Thursday, April 25, 2024

Gabrielle a practical lesson for disaster researchers

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Rural areas showing the way in dealing with disasters, expert notes.
ER: Practice makes perfect and increased numbers of natural disasters in recent years have meant NZ’s ability to respond has been improving since Bola, Jon Mitchell of Massey University’s disaster research centre says.
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Jon Mitchell, the head of Massey University’s Centre for Disaster Research, had no idea a trip around East Cape in late January would prove to be a pre-disaster reconnaissance visit in light of the devastation that was to follow only days later. 

Since Cyclone Gabrielle’s wrath hit the eastern coasts, Mitchell and his colleagues have spent even more time in the regions worst affected and are contributing to a store of knowledge and lessons on how future responses can be improved.

“The reality is we are getting better at responses, partly as a result of having had more events like this since Bola. If you compare Bola and Gabrielle, Gabrielle has had significantly better response,” he said at Mystery Creek Fieldays. 

“This is in part thanks to a more uniform language used between groups involved, better processes and better relationships.”
Bola’s response was governed by the old 1983 Civil Defence Act that took a very central, “top-down” command and control approach to management, often with the communities most affected the last to have a say in the response.

This time around despite the devastation that unfolded across Te Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay, the region’s overall response proved better than what Auckland delivered its communities, in part due to the city having little recent experience with disasters of any natural type.

“And their ability to communicate with their outlying communities was lost quickly,” Mitchell said.
Loss of communications and road damage after Gabrielle down the east coast was similar to what Bola delivered, but communities proved to be in a better position to get communications up again, and organisations had a better understanding of their roles with less duplication or holes in action than in the past.

The willingness and capacity of communities to get involved in their own recovery is more apparent now, informed by social media and initiated by the likes of the “farmy army” and student volunteer groups that sprung out of the Christchurch earthquake.

However, there have also been lessons from Gabrielle on what could be done better, particularly for rural communities.

“There were issues about warning levels. As Gabrielle approached and telemetry reporting equipment started to fail in the hill country, there could have been a different response given the equipment had been taken out – it indicated a very extreme event was coming.”
He said there was a need for a more systematic, planned approach to re-connecting rural communities, one that demands more co-operation between groups that may not be used to working together, including the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Rural Support Trust.

When it comes to rebuilding rural businesses and communities, Mitchell said more work needs to be done on identifying how orchards and farms can remain where they are, but have more resilience in future events.

“Kiwifruit orchards, for example, have required significant amounts of silt to be removed. Perhaps future orchards could be designed in a way to make that removal simpler and less expensive.”

As maligned as they are, there are also already changes happening in forest felling practices to try to minimise site and slash losses.

The Port Hills fire also prompted the creation of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), an autonomous agency delivering more oversight to all aspects of disaster response.

Mitchell welcomed a more mature response to national disasters, with less finger pointing after events and more intent to learn and improve.

“The approach we take is that it [disaster incidence] is only going to get worse. With greater volatility in the climate we will see greater extremes.”

With cuts looming across all tertiary centres, he is hopeful Massey’s post-grad Diploma in Emergency Management and the master’s programme remain intact, with interest strong across all areas of study from students.

“Our work is quite strategic and timely, and unfortunately risk and disaster management is a growth area.”

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