Hawke's Bay to overhaul civil defence after Cyclone Gabrielle review

Hawke's Bay will overhaul its civil defence approach following a long-awaited review on the Cyclone Gabrielle response.

It comes as findings of an independent review, led by former police commissioner Mike Bush, into the Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group's response to the event were released on Monday.

The review looked at how well-prepared officials were for the cyclone, as well as the immediate response to the disaster.

Eight people died and the cyclone caused widespread damage across the Hawke's Bay region, including destroyed homes and power outages that cut communities off for weeks.

Bush spoke at a Hawke's Bay Regional Council meeting shortly before the review was released on Monday.

"In terms of the review there was a very clear terms of reference about how we were to approach this," he said.

"The team who undertook this review are all very experienced in crisis and emergency management and have been involved in former reviews.

"We were asked very much to take a forward-looking, lessons-learned constructive approach to this. There was not a blame apportioning exercise, a very much how do we understand the system, what worked well, what didn't work and how do we improve for the future."

The Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) Group Joint Committee, which represents Hawke's Bay's five councils and is supported by advisory members from Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi and Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa Trust, made a statement after the review was published online

In the statement, the joint committee said: "Our region's emergency response system - whilst attempting to do the best it could under extremely challenging circumstances - was fundamentally overwhelmed by the scale, pace, and magnitude of the event.

"What is clear is that as a region we need to be prepared to undertake a complete overhaul of our approach to civil defence to ensure that our communities are better prepared to manage or mitigate the devastating impacts of an event like Cyclone Gabrielle."

The joint committee said it had been implementing a range of initiatives designed to enhance its approach to civil defence, including significant and increased levels of funding specifically for civil defence resilience. 

It also said more than $2 million in external funding had been used to enable community-led capability, including the purchase of two mobile welfare trailers and planning for 60 community resilience hubs underway across the region.

"To be clear, this is not about incremental change – we see this as a complete overhaul of how we approach emergency management in Hawke's Bay, and we intend to establish a dedicated workstream to ensure this important mahi is fully resourced with the support and expertise needed to deliver meaningful change for all of our communities for the future.

"It is critically important that, as the risk of extreme weather events intensifies, the lessons identified through this independent review process become lessons learned for everyone involved in the Civil Defence system – not just here in Hawke's Bay, but right across New Zealand."

Report findings

The report found that as the weather event intensified, the Hawke's Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group Emergency Coordination Centre "lacked situational awareness and intelligence about much of the danger and damage until too late". 

With only partial understanding of the severity of the event, officials struggled to direct and coordinate first responders, partner agencies and volunteers.

"Communications failures, lack of data and the speed, severity and extent of this event overwhelmed staff," the report says.

It's noted that staff at the coordination centre "did some brave and innovative things", however "they also had significant blind spots and made some mistakes".

"When some members of the public, including mana whenua with deep knowledge of the behaviour of the region's waterways, phoned emergency management authorities with concerns about observable river levels, forestry slash or river maintenance, they were told they were 'overreacting' or that plans were well in hand," the report said.

There's been massive backlash to the response which has also taken a toll.

"Just as local communities continue to grieve and suffer as they move towards recovery, the local councils' emergency management staff have also been traumatised," the report says.

"Many have resigned. Some have left the region altogether as a result of public backlash, amplified in a region with many small, close-knit communities. Councils are finding it hard to recruit their replacements."

The 117-page review drew from thousands of documents, hundreds of survey responses and dozens of interviews.

"We see the critical lessons for the future that can be drawn from this event as falling into two broad narratives," the report states. 

"One should inform improvements at local and regional levels and must be driven by the Hawke's Bay CDEM Group and TLAs. The other speaks to the need for new investment in enhanced national coordination, assurance, consistency and depth of professional leadership in response to emergencies. This is a more strategic matter for central Government."

The 2020 review into the Napier flood response found many similar recommendations. 

Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell said he has received a copy of the report and will consider it in due course alongside the other reviews on the event, including the Government Inquiry's final report expected back on Tuesday.

"I look forward to hearing how the Hawke's Bay CDEM Group intend to respond to the findings and recommendations," he told Newshub.

Local anger at response

Hawke's Bay to overhaul civil defence after Cyclone Gabrielle review

Survivors have spoken out about anger at the response from officials.

Robert Wong used to live in Pakowhai, a small settlement in Hastings, said there was no official warnings or police presence.

On Monday, ahead of the review release, he told Newshub of his ordeal and what he made of the response.

"Well, everything could have been done better," he said.

"The impression everyone has here is we were left to die, to sacrifice this area for another part of this district because there were more people were there."

He's not alone in those feelings.

Local heroes who helped following the impact have said if they'd waited for emergency agencies to act it would have put hundreds of lives at risk

Survivor Gareth Jones also previously told Newshub he was angry that a year on no changes had been made to flood warning systems. 

"There were no alarms raised. If I'd known that I'd have evacuated," he said.

Jones' friend Susane Caccioppoli drowned in the event after the house they were in was engulfed.

Calls for sacking

Many people Newshub have spoken to want to see Civil Defence Emergency Management Group Controller Ian MacDonald and the council's asset management group manager Chris Dolley sacked.

"I don't think someone will be held accountable. I think they should be, they didn't do their jobs," Wong said.

When asked if anyone would be held to account Civil Defence said it wasn't about pointing blame, but rather about taking learnings from the event.

However, that's not good enough for survivors.

"It's not satisfactory, you're there to protect us and you didn’t do that. End of story," Pakowhai resident Geoff Downer said.