The Report of the Government Inquiry into the Response to the North Island Severe Weather Events has been released.

These three bullet points from its Preface sum up the the nation’s situation:

  • As a country, we are not ready to respond to large-scale emergencies. Significant changes to the design, funding and operation of our emergency management system are needed.
  • The wide-ranging recommendations in this report are interconnected and should be considered as a package. We are frustrated that many of these recommendations are not new and are suggested in previous reviews.
  • Even if fully implemented, these recommendations alone will not result in a fit-for-purpose emergency management system. Without adequate investment in risk reduction and readiness, the impacts of disasters will continue to be devastating.

The Review panel’s purview reached beyond Hawke’s Bay, but most of its observations resonate with those of HB’s own independent review, released a few weeks back and reported here by BayBuzz.

The Panel’s comment that many of the recommendations are “not new” should be particularly concerning. Particularly from HB people most directly affected by the disaster, there has been heaps of criticism – outrage, in fact – about perceived ineffectiveness of immediate response ‘on the ground, on the day’. That’s totally understandable from people with devastating losses.

But looking ahead, what’s even more alarming is the country’s lack of readiness beforehand, with so many warnings and recommendations previously made, but unaddressed. Leaving those on the front lines set up to fail, as the independent HB review put it.

And yet the Report is staunch in insisting that no structural realignment of responsibilities should be pursued, such as stronger roles for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) or Fire and Emergency (FENZ). The Report comments:

“The challenge with these approaches is that they ignore the reality that emergencies happen in, and most affect, communities. They would likely create structural upheaval, shift leadership and management of roles and functions further away from communities, be ineffective, and not generate the necessary system shift. Therefore, the Inquiry did not explore the feasibility with the agencies mentioned.” 

This seems awfully shortsighted. From all the commentary to date on our disaster response, it appears that scale and professionalism (including experienced, tested expertise) is precisely what is called for. The Report’s listing of issues experienced during the response includes:

  • a lack of focus on and investment in readiness planning, activities, equipment, and supplies
  • limited emergency management experience, capacity, and capability, including experience managing large-scale events
  • councils not prioritising emergency management as a core function
  • a lack of shared situational awareness across councils, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and emergency responders
  • communities and key organisations not being involved in planning activities
  • an ad-hoc approach to bringing in expertise from around the country, and 
  • a significant mismatch between community expectations about what the emergency management response should offer and what it is able to deliver.

Only two of those points might possibly get ‘fixed’ at the local level.

Yes, as the Report stresses over and over – “Local government is at the coalface of readiness and response” – community involvement in planning and actual response is vital. And there will be future ‘localised’ disasters that we should want and expect our local responding agencies well-equipped (in terms of knowledge, protocols and materials) to address effectively. 

But frankly that’s small potatoes. We are just as likely to face future catastrophic events even larger in scale and more destructive, leaving ratepayer and taxpayer burdens in the billions. Leaving these events to the locals means once again we have failed to learn. How many times did the HB’s independent review use the term “overwhelmed” to describe what happened?

As the Report notes, probably the most confidence-undermining aspect of our region’s cyclone response is around the issue of warnings. Here, the Report says:

“There were issues with the information received by decision makers and the warnings received by the public. The lack of adequate communication between parts of the emergency response meant decisions were not timely, and the public did not always receive the necessary warnings to ensure physical safety and protect property. The challenges were exacerbated by the loss of some communications systems during Cyclone Gabrielle and the lack of back-up systems in places.

“The sense that warnings were insufficient has undermined public confidence in councils, weather forecasting, and the wider emergency management system. A comprehensive warning system is needed that is flexible enough to cover most, if not all, natural hazards, with a consistent approach across the country. To support the warning system, communities should be empowered with the knowledge and resources to make locally specific decisions about when evacuation or other action is required and appropriate, while having regard to necessary safety considerations.”

Again, 80% of cell towers in the region not working, Transpower’s primary power supply facility (built 1928) flooded … no electricity. Yep, ‘the community’ is going to fix those. Our councils and HBCDEM will get right on it.

All in all, the Report is a ‘nice to have’, but given its broad North Island scope and homage to community-led response, not as incisive or helpful as HB’s own review.

I sought further comment from Julie Greene, an experienced hand from HB’s horticultural world, who served on the Review Panel. However, she responded that: “The role of the Chair and panel members concluded when the final report was delivered to the Minister on 26 March 2024. As such the panel members are no longer in a position to speak on the Inquiry’s behalf … The Inquiry’s final report articulates the findings and speaks for itself. It outlines clearly what the Inquiry found and its recommendations.”

So, if you think I’ve been too harsh on the Report, you’ll have to read for yourself. Here’s the full report.

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1 Comment

  1. Maybe time for a radical rethink on Emergency Response by looking to the 3 Military Services?

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