Flooding victims agree changes to emergency management needed

7:33 pm on 23 April 2024
The huge slip that opened up at Aleysha Knowles' Birkenhead property

A slip at a Birkenhead property on Auckland's North Shore after the Auckland Anniversary flooding last year. Photo: Supplied

An inquiry into the response to last year's catastrophic storms shows the government must move quickly to save lives and prevent further devastation, those affected say.

The inquiry report, released on Tuesday, found the emergency management system failed in places and is not fit for purpose.

The country is not ready to respond to large-scale emergencies, like the Auckland Anniversary floods, and Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle, it found.

People felt let down by Civil Defence, it said. Aleysha Knowles, whose Auckland home is now unliveable, is one of them.

"They were unheard of, they were unseen, there was nothing that Civil Defence did for any of the victims that I know of from the Auckland Anniversary floods."

Aleysha Knowles at her Birkenhead property where a massive slip has put her financial future in jeopardy.

Aleysha Knowles at her Birkenhead property where there was a massive slip from the Auckland Anniversary floods. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly/The Detail

The inquiry found Civil Defence agencies lacked capability and capacity, and were not adequately prepared.

Relieved the inquiry acknowledged what Knowles and her community had been feeling, she said it was now time to improve the system - and fast.

"Throw away the red tape, stop needing to make law changes to make changes, because we don't want to have to have another 15 people lose their lives in a natural disaster to learn from our mistakes."

But a Hawke's Bay resident said while it was clear changes were needed, the inquiry was too harsh on Civil Defence.

Kiriana Laison and her entire Waiohiki community were rescued from their marae, which they had evacuated to before it became surrounded by rising floodwaters.

Civil Defence saved lives, she said.

"They picked us up, for frick's sakes, with the army, on a Unimog.

"Who in their lifetime get to actually experience being evacuated from a major disaster, and the army come and picks you up and saves you from being stranded, on your own bloody island?"

Defence Force brings evacuees from Waiohiki to Hastings sports centre

Defence Force brings evacuees from Waiohiki to Hastings sports centre after flooding from Cyclone Gabrielle in February, 2023. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

An aspect of the report Laison did agree with was a recommendation to formally include iwi Māori in disaster response and planning.

Her own whānau were taken in by another marae - Waipatu - where they lived for the best part of last year while her home was repaired.

Ngāti Kahungunu chairperson Bayden Barber said when disaster struck, Māori stepped up.

"We do what we do, which is to manaaki, and to tiaki, which is helping and assisting where needed.

"Not just Māori - Pākeha, and those that were in need, you know, utilising our resources, that's people, connections, networks, and food and supplies."

Iwi had a lot to give in emergency planning and response - and formal recognition of that was vital, he said.

"'Cause with that comes the allocation of resources, with that comes the allocation of mana, really, when it comes to Civil Defence, so that's what we want."

Civil Defence Welfare Centre sign in Whanganui

(File image) Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

New law urgent, a priority - minister

A new law was high on Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell's to-do list this term, he told RNZ's Midday Report.

The draft Emergency Management Bill which was poised to replace the decades-old Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 was insufficient, the inquiry found.

Rather than make changes, Cabinet agreed to throw it out and start again, Mitchell said.

"We can't have a bill that goes halfway, or is weak, or just sorta deals with stuff on the fringes. We need a substantive bill that is going to address the issues that have been highlights in these reports," he said.

"Make no mistake, this is a priority, and it's urgent."

National Party MP Mark Mitchell

Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell says a new bill is needed to address emergency response issues. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

But Barber was worried that would take too long, given the current draft bill was before select committee and had already been through a lengthy submissions process.

That sentiment was shared by Labour emergency management spokesperson Camilla Belich.

"We do not consider the case is made in the report for the wholesale abandonment of the Emergency Management Bill," she said.

The report suggested some significant amendments, but also supported aspects of it - so it would have been quicker just to make changes, she said.

"We are concerned that waiting to bring a new bill to the House this term risks too much of a delay. We don't know when the next disaster will strike and must be prepared."

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