Civil Defence to re-think better quake, tsunami systems

  • 21/11/2016

The magnitude-7.8 earthquake that rocked New Zealand a week ago caused plenty of confusion, which was perhaps captured best in the haphazard response of Civil Defence.

There was a muddle when it came to ascertaining the size of the quake, as GeoNet originally put the magnitude of the tremor at 6.5 before revising it to 7.5, and days later to 7.8.

There was also confusion when it came to the tsunami threat, with Civil Defence initially sending out no warning before they changed their mind and put all coastal areas on alert.

However in some places, tsunami sirens didn't sound until hours after the quake had struck, and in others, they didn't sound at all.

In amongst all that, the 111 emergency systems failed in the aftermath of the tremors - and Acting Minister of Civil Defence Gerry Brownlee on Saturday admitted there were significant delays in getting warnings to the public in some areas.

Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black said the somewhat problematic response came down to it being a "complex event".

"The nature of the earthquake became clearer as time went on - initially this was seen as an on-land earthquake and normally, on-land earthquakes don't create tsunamis, so we were working on the basis of the science," she told Paul Henry on Monday morning.

"It became clearer that the tidal gauges had picked up on a change in the sea height which indicated that there had been a tsunami, so all our protocols and processes had been followed for what was initially thought to be an on-land, much smaller earthquake."

Ms Stuart-Black says she will now be looking into the confusion many coastal areas experienced after it was discovered there was a tsunami threat.

"The Civil Defence emergency management groups around the country are responsible for informing their communities about the risk - so that's why I need to look into what decisions they were taking locally that resulted in some sirens being activated and some not."

She says Civil Defence will "absolutely" be looking into how they "strengthen the arrangements we have now", but is adamant it's asking a lot of them to do things drastically differently next time around.

"There is a challenge in that the science may not be able to tell us straight away the exact details or parameters of an earthquake," she said.

Ms Stuart-Black remains mum on when a new nationwide tsunami alert system will be put in place, but says they are working on getting it up and running as soon as possible.

Eighteen months is the estimated time-frame for that to be put in place, but Ms Stuart-Black says there is "no silver bullet" for shoring up our systems.

Prime Minister John Key, currently in Peru, told reporters there is money available to spend on improving the country's tsunami warning systems.

"My understanding from Nikki [Kaye, Minister of Civil Defence] was that it was certainly turning out to be quite a lot more expensive than we'd thought, and we've been shopping around to see if we can get a better alternative."

The current timeframe is 18 months, but Mr Key and Mr Brownlee have both said they want something better in place a lot sooner.

Mr Brownlee said on Saturday he was unaware $500,000 of taxpayer money had already been spent on a radio alert system called 'Tsunado'.

It has since been shelved, despite Civil Defence director John Hamilton saying two years ago it would be a "critical component" in crisis alerting.