Hawke's Bay residents not happy with Cyclone Gabrielle report

By Lauren Crimp for RNZ

Some Hawke's Bay residents remain unconvinced whether a damning report into the emergency response of Cyclone Gabrielle will amount to any meaningful change.

An independent review found the region's Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM) group was not prepared for the disaster, and the "worst case scenario" was not planned for.

The findings and recommendations of the report, led by former police commissioner Mike Bush, were released on Monday.

The tropical cyclone which caused widespread destruction across parts of the North Island in February 2023 remains the deadliest weather event to hit the country in more than 50 years.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said it had received the report and will "consider it in due course" alongside the other reviews of the event, including its own report, which was being finalised.

Dan Gale helped with rescue efforts at Esk Valley and lost his holiday park business in the disaster.

Gale said he alerted Civil Defence on his CB radio to the rising Esk River as Gabrielle began flexing its muscles.

"The response I received on the other end was 'we'll pass it on'," he said.

"I also got in touch with the [Napier deputy mayor Annette Brosnan] and told her people need evacuating and it got passed on in a meeting apparently.

"The hydrologists passed the information on to Civil Defence but it just wasn't acted upon.

"In my opinion, it's basically because they don't know the heights at which point they should evacuate people."

Some of the report findings stated CDEM staff were overconfident about their readiness on the basis of prior emergency events such as Covid-19.

"They were operationally inexperienced and 'suffered from optimism bias' - tending to take a best case scenario approach, rather than a precautionary approach to planning, communication and warnings."

Another conclusion said communities, volunteers, contractors, businesses and utility providers provided "critical and heroic response activity".

"These local resources were not well utilised by the CDEM group in the response to this event."

Gale said because recommendations following a review into the 2020 Napier floods had not been implemented, he suspected a further repeat of sound suggestions and little action.

"My main concern is that it may not occur under the current staff who basically had the same suggestions put in front of them after the 2020 floods.

"I'll believe it when I see it."

A flooded home in Esk Valley following Cyclone Gabrielle.
A flooded home in Esk Valley following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo credit: Newshub

A fellow member of the community was similarly sceptical and said she had no faith the region's emergency management procedures would improve.

Whirinaki's Jayde Demanser, who was rescued with her young family from their home when floodwaters ripped through it, said she was outraged.

"Why would our emergency management system take a best scenario approach? Why not a proactive, prepared for the worst case scenario, especially with the changing weather these days," she said.

"It's disappointing.

"I mean lives were lost, a little two-year-old down the road from me ... life was cut short."

A frustrated Demanser said there remained no accountability for the mistakes made during the CDEM response to the disaster.

"I don't think trust can come back until someone has taken accountability, taken it on the chin, apologised, they made a mistake, someone needs to front it.

"It's just not fair anymore."

Iwi leaders in the region said mana whenua were largely sidelined during the initial emergency response to Gabrielle, and the review echoed these sentiments.

The report said CDEM's engagement of iwi Māori and Māori communities was "ad hoc, rather than the product of systematic and formalised effort".

Cyclone Gabrielle damage in Hawke's Bay.
Cyclone Gabrielle damage in Hawke's Bay. Photo credit: Newshub

Māori agencies and marae felt that their proven abilities to deliver welfare services at scale were "either ignored or hampered by bureaucratic decision making" from the Group Emergency Coordination Centre (GECC).

Ngāti Kahungunu chairperson Bayden Barber said it was hard to get much planning cut-through with officials.

"It was all on the hoof trying to get the relationships, trying to ensure iwi and marae were part of the planning and response," he said.

"Eventually we got to a place where we were part of the organisation, we were acknowledged for our contributions.

"But it was pushing a barrel uphill for a lot of it."

Barber said the role of iwi should be incorporated into Civil Defence legislation.

New Zealand's emergency management laws were being amended with a Bill before the House.

One of the proposed changes include "recognising the role Māori play in emergencies and enabling Māori to participate at all levels".

A NEMA spokesperson said it would consider the report, alongside other reviews, including the soon-to-be released government inquiry into the event.

"NEMA is currently finalising the report of our North Island Severe Weather Event After Action review. The publication date has not yet been set but is likely to be in the next few weeks.

"The delay is due to work we have been undertaking to ensure the report identities the causes of issues established through NEMA's self-reflections following the North Island severe weather events.

"NEMA's After Action review is not a system-wide review, rather it is a self-assessment of NEMA's response to the North Island severe weather events."

The government's final report is expected to be with Emergency Management and Recovery Minister Mark Mitchell on Tuesday.