Just over six months on from the Kaikoura earthquake, the Government is trying to fix the cracks the event exposed in our emergency management system. Sam Sachdeva reports.

When a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck the South Island shortly after midnight on November 14, 2016, thousands of Kiwis were rudely awakened from their slumber.

And woken up as well were the scientists tasked with monitoring major quakes and other natural disasters, determining their scale and providing advice to government agencies on who should be warned.

New Zealand currently lacks a 24/7 hazards monitoring service, instead relying on staff remaining on-call at nights and on weekends.

It was the topic of heated debate after the earthquake – and is now an area the Government finally appears to be addressing, with $19.5 million of funding for improving the response to hazards in a largely unnoticed section of the Budget.

In a blog post after the Kaikoura quake, GeoNet director Dr Ken Gledhill highlighted the lack of round-the-clock hazards monitoring as one of the flaws in our emergency management system.

“Because we do not have a 24/7 monitoring centre, we have to wake people and get them out of bed to look at complex data and make serious calls very quickly.

“It is not an ideal situation given the past few months and I’d like to change that by getting support for a 24/7 monitoring centre for geohazards.”

That provoked a typically robust response from Gerry Brownlee, Civil Defence Minister at the time, who complained of being blindsided by Gledhill’s remarks given there had been no funding requests for improved monitoring.

However, the prospect of improved monitoring had certainly been raised in the past: GeoNet’s strategic plan for 2015 highlighted the opportunity to create a dedicated 24/7 warning centre “that will significantly enhance our ability to rapidly inform the public during a geohazards event”.

Gledhill’s concerns were backed by Civil Defence’s internal review of its response to the Kaikoura earthquake. The report, released last month, found tsunami warnings were “hampered” by the fact that GNS Science was in charge of monitoring and assessing the risk, while the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) handled warnings.

“This practice is unnecessary complicated and can cause delay, which is further impaired by the fact that neither MCDEM nor GNS Science conduct their responsibilities from a dedicated, 24/7 monitoring and warning centre.”

More information needed – Labour

Clare Curran, Labour’s Civil Defence spokeswoman, said the Budget funding was a positive step, but there was still a lack of information about what the money would be used for and how swiftly 24/7 monitoring could be in place.

“I don’t think it’s enough, it’s all very speculative…vague is the word I would use.”

Curran said the Government needed to outline what changes had been made since the Kaikoura quake, and when 24/7 monitoring would be established to avoid similar problems.

“We should not be in a Mickey Mouse situation where someone has to be woken out of a deep sleep to be able to analyse critical data and then communicate that to warn thousands of people living near the coast whether or not to leave.”

Geonet’s 2015 report estimated the cost of 24/7 monitoring as $6m a year, with another 10 full-time staff added to GeoNet’s team.

The Budget has allocated $19.5m towards hazard monitoring over the next four financial years, starting at $3m in 2017/18 before rising to $4.5m in 2018/19 and $6m for the two years afterward.

However, it’s not yet clear where that money is going. A government-produced factsheet about the funding says it will “enable the development of 24/7 natural hazards monitoring”, but a Cabinet decision on who should receive the money will depend on the outcome of a business case being developed by GNS Science with support from other government agencies which is expected to be finished by July.

Civil Defence review

Broader questions about our Civil Defence set-up are also being addressed, with the terms of reference set for the technical advisory group carrying out a review.

The review was one of Brownlee’s last acts before moving into the foreign affairs role, and he made no secret of his concerns about Civil Defence during his time in the portfolio.

There were issues with communication and the flow of information after both the Kaikoura quake and this February’s Christchurch fires, and he was in no doubt that changes were needed to the organisation’s command and control structure.

The technical advisory group has been asked to consider whether the current principles of “act locally, coordinate regionally, support nationally” are suitable in all circumstances – a nod to the confusion caused by the multiple layers of control after a disaster, with MCDEM, regional Civil Defence groups or individual councils calling the shots depending on the circumstances.

That could lead to a centralisation of powers, although that may be fought by councils, while the terms of reference also ask whether there is the need for “an interim mechanism to manage a localised event with significant consequences”, filling the gap between local and national states of emergency.

Releasing the terms of reference, Guy said now was the time for “a fresh look” at Civil Defence, adding: “Some of our experience from recent events shows there are things we could work on and potentially do better.”

The advisory group, chaired by former National minister Roger Sowry with representatives from local government, police, the Fire Service, the Defence Force, and MCDEM, has three months to report back to Guy.

Curran, part of a cross-parliamentary panel working alongside the advisory group has said she will ensure that deadline doesn’t slip, so New Zealand isn’t exposed by a future disaster.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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