people's experiences in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle has shown the importance of communication and community.

Environment Hubs Aotearoa is conducting surveys and soon, focus groups, to gain a snapshot of the public's experience during and after the storm.

Executive officer Georgina Morrison said its hubs were perfectly placed to both support the community through the disaster, and to facilitate change for the next storm.

There are hubs all around the country, doing a range of work in community and environmental resilience space.

But lines of communication were patchy, and in some cases, people with necessary skills were turned away, and organisations perfectly placed to help were told to stand down.

"One of our hubs was supplying food to rural areas, they were supplying hot meals," Morrison said.

"It was definitely needed, and they were told to cease some of those operations."

Patchy communication lines meant help was not getting where it needed to go.

"People who would like to cook, for example, didn't know there were places they could go to support people making hot meals. Volunteers who were builders were just sent to sweep, for example, or a thousand volunteers turning up to one spot but they only needed five, so a whole lot of people being sent away."

It led them to think: "There's got to be a better way".

More than a year on from the storm, a number of similar inquiries and research projects are underway.

The findings and recommendations from an independent review of Hawke's Bay's Civil Defence response to Cyclone Gabrielle, headed up by former police commissioner Mike Bush, were released on 25 March, and found the system "sets up good people to fail".

Dr Jen Pannell, data curator and research lead, said they were seeing similar themes in their own research.

A scene of flooding damage. A stationary car is covered with tufts of muddy grass leftover from high flood waters. It has a large log sitting on top. There is pink spray paint over its number plate, indicating it has been written off. Behind the car is a field of trampled, muddy long grass slicked back and flattened by floodwaters. In the middle of the field is a small white and green house. The windows and doors have been destroyed, and the walls are dirty with mud. There is pink spray paint on the walls, indicating it has been written off.

Destruction of homes and vehicles in the Esk Valley. Photo: Tom Kitchin

Funded through the Whakatupu Aotearoa Foundation, the research involved surveying communities throughout Auckland, Tai Rāwhiti and Hawke's Bay, and soon they would be holding area-specific focus groups to discuss the responses, and the way forward.

"We've been overwhelmed with the quality and quantity of the responses we've been getting from people," Pannell said. "And what that's showing us is that there's still a really strong need for communities to have their voices heard.

"People are still obviously really keen to get their stories out there, and for people to listen."

But they still needed responses, specifically from the Tai Rāwhiti region, to make sure they had a full picture of the response.

"When we do the focus groups and put our findings together, we'll feed those findings back into those communities, so they don't just get taken out and not returned to them."

What have people said so far?

According to Morrison: "The message that we were hearing loud and clear, right at the start, was sometimes help isn't coming, so the local community needs to be empowered, they need to be prepared".

Dr Karen Hytten, senior lecturer in environmental management at Massey University in Palmerston North, said one of the strongest theme emerging was of the crucial role of community, when official responses were days away.

"The need to better support, connect, empower and fund some of these community groups that were doing things completely unfunded," she said.

Barriers included a lack of communication, be it physically because of disrupted cell communications, or mixed messages and a lack of information from the Civil Defence.

People wanted more diverse methods of messaging, including radio and social media, and better household preparedness.

"A lot of respondents said that it was their community acting together and being connected that helped, and in other places we had people who had completely different experiences and lacked that community," Hytten said.

Ideally, Morrison said, it would help identify ways of "linking the needs and the wants and the haves".

Their eventual goal was the create a roadmap for preparedness, and to help their communities grow more resilient before the next disaster.

The National Emergency Management Agency declined to comment, as a review is underway.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs