No apology to those impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle, but Civil Defence commits to learning from failings

  • 26/03/2024

Residents affected by Cyclone Gabrielle are yet to receive an apology with officials instead pledging to learn from mistakes following a scathing report.

The Government inquiry into the response to the North Island's severe weather last year is due to be released on Tuesday.

It comes hot on the heels of findings from a review into Hawke's Bay's Civil Defence response to Cyclone Gabrielle, with a conclusion it was "overwhelmed", under-prepared and in need of an overhaul. 

Chair of the Civil Defence Emergency Management Group Joint Committee Hinewai Ormsby told AM the cyclone was one of the most devastating events to hit New Zealand.

She said those in charge at the time "did their very best under the circumstances".

"We do know that there were failings and that's what this report aimed to do independently and to bring forward those findings for us to build greater resilience in the region."

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.

Ormsby acknowledged the impact the event caused.

"We absolutely acknowledge the devastation, those who lost loved ones, those who are still getting back on their feet here in Hawke's Bay," she said.

"Our commitment is to those whānau and all of Hawke's Bay communities to ensure that this independent review and the findings are implemented."

The report, led by former police commissioner Mike Bush, 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 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 says.

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," Robert Wong, who used to live in Pakowhai, said.

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

When asked by AM host Melissa Chan-Green if residents should at least get an apology, Ormsby fell short but said they were committed to an overhaul of the system.

Ormsby added that she and her family were also impacted by the cyclone.

"So, I absolutely understand what it felt like," she said.

"I think that there are a lot of people that could say sorry but what we're saying is that our hearts go out to all those families impacted, those communities impacted.

"Our job now is to pick up these learnings and make sure we build a stronger system for the next cyclone, hopefully not Gabrielle, because these weather events will continue with climate change. We need to be ready, more resilient."

Earlier on AM, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon wouldn't commit to an overhaul of Civil Defence until Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell had time to digest both reports.

However, he said his Government was committed to learning from the experience going forward.

"It's important to have these reviews, it's really important so that we can actually improve the emergency management response," he said.

"The key thing here on these emergency events, over what has been a couple of decades now, is that we actually have to take on board the learnings from each and every one of them and actually continually improve the way that we go about responding."