We have an emergency emergency

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 1 May 2024

The climate may be changing but our response to disaster has remained the same - with a hopeless lack of willingness to step up on emergency management.

Flooding after the Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay burst its banks during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Flooding after the Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay burst its banks during Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Supplied / Dawson Bliss

After the Christchurch earthquake, the then-national Civil Defence boss compared his experience to "putting a team on the rugby field who have never ever played together before". 

Eight years later - and following a damning inquiry into the emergency response of cyclones Gabrielle, Hale and the Auckland anniversary weekend floods - John Hamilton's view has not changed.

"Arguably, and this will be highly critical of the NEMA [National Emergency Management Agency] people, but it's made worse," he tells The Detail. 

He slates the lack of experience and training at regional and community levels, with all the latest reviews pointing to the same thing - it's inadequate. 

Hamilton believes authorities have forgotten an important lesson - that the response has to start at the community level - and he's calling for detailed local plans.

"I come from a little place down on the East Coast, an hour and a half south of Hastings called Pōrangahau, an isolated community of about 300 people. It seems to me that, if they were struck by a problem, and they were struck during the cyclone by flooding, they are going to be able to understand their community and their situation best.

"They [should] report into a hub. The hub marshals the resources that they have available in the community. If they get overwhelmed they report up the line to the council and they should be able to marshal resources... to provide extra assistance." 

Then if the district council gets overwhelmed, it moves up to the regional council and then to central government in Wellington.

Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell with council rivers manager Andy White at the Spring Creek stopbank on 12 April 2024.

Minister of Emergency Management and Recovery, Mark Mitchell, during Marlborough floods last month. Photo: Supplied / Marlborough District Council

"To be brutally honest, I think in Hawke's Bay, they have not done enough to facilitate the development of local plans". 

RNZ reporter Lauren Crimp tells The Detail the inquiry agreed with Hamilton, finding this kind of community response to be lacking.

"First and foremost, and this came through the most strongly throughout that 164 pages, was, and the inquiry reads: 'put people and communities at the heart of an integrated emergency management system'," Crimp says.

"It's how community and iwi Māori stood up and responded during these disasters - it's saying that needs to be essentially a formal layer or a formal tier of the emergency management system, so communities, especially those in rural areas that are likely to suffer the most and be cut off, are ready and know what to do in an emergency."

The inquiry also noted past reviews had similar findings.

"We have not been learning, we have not been making the required changes," Crimp says.

"Communities are frustrated that this stuff is happening time and time again - it's getting worse, people are dying."

Newsroom national affairs editor Sam Sachdeva takes The Detail through recommendations of one of the past reviews from 2018.

"It raised a lot of the things we're seeing now... probably the primary one and you see echoes of it in the more recent review was the variation in capability and practice across the country - that different regions had different levels of expertise."

After this review, the Labour government introduced the Emergency Management Bill, but the inquiry said that's insufficient. The new government plans to scrap it and start over.

"There was a degree of contentiousness about some of its recommendations," Sachdeva says.

"The sense overall when you look at what officials were saying and what's come out of this most recent review is this legislation is tinkering, it's making smaller changes. What seems to be the case, or what we're hearing from these experts who spoke to people and produced this report is we need more fundamental changes... changing the model to put community members at the heart of it."

But this takes time and the inquiry is demanding urgent change.

"I think that is definitely a concern,'' Sachdeva says.

"We can't have those delays and that slow pace that we've had in the past, because clearly we're running into the same problems over and over and we can't keep making the same mistakes."

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