Sunday, May 07, 2006

Kerre Woodham: Are we ready? Absolutely not

Last year I presented a one-off telly special called Are You Ready? It looked at New Zealand's preparedness for a civil defence emergency.

The documentary looked at a volcanic eruption, a flood and an earthquake and in all three scenarios, the answer to the question Are You Ready? was no, New Zealand was not ready to cope with the consequences of a natural disaster. The good people of Gisborne had their own dramatic what-if scenario this week - and it seems that New Zealanders still aren't ready for a disaster.

An international tsunami warning was issued early on Thursday morning after an earthquake in Tonga and within half an hour of the warning, international media were broadcasting a story that said Gisborne was due to be struck by giant waves just after 6am. This being a global community, concerned expat Kiwis frantically phoned their family members and friends and warned them to head for the hills. Which is precisely where local residents fled. They piled into their cars, many still in the pyjamas, and made for the Waimata Valley Rd lookout first stopping at local service stations and filling up with essential supplies - like gas and cigarettes. Following the insouciant example set by Charles Upham, when you're staring death in the face, you can do so with equanimity while you're puffing on a fag.

By a quarter to seven it was all over - in fact, by a quarter to seven it would have been all over for thousands of people had the tsunami struck.

New Zealand's Civil Defence team issued its first public statement, advising that it was a false alarm, 20 minutes after the tsunami had been predicted to hit. When residents pointed out that this vital information was a bit late coming, civil defence officials went all wide-eyed and innocent and blamed news organisations for broadcasting inaccurate and sensational information. Which is all very well and good, but if Civil Defence has a secret - and they know that the tsunami is unlikely to happen which is something officials knew as early as 4am, apparently - why not let everybody know?

It's not like the bad old days of the civil service surely, when information was only released after requests for information had been received in triplicate and had gone through the appropriate channels.

The third and final notification, cancelling all warnings occurred just after 5.30am - there was plenty of opportunity to let people know that it was a false alarm, thus averting the panic in Gisborne.

For heaven's sake, overnight talkback hosts are just sitting there, praying for phone calls, and most news organisations have staff rostered to work through the wee small hours for this sort of scenario.

Radio is the quickest way to disseminate information. Civil Defence officials need to understand that the media is their friend - although I very much doubt the Wellington civil servants will be feeling particularly warm and fuzzy towards the media given the caning they're now experiencing in editorials and letters to the editor.

Civil Defence has to be an organisation that is nimble, quick and highly responsive - it can't be a lumbering great beast that takes three hours to make a decision or change direction.

There needs to be a complete rethink about the way the entire bureaucracy is structured - simply chucking money into the beast's maw is not going to help. And hopefully this exercise will reinforce to New Zealanders that when disaster strikes, communities will be pretty much on their own. You are the army that will be mobilised to help. So stock up those cans, store that water, have the emergency kit ready. You don't want to end up looking as unprepared and slow-witted as Civil Defence has done should disaster strike.

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