Saturday, May 06, 2006

Editorial: Flaws must be faced to avoid real disaster

The adage about learning from experience is particularly applicable to civil defence. Natural disasters, or events that suggest an emergency may be imminent, do not happen every day. Every possible lesson must therefore be extracted from them, and acted upon. The worst response is to try to paper over flaws, or attach the blame for these to a convenient scapegoat. Yet that is precisely what happened in the wake of Thursday morning's tsunami warning, which saw thousands flee their homes in panic.

The initial reaction of the Civil Defence Minister, Rick Barker, was to blame the BBC and other media. There was, he said, "no acceptance of a mess-up". Subsequent developments and disclosures have shown this to be the crassest of conclusions. The implications in terms of New Zealand's preparedness to cope with a major natural disaster are worrying. Even the jolt delivered 18 months ago by the Boxing Day tsunami seems not to have been sharp enough.

The earthquake off Tonga early on Thursday morning triggered a communication breakdown on several levels. About all that can be said, unequivocally, to have worked correctly was the transmission of an alert from Pacific tsunami warning officials in Hawaii to Civil Defence's National Crisis Management Centre. That centre, ignoring the fact that the international media had also received the warning, chose, effectively, to sit on it. Civil defence personnel in potentially affected areas were allowed to sleep on, and emergency advice phones remained unmanned.

The public, of course, would also have been unaware but for frantic calls and emails from overseas friends and relatives who had picked up the alert on the likes of the BBC and CNN. It goes without saying that this development should have been factored into the management centre's response plan. When it was not, and when no information was available locally, a degree of panic became inevitable.

Overseas broadcasters cannot, as it turns out, be blamed for that state lasting longer than it should have. They had no way of updating their bulletins when, as the tsunami warning centre has now conceded, there was a "messaging mix-up" and some media outlets did not receive the follow-up to the initial alert.

Obviously, Civil Defence officials must strike a balance between waiting for confirmation of an emergency and spreading unnecessary alarm. But, when there is only strictly limited time for evacuation, they should err on the side of warning the public. The lesson about the media's global reach merely re-emphasises that.

The lack of preparedness extends even to public alerts, however. Emergency instructions in the Yellow Pages telephone guide instruct people to "listen to your radio for advice and information". But Civil Defence has yet to sign an agreement with the radio networks to broadcast warnings. On Thursday, radio stations and other media were left to search fruitlessly for information that would clarify the situation.

Belatedly, Mr Barker has called for a review, and acknowledged that the flow of information to the media and all agencies involved in civil defence needs to improve. That, at least, is progress. Hopefully, the Civil Defence potentates will also now be on heightened alert when, on May 17, Auckland's regional system is tested in an international exercise modelling, appropriately, a Pacific Ocean tsunami.

The system flunked its first test, involving a once-in-100-years cyclone, in early December. A surfeit of shortcomings was identified, several involving communications. Lessons learned from the blunders then and from a genuine alert, no matter how shortlived, must be acted upon. The first step towards that is an unambiguous acknowledgment of their very existence.

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