So here’s the plan:  If the big one hits, we all make our way home as best we can. We’ve got the survival kit just like it says on the fridge magnet.

Hawke’s Bay Airport after the April rain bomb – Photo courtesy of

Checklist: Transistor radio, torch and batteries; some bottles of water, baked beans and a can opener. And candles. Oh, and matches. Sorted. We’ll be fine until the council rescues us.

If only it were that simple.

Around the world during the past year, lives and landscapes have been lost to droughts, floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and tornadoes.

Japan has just learned a hard lesson. Its strongest-ever earthquake created a tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster of epic proportions — in a country everyone thought would be the best-prepared in the world.

More recently, an exploding volcano in Chile has wrecked air travel plans around the Southern Hemisphere, while neighbouring Argentina has watched its food-producing land disappear under 30cm of ash.

The storm that devastated coastal Hawke’s Bay two months ago was a mere taste in comparison with some of those, but it was a wake-up call.

The April 26-28 “rain bomb” dropped 750mm of rain in 36 hours, turning streams into raging waterfalls and rivers that surged through houses, swept away vehicles, ripped up roads and brought down hills. In its wake, the residents of communities such as Waimarama and Ocean Beach surveyed the devastation in eerie silence, cut off from the rest of the world with no power or phone lines, no cellphone coverage, no way out, and no way to summon help.

Still, it could have been worse.

Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule says that if the storm had been centred just 10km further inland, over the Heretaunga Plains, there would have been a huge disaster.

Drainage systems would not have coped. Thousands of homes and businesses would have been flooded, and rivers would very likely have burst their banks. The productive soils of the plains, which form the economic base of the regional economy, would have disappeared under water, mud, silt and stones.

Even so, it could even have been much worse than that.

If the storm had been centred at the headwaters of the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri Rivers, it would have sent a wall of water tumbling down on to the plains, pouring on to farms and spilling over stopbanks that were never designed to cope with such large volumes of water.

Water, water, everywhere

Yule says the Ngaruroro would likely have diverted to its old course, swallowing up Gimblett Gravels – some of the most expensive winegrowing real estate in the world –  then Flaxmere, before heading around the south-western side of Hastings to join the Karamu Stream. From there it would have surged on down to Havelock North, perhaps knocking out the Havelock North bridge and the Hastings water supply lines attached to it.

The Tutaekuri River could also have burst its stopbanks to inundate Taradale and other parts of Napier, taking more bridges with it. With rail and roads gone, Napier and Hastings would have been cut off from each other, the airport and its air rescue services out of action, and the hospital unreachable for anyone north of Hastings.

Yule says there’s absolutely no doubt Hawke’s Bay dodged a bullet in April.

“It could have been a major disaster.”

The storm was what civil defence people call a “one-in-500-year-event” –  which means it was so severe it could be reasonably expected to occur only once every 500 years. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again for another 500 years. It could happen again next week.

Natural disasters can and do happen anywhere at any time. They can destroy our homes and livelihoods or even kill us.

Christchurch has been living with that stark reality for nine months, shaken and wrecked by continual earthquakes. The physical devastation and the emotional exhaustion of its citizens have been laid bare on our television screens almost daily since September.

It’s a scenario no one would have imagined, and we feel so sorry for them. And yet, for those who have seen it only on television it’s still sort of remote, not quite real, someone else’s problem, and that is a worry for those in charge of leading this region out of the mire the next time disaster strikes.

But not enough to drink?

According to a survey done for the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in 2008, just over half of us have a water stash for emergencies. Of the 450 households interviewed, 96% said they had enough food to last three days, although not all of them had the means to cook without electricity.

The worrying statistic to emerge was that only 55% said they had stored water, while 1% said they hadn’t made any preparations whatsoever. That adds up to a lot of people who could end up hungry and/or trying to get by without water once they’ve emptied the hot water cylinder.

Hawke’s Bay has it all in terms of natural hazards. In fact, nowhere in the region is safe from a disaster of some sort. We are constantly told it is a matter of “when”, not “whether” a natural disaster will befall us.

The possibility: Map only shows areas potentially flooded by a breach of one or more of the rivers; also vulnerable are the airport flats/Ahuriri Farm

Yet it seems the message is not registering.  While our councils plan and prepare, it seems Joe Citizen imagines there is little to go wrong, or nothing is going to happen, or that an army of White Knights is poised to ride to the rescue when summoned.

The regional council’s draft annual plan says there is “significant room for improvement in public awareness of natural hazards and what these risks mean to them”. That comment, so tactfully expressed, indicates that the hoi polloi are just not paying attention. “Public understanding of the likely impact of a major event on them individually is low. Few people would be prepared for an event and be able to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours,” the council says.

The region of Hawke’s Bay covers 12,700 square kilometres, stretching from Mahia Peninsula in the north to Porangahau in Central Hawke’s Bay to the south. To the east is the Pacific Ocean, and to the west are the Ruahine, Kaweka, Huiarau and Ahimanawa ranges.

Around Napier and Hastings there are 140,000 people living and working on the Heretaunga Plains, a floodplain crossed by three large rivers kept in check by man-made stopbanks. There is an eroding coastline open to tsunamis, and the region,   criss-crossed by fault lines, sits on the edge of a tectonic plate grinding against another one.

Large areas of land around Napier, including the regional airport, were lifted out of the sea by the 1931 earthquake, and would be likely to suffer liquefaction during another big shake.

Beyond the Heretaunga Plains, toward the headwaters of our big rivers in the ranges, are vast tracts of hills denuded of their natural, erosion-controlling vegetation to create more farmland.

Beyond that again is the rumbling, grumbling Mt Ruapehu, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It showered most of the North Island with ash during an eruption in 1996.

The patchy plan

On paper, Hawke’s Bay is preparing well for a disaster, but Lawrence Yule says things could be done a lot better.

There is fragmentation, political agendas, rivalries, reluctance to share resources, and “patch protection” going on among staff and politicians of Hawke’s Bay’s five councils, which could “test the relationship between different councils, priorities and staff as has happened in Christchurch,” he says.

“The immediate response would be pretty good, but sustaining that over time through the recovery phase would really stretch the group in terms of resources. We’d be pretty patchy for a major, sustained event.”

andrew newman

hbrc chief executive

All those councils could end up chasing after the same supplies of heavy equipment, machinery and manpower to cope with a big disaster.

“It is pertinent to note that since the 1980s the whole of this country has been run on a ‘just in time’ philosophy. There is no longer a Ministry of Works that can be called on, and there are no warehouses of idle equipment,” he says.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves. We’re really good at managing localised flood events, but there are things we could do a lot better in terms of a regional event. We’re still focused on our own pitches.”

Yule, who is beating a drum for local government amalgamation in Hawke’s Bay, says such a re-arrangement of authority would bring far more effective and cohesive civil defence planning and recovery operations, compared with the current system of five councils working separately.

The four territorial councils within Hawke’s Bay – Wairoa, Napier, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay — are each responsible for dealing with disasters in their own areas. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, which is responsible for the bureaucratic administration of regional civil defence, takes a hands-on responsibility for a disaster only when it is deemed to be a “regional disaster”.

HBRC’s group manager of assets, Mike Adye, says the region’s mayors will decide whether a disaster is a local or regional one. “It might take an hour or two, or a couple of days. Then the process starts moving.”

According to the manual

The regional council has a disaster-management manual 10cm thick. It is based on legislation and rules laid down by Parliament, under which local authorities must prepare for disaster management and recovery. It spells out in detail who is in charge of what, whom they must consult and communicate with, who decides how serious an  “event” is, and when other organisations are called in to help.

Adye says the detailed plans, coupled with practice runs, mean that everyone involved in civil defence management will know exactly what to do during any given disaster scenario. “The most important thing is public perception that somebody is taking the lead.”

He is less emphatic when asked whether all the local councils are synchronised in their civil defence planning. “Within reason. They are all operating under the same legislation and objectives.”  However, Adye is confident that everything that could reasonably be done in terms of research and planning has been identified and is in fact being addressed

Regional council chief executive Andrew Newman says a degree of introspection in civil defence planning is only to be expected, and it’s not all bad. “It’s understandable that people in their home organisations predominantly focus on their own issues.” It actually works best when territorial councils are in charge and able to get on with the job. They have much deeper roots and better understandings of their communities and resources, he says. “I think it [the current structure] works pretty well for local events.”

Overarching that, though, it’s the regional council’s job to bring cohesiveness to the table. “We need a bigger focus across the entire region,” Newman says.

The regional council, while admitting it needs to improve “the accessibility and application” of its own research by territorial authorities and professionals involved in land use planning, has also identified its own weak spot – a lack of people to lead a sustained and co-ordinated recovery operation after a big disaster.

“The immediate response would be pretty good, but sustaining that over time and the recovery phase would really stretch the group in terms of resources. We’d be pretty patchy for a major, sustained event,” says Newman.

Disaster management manager

Civil Defence: All hands on deck for civil defence operations exercise

Those currently in charge of directing an immediate response, then recovery operations, all have day jobs and families, as do all the other council staff whom the public might think are going to be on-tap after a disaster. “It’s a pretty big ask to have them also step into full-time emergency management,” says Newman.

Mike Adye estimates that probably only 30% of the regional council’s staff would be available to work after a serious emergency. The rest would be injured or taking care of their own families. Hastings District Council expects about 50% of its staff would be available.

With those statistics in mind, the regional council has decided to hire a full-time, dedicated, regional civil defence overseer, who would hold primary responsibility for co-ordinating disaster recovery, pulling in machinery and manpower from other organisations as needed. The council also plans to fully fund two emergency management officers in Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves. We’re really good at managing localised flood events, but there are things we could do a lot better in terms of a regional event. We’re still focused on our own pitches.”

lawrence yule

head of local government nz

and hastings mayor

Newman dismisses suspicions of political or parochial manoeuvrings with the new regional appointment. “There’s no power struggle here,” he says. “We are putting in additional professional and dedicated resourcing to get clearer accountability.”

The decision to move the regional civil defence headquarters from the regional council building to one in Hastings – an earthquake-strengthened, single-storey building at little risk of flood – is proof of the regional council’s objectivity, Newman says.

But Lawrence Yule, who wholeheartedly supports the appointment of a regional director under the regional council’s wing, says the decision to move the emergency headquarters was actually made because the regional council’s own building in Napier sits in the likely path of any tsunami that might roll into Hawke’s Bay from the Pacific.

He says the new regional museum being built in Napier is at the same risk from tsunamis, yet millions of dollars worth of treasures are to be archived in its basement.

Such a design defies logic, he says, and is symptomatic of the problems hindering truly regional planning for civil defence.

Hastings, however, has its own Achilles Heel. Yule admits that the Hastings sewage plant at East Clive would be vulnerable to a tsunami of 5m or more, or a big flood from the Ngaruroro.

The highest risk

The number one risk on Hawke’s Bay’s hazard list is earthquakes. Records going back 150 years show it to be one of the most seismically-active areas of New Zealand, sitting just 150km west of the Hikurangi Trough, the point where the Pacific and Part Australian tectonic plates collide and grind against each other.

During the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, 256 people lost their lives, either from collapsing buildings or in the widespread fires that ripped through the rubble.

According to the regional council’s publication “Hazards in Hawke’s Bay”, many buildings at that time were constructed of unreinforced masonry or had poorly supported concrete facades that collapsed in the shaking. The fires that destroyed downtown Napier were left to burn as the water supply in town failed. All the bridges into the city collapsed, and the main roads into Hawke’s Bay suffered severe damage. The economic damage from the earthquake equated to about $300 million in 2007 values – an amount that would pale into insignificance should a repeat occur now.

The 1931 quake was a momentous event – for both the heartbreak and damage it caused, then the rebuilding that produced two cities of inspiring Art Deco and Spanish Mission buildings.

At a national level, the quake prompted the introduction of nationwide building codes, civil defence strategies and earthquake insurance.

The requirements for building strength have increased repeatedly, their value clearly demonstrated in Christchurch. Buildings must now be either constructed to set codes or strengthened retrospectively. With that in mind, Hastings District Council has drawn up a list of buildings that might be substandard.

Yule admits it might not be financially viable to bring some of the buildings on that list up to standard.

There has been some speculation that the regional hospital in Hastings might have qualified for that list, but the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board says it will complete strengthening of the last building identified as needing it, by July. And Yule says experts are satisfied its underlying geology is not at risk from liquefaction.

So our councils are doing what they can to protect the region’s main infrastructure, but it seems the wild cards are still stacked high. Joe Citizen remains poorly aware, and only marginally better prepared.

It’s that aspect that worries the heck out of Adye and Yule.

If there’s an earthquake so strong we all fall over, we should immediately pick ourselves up and head for the nearest high ground because a tsunami could be on its way, says Adye.

In Napier, that means walking or running (not driving) up the hill.

Napier has installed tsunami-warning sirens, although Adye says people shouldn’t automatically run for the hills when they hear them because it might be just a practice. Instead, they should tune in to one of the six radio stations that have agreed to broadcast information.

  • Newstalk ZB,  90.3FM
  • Radio New Zealand News, 101.5FM
  • Radio Kahungunu, 94.5FM
  • More FM, 92.7FM
  • Central FM, 93.5FM
  • Wairoa FM, 88.5FM
At risk: Havelock North bridge over Karamu Stream would be vulnerable in a ‘Big One’ flood

In Clive, Te Awanga and Haumoana,  residents need to head for higher ground by whatever means, although to do that they must first be alerted, and therein lies another concern.

Already feeling helplessly exposed to the ravages of Nature every time angry seas bite a bit more off their seaward backyards, some residents are additionally anxious about what they feel is an inadequate tsunami-warning system – a siren and loudspeaker  system on the top of civil defence cars that would drive up and down the coast.

The Hastings District Council is confident it is a solution that could become a template for the rest of Hawke’s Bay, although one Te Awanga resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he and his wife mistook a test run of the loudhailers for a flock of birds fighting and squawking on the beach.

Yule sums it up succinctly: “People must depend on themselves. We can’t rescue everybody.”

What You Really Really Need

  • First aid kit and essential medicines
  • Torch and radio with spare batteries
  • Emergency water and easy-to-carry fod rations
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Pet supplies
  • Emergency toilet – toilet paper and large rubbish bags
  • Face and dust masks
  • Food for at least three days
  • Water – at least 3L per person per day
  • Water for washing and cooking
  • A primus or gas BBQ for cooking
  • A can opener
  • A personal getaway kit containing all the above plus documents such as passport, birth certificate, insurance policies, and precious family photos.

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