The trio of east coast quakes on March 5 stirred up more waves of confusion than it did in the tsunami red zone as people wrestled with mixed messages. Bringing to mind the lyrics of the aptly named English band The Clash … ‘Should I stay or should I go?’
Fearing the early morning rock ‘n roll might trigger a tsunami, thousands of Hawke’s Bay coastal residents headed for higher ground, although far more slept through the first quake at 2.27am.
On determining subsequent shakes weren’t ‘long or strong’ enough – based on the maxim ‘if it’s longer than one minute or hard to stand up’ – most carried on with life as usual.
I was shaken awake in our Haumoana home 30 metres from the beach. At first I thought my wife Paula was having a fit then I realised she was in the bathroom. The bed shook, the room swayed from side to side, then it eased and stopped.
It all lasted maybe 40 seconds. She hadn’t felt a thing. I checked Geonet; a 7.1 quake 100 km east of Te Araroa was felt widely across the country.
I missed a phone call from our neighbour (we switch ours off at night), although I do recall the flash of car lights heading out our shared drive. He and his family had headed up the hill to Haumoana School, the long designated Civil Defence safe area.
The earliest media reports suggested any tsunami threat would be north of Mahia and didn’t mention Hawke’s Bay. HB Civil Defence and Emergency Management (HBCDEM) suggested little local risk. I went back to sleep.
HBCDEM group controller Ian Macdonald says he didn’t receive correct approval from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the ‘little risk’ social media post was removed 10 minutes later. Some claim it was longer.
The new message urged all people in the ‘red zone’ to evacuate, leaving many scratching their heads. A “Know Your Zone” public education campaign had allegedly been delayed due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the Napier flooding.
CDEM’s processes have now been reviewed and ‘clarified’ to prevent future information conflicts and the zone message education will happen “over the next few months”.
Haumoana high point
When locals arrived at the Haumoana School there were no wardens or co-ordinators to open the school gate or hall.
That had previously been the Haumoana Fire Brigade’s role, but with CDEM in charge they’d been sidelined.
Shortly after the first quake Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) asked the brigade to move all its appliances to higher ground.
When they did arrive at the hall, FENZ stood them down as there had been no incidents. They advised the 150 or so people at the Haumoana highpoint to head home.
The national all-clear wasn’t given until 6am, but 40 minutes later a second quake of 7.4 magnitude struck off the Kermadecs. A new tsunami warning was issued for the Bay of Islands to Whangārei around 7.30am.
A third, 8.1 quake at 8.28am escalated calls to evacuate coastal areas as close as Tolaga Bay and Great Barrier Island. No mention was made of Hawke’s Bay and yet the CDEM red zone evacuation alert remained.
I checked Facebook around 7am and there were clusters of chaotic social media chatter as people learned over breakfast that an evacuation was in progress.
‘If the radio says the action is north of Gisborne why are we being asked to
evacuate? … Who’s in charge? Surely we would get a loud Covid-style smartphone warning? What do they mean red zone?’
The regional CDEM web site, normally ticking along at around 150 visitors a day, struggled under the strain of inquiries … after 32,000 views of interactive maps, it crashed.
A 2016 map was posted showing the worst case impact of a tsunami on coastal areas which added to the fear and confusion.
When the site recovered there were maps and links to complex maps being posted everywhere.
In the days following Macdonald admitted the website was “under-resourced” although the problem had been resolved with increased server capacity and stress tested.
Peak traffic on March 5th had been 6,600 page views an hour or 110 per minute. Testing shows it can now handle 26,000 views or 435 per minute.
Obstacles to retreat
Neil Kirton, Hohepa Homes business manager, called for an evacuation from the low-lying Clive site at 8.20am, which can take up to two hours.
Van loads of residents on their way up Poraiti Hill came to a halt when they found Unison had closed the road for routine maintenance and the power was off at their safe site.
Kirton was exasperated, not only for his charges, but trying to understand how essential service providers weren’t on stand-by in case urgent infrastructure repairs were needed?
CDEM should have had agreements in place, he said. “We missed a trick there on our capacity to respond.”
At an educational briefing in Taradale an observer noted a number of staff who lived in Ahuriri received a phone notification to evacuate and ironically headed home to retrieve pets, and essentials.
The tension and uncertainty continued throughout the morning; Napier Port evacuated with a siren and loudspeaker message at 10.20am: “This is not a drill”. Wave activity, possibly one metre above sea level, was still being predicted at 10.45am.
Finally after nine hours everything was downgraded – Keep away from beaches and rivers in case of strong, unusual currents and unpredictable surges.
After 8.30am Neil Kirton, also Napier’s representative on the HBRC, tried to call people who he imagined would be at the forefront of emergency response. “To my horror I found everything went to answerphone”, even local council switchboards.
He believes council operators should have been fully briefed so people didn’t have to rely on the internet. And CDEM should have a dedicated person providing accurate real-time updates across multiple platforms to help calm people’s nerves.
From a Regional Council perspective he says, “We were caught with our pants down”. It was embarrassing. “We have this perfect emergency system that doesn’t work when there’s an emergency.”
Kirton claims mixed messages around ‘long and strong’ and “the scramble to identify zones” exposed shortcomings in the present system that relied too much on CDEM to cover all the bases.
Some of the confusion about zones may have been resolved along the Cape Coast through earlier distribution of around 500 ‘Cape Coast Community resilience plan’ pamphlets discussed for a year and printed weeks before the quake.
They remained in a carboard box at CDEM headquarters weeks after the event.
Macdonald says the pamphlet was released digitally and hard copies were available for “anyone who requested them”. On acquiring a copy a week after the quakes, I was told they were being held back from release.
The pamphlet, “a living document” is currently under review between “community champions and CDEM staff,” says Macdonald.
Change management lacking
The Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes and latterly Covid have been a real test for emergency management in New Zealand, compounded by the restructuring of two frontline defence organisations.
The NZ Fire Service transitioned to Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) and Civil Defence and Emergency Management merged into the lead agency in civil emergencies.
In Hawke’s Bay that meant additional cultural changes, with Civil Defence and HB Emergency Management Group coming under HBRC, but all its alert directives coming from the national body.
One of the pre-requisites for the ‘civil defence’ merger, according to a December 2017 report, was good information, communication and resource sharing that “makes the most of local knowledge” balanced by the need for specialist expertise and national capability.
CDEM has been working on ‘resilience plans’ with 26 geographical communities across Hawke’s Bay plus migrant and church, older people, children and disability groups.
“Some of our work is with communities who only want one plan, for example the Porangahau plan covered Porangahau, Te Paerahi, Wanstead, Flemmington and Whangaehu communities,” says Macdonald.
Some of that work will continue “as resources and priorities allow” while other efforts have been scaled back due to Covid and other events.
“We will be reviewing the programme once we have more certainty around our continued role in the national Covid-19 response.”
Out with the old
Step back a couple of years and Haumoana Fire Brigade would have used speaker systems on its vehicles to alert locals of a flood or other emergency, kept locals updated and managed a Civil Defence command centre at the Haumoana School.
The brigade and Civil Defence, as it was then, had consulted on and championed a clear plan of action for a range of emergencies and distributed a kit of material, including recommended escape routes, to every household from 2013.
However, Macdonald says set evacuation routes or safe areas often don’t work as the community will make its own decisions on the day. “We prefer to work with and advise communities to help them make their own decisions.”
At a ‘community resilience’ meeting in the Haumoana School Hall back in August 2019 it was made clear the community had to start from scratch. The Haumoana fire brigade only heard about the meeting through the grapevine and decided to attend anyway.
Worst case scenarios were graphically depicted. Many questions were asked but few answers offered, other than the standard: ‘If it’s long and strong get gone’ and don’t expect us to be there for you.
The frustration was as tangible as it had been at an earlier meeting in Clive after another tactless approach caused two Hastings councillors to walk out shaking their heads.
A sub-committee of the Cape Coast Community Group (CCCG), formerly the Te Awanga Progressive Association, put its hand up to fill the gap.
Initially all it could do was echo CDEM; no sirens or speakers, possibly alerts on newer phones, know your escape route, take medicine and supplies and an emergency kit to higher ground. You may have less than 20 minutes.
CCCG president Tom Evers-Swindell agrees the original HBCDEM meeting was contentious. The group, “a bunch of volunteers with day jobs” took on the resilience role because they wanted to help remind residents of the dangers that come with living on the coast.
“A full page in our last newsletter to all residents gave clear and specific advice that still remains current.”
Evers-Swindell says the real messaging urges people to evacuate on foot. “That’s not going to happen. If people can drive they will unless it’s such a dangerous quake that it brings down the power lines and opens up the road.”
Once on higher ground he says, people should stay in their cars and be patient. It may be an hour or so before someone in a hi-vis jacket turns up to coordinate or open the gates and the hall.
“Volunteers might be busy looking after their own families in the first instance or they may not be around at the time.”
Challenge for champions
CCCG convener Irene O’Connell confirms nearly two years on, a plan is still being formulated … they’re looking at models of resilience in other communities. There’s much work to do and too few on the team.
They’re hoping for six volunteers to be trained up by HBCDEM to help coordinate, check people in, give directions and look after people with pets, medical or other needs during an emergency.
They’d like to have bins containing blankets, canned food, dried milk powder and hi-vis vests for coordinators.
Every emergency is potentially different says Evers-Swindell. “You have to be ready for this within your own household … People shouldn’t expect others to provide for them.”
An important step forward might be community fundraising for a substantial generator with 72 hours of diesel to run the lights and water pumps and flush the toilets. “We’ve suggested that to the school.”
Ian Macdonald says communities will have to raise their own funds for emergency resources. “Stores such as food and generators, etc., would need to be secured, checked and tested regularly with goods replaced as they expire.”
A couple of settlements in the Wairoa area are collaborating to create an emergency container.
CDEM will however fund signs “consistent with national guidelines and messages…if the community wants them”. These may point to evacuation routes or safe areas and are usually the last part of the community resilience process.
Reinventing the wheel
Haumoana senior fire officer Graeme Arthur says a lot of things have been lost in the mix during the eight or so years since Civil Defence moved under Regional Council and central government direction.
After the 2011 Te Awanga floods former Haumoana fire chief, the late Bill Tims, arranged the purchase of a generator and heater and had the school hall wired up for emergency use.
That equipment remains the property of the brigade and part of its emergency trailer now prioritised for members and their families.
Arthur generously reassures it will be made available “at our discretion”, although he’s frustrated “everyone’s having to start again. It seems silly really, like trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Neil Kirton remains concerned that CDEM is constrained by Wellington before it can act locally. “They won’t sneeze without that directive, meanwhile (hypothetically) the water’s come over the stop bank.”
He wants to see a more resilient approach with each cell in the wider community self-motivated, self-operating and able to function on its own in an event.
“Wide distribution of capacity is a vital element in civil defence. That’s why I complained bitterly about Regional Council taking it over.”
And he’s worried about the constant message that everyone’s left to their own devices. “If that’s the case then give back the $2 million we rate for civil defence infrastructure … perhaps we can give it to the local fire brigade?”
Kirton says there needs to be more accountability to the stakeholders who are paying for this service, “It’s simply not good enough”.
The changes, challenges and responsibilities around community engagement, emergency responses and even terminology and branding are far from over.
Dropping the term ‘civil defence’ is under discussion at a national level despite media preferring it to all the new acronyms.
“The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management was replaced by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) a couple of years ago. We would take our lead from any national decision,” says Macdonald.
Irene O’Connell suggests the transition from traditional ‘civil defence’ to ‘emergency management’ may be contributing to people’s uncertainty as they “try to understand a new language (and) a different way of doing things.”
Regardless, she says “people have to learn to stand on their own feet, particularly when you live right in front of the ocean. It’s not rocket science really.”
Macdonald says people should know their zones. “Hawke’s Bay was only ever under a beach and marine threat which is essentially our red zone … That was where our focus was.”
Those zones; Mahia, Westshore, Haumoana-Te Awanga, Ocean Beach and Waimarama “have a small number of dwellings”.
Macdonald says council staff, FENZ and Police informed as many people as possible on and around beaches in the Napier area and emergency services patrolled coastal areas including Central Hawke’s Bay and Waimarama.
He understood the Haumoana fire crew and Hastings council staff were deployed along the Cape Coast, although senior fire officer Graham Arthur says they “didn’t do any patrolling”.
Macdonald insists the post-quake feedback from the communities in red zone areas was positive. “Our community champions felt empowered to actively check on and support the more vulnerable in their community.”
Hastings’ councillor Ann Redstone went up to Haumoana School early in the morning “because that’s what leaders do” then did her utmost to keep people informed on social media.
She rang local camping grounds asking them to evacuate (none of them did) and was countering rumours and speculation, explaining who was responsible for what.
For the most part her message was ‘steer clear of the beachfront and rivers’, a stance eventually affirmed by NEMA at 11.50am.
What does HBCDEM do?
Post-quake there were hurried meetings between councils and stakeholders investigating how things got so messy and how to do better next time.
Councillor Redstone called a meeting with mayor Sandra Hazlehurst and HBCDEM staff but said all the talk was around the Cape Coast. “Clive and Whakatu seem to have been missed out and yet they’re by the river and the ocean.”
She’d like to see Civil Defence more involved with at-risk communities. “They haven’t really been doing that and in some cases that has created unnecessary confusion.”
She’s frustrated at their lack of response. “People need to feel confident and have clear and ongoing communication in an alert like we had.”
Like Neil Kirton and others, Redstone wonders what the real role of civil defence is. “If they keep telling people they’re on their own and they won’t be there at the evacuation zones what are councils really investing in?”
Only acting on “what the community wants” with no clear guidelines or resources for so-called ‘community champions’ places pressure on amateurs to consult, hold public meetings and come up with random proposals.
CDEM’s dismissal of previous Cape Coast plans and defensiveness in handling the so-called handover only served to alienate locals and fire volunteers and undermine trust. Losing three key CDEM’s liaison people didn’t help with continuity.
Telling people they’re on their own may be accurate, but it’s a negative that feeds fears and fuels ongoing concerns.
Graeme Arthur reassures the Cape Coast his Haumoana brigade will “definitely be there (and) do what’s necessary”, even offering to assist CDEM by adapting its own operational and action plan for near and distant tsunamis, earthquake, flooding or pandemic.
Arthur says, depending on the event, the brigade can still take a leading communications role including “using the Civil Defence radio in our truck”.
They are however proposing a new command post away from the Haumoana School to focus on core fire-related responsibilities and avoid confusing people about who’s in charge.
In a late twist to the story BayBuzz heard CDEM had asked FENZ HB area commander Ken Cooper to ensure the Haumoana brigade is present at the school in any evacuation event.
While they and the champions are still working out the details, perhaps if there’s another early morning rock and roll event, locals should alert sleepers by blaring car horns long and loud on the way to higher ground to broadcast their answer to that lyrical question, ‘should I stay or should I go?’
Tsunami evacuation zones: www.hbemergency.govt.nz/hazards/tsunami/.