Cyclone Gabrielle state of national emergency: What led to declaration, Parliament's plan in aftermath

As Cyclone Gabrielle barreled its way across the Coral Sea and then southeast towards New Zealand, one forecaster said it could be among the most serious storms to impact our country this century.

It would turn out to be the most significant weather event to affect New Zealand in recent times, as Prime Minister Chris Hipkins put it. Hundreds of thousands would face power outages, whole communities would lose contact with the outside world, key infrastructure would be destroyed and a volunteer firefighter would go missing.

As the warnings began to flood in last Thursday, Hipkins was dealing with the fallout of another weather event. In Tauranga, he inspected a house severely damaged by a landslide caused by earlier torrential rain.

He had been in the role just two weeks and had already fronted the Government's response to the catastrophic, fatal floods in Auckland - and was now preparing for another potential disaster.

"My message to New Zealanders everywhere is that this is something we're going to see more of, so we want families and businesses to be thinking ahead," he said last Thursday.

"We want everyone to be prepared for that."

Just days later, Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty was declaring a state of national emergency, just the third time in New Zealand's history that such an instrument has been needed.

Lead-up to the state of national emergency

According to McAnulty and Hipkins, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) began providing advice on whether a state of national emergency was necessary on Sunday.

That advice was collated every four hours for ministers. It involved NEMA - operating from the Beehive bunker - engaging directly with local civil defence groups to find out their capacity to respond. 

On Sunday, as ministers began receiving those briefings, the cyclone was north of New Zealand but its impact was already being felt.

Heavy rain and gales struck Northland, downing trees, and causing widespread power outages. Emergency alerts were issued to people's phones in the region as well as in Auckland and the Coromandel. The Auckland Harbour Bridge was closed off for the night. 

By Monday morning, there was significant flooding in Whangārei and the eastern seaboard along the Coromandel Peninsula was being battered by the storm surge. Roads around the holiday hotspot, already impacted by previous storms, were closed due to slips, with some towns cut off from main routes. 

Parts of Whangarei were underwater.
Parts of Whangarei were underwater. Photo credit: AM.

In Auckland, Mayor Wayne Brown and other officials warned of a tough 24 hours ahead. Non-essential travel was discouraged and public transport was disrupted as Gabrielle stormed closer. The council later evacuated a number of apartments in Mt Eden as a tall tower was at risk of falling.

Authorities across the North Island braced for impact. At the end of Monday, a number of regions had declared local emergencies, including Waikato and Tairāwhiti.

Residents on the east coast received an urgent flood warning with rivers rising rapidly. As if the weather wasn't enough, a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck near Gisborne. Luckily, there was no serious damage.

As night fell, emergency services across the upper North Island were on high alert and responding to hundreds of callouts. And when daylight broke on Tuesday, the destruction was clear

Roads were cut off, power cuts were widespread, and a large number of people had to be evacuated from their homes, particularly in Auckland and on the east coast. Parts of Gisborne and the wider Tairāwhiti were silent, with communication lines severed. Large areas, like Taradale in Napier and Clevedon in southern Auckland, were underwater. 

Taradale on Tuesday.
Taradale on Tuesday. Photo credit: Newshub.

Muriwai in western Auckland was one spot especially affected. As volunteer firefighters investigated flooding at a house there overnight, a landslide occurred, collapsing a house and trapping two. One was rescued in the early hours, but another remains missing. 

The weather event was labelled a "significant disaster" by McAnulty, while Hipkins said it was likely the most significant extreme weather event to hit New Zealand in recent times.

Muriwai was hard hit.
Muriwai was hard hit. Photo credit: Newshub.

Declaring state of national emergency

The Emergency Management Minister said that up until Tuesday morning, advice had been that a state of national emergency wasn't needed. 

But feedback that morning was that while not all regions needed national support, some were wanting it. 

"NEMA met with the local civil defense teams earlier this morning and advised that local civil defense teams also fed back that a national state of emergency would be beneficial."

Making such a declaration is not something politicians want to do without sound advice, McAnulty said.

He said NEMA had made the message very clear to affected regions over recent days: "Tell us what you need and we'll get it to you."

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty.
Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The declaration was signed at 8:43am on Tuesday morning. McAnulty said he advised both the Prime Minister and the Opposition of the decision. They were supportive.

It's just the third time such a declaration had been made, following the Christchurch earthquakes and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The declaration will last seven days and will be reviewed closer to its scheduled end, McAnulty said.

The national emergency provisions allow NEMA to coordinate the response centrally, rather than leaving it to a number of local civil defence groups across different regions. It can take oversight of the allocation of resources and make directions if needed.

While "national" is in the name, it only applies to regions that have declared a local state of emergency. At the point it was declared, there were six - Northland, Auckland, Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke's Bay. It was later extended to cover Tararua.

"A national declaration is a significant legal instrument and it has been important that it has been prepared correctly," said McAnulty. 

He said the Government had already been providing support to the regions affected, but this allowed for clearer national coordination. A number of packages were announced in the aftermath of the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods and ahead of Cyclone Gabrielle, like support to businesses and community providers.

Roger Ball and Kieran McAnulty.
Roger Ball and Kieran McAnulty. Photo credit: Newshub.

Civil Defence Emergency Management Director Roger Ball said the declaration wouldn't change the ongoing role of the local groups, which NEMA continued to have confidence in.

"What this declaration does give us is the ability to set overall intent and to respond to multi-regional needs, to allocate critical resources in a coordinated manner across the country. 

"It will also, I hope, provide public assurance that national authorities' have this and no effort will be spared. It's not our intent to start micromanaging the operational response from the ground."

Ball said a good example of how the national declaration was making a difference was around coordinating a response to requests for additional Defence Force support in evacuating people in Hawke's Bay.

Speaking following McAnulty and Ball, National leader Christopher Luxon said his party fully supported the state of national emergency. 

"Our thoughts and prayers are really with people who are doing it really tough at the moment. We think about the communities that are very disconnected and have been cut off. We think about people that have been displaced from their homes. We're also very conscious of people that are actually fighting for their lives."

National's Christopher Luxon.
National's Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: Newshub.

He said the response had been well managed and showed authorities were improving their processes after issues during the floods nearly two weeks prior.

This was important as New Zealand prepares to face more extreme climate events, he said.

Luxon said National would offer cross-party support on how to build climate adaptation into key infrastructure.

While the worst may have passed, authorities still warned Cyclone Gabrielle's impact would be felt over Tuesday and Wednesday.

Parliament's plan

The major weather event threw plans for Parliament's first sitting week of the year up into the air.

As of Monday, it was thought that Parliament would resume for 2023 on Tuesday, with statements on the weather as well as the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. That would be followed on Wednesday by the Prime Minister's statement and then oral questions on Thursday.

But considering the extent of Cyclone Gabrielle's destruction and the state of national emergency, the decision was made on Tuesday afternoon to postpone some proceedings. 

After Tuesday's statements, the House was adjourned until next Tuesday. The Prime Minister's statement and subsequent debate will then follow. Wednesday will be the first day for oral questions. 

"This an unprecedented storm which is affecting people and property across much of the North Island," Leader of the House Grant Robertson said.

"Government Ministers and MPs from all political parties will be focussed on assisting their communities with the response so the Government is proposing to postpone this week’s sitting programme."

Robertson later said all parties supported the adjournment, but ACT.

Leader of the House Grant Robertson.
Leader of the House Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images.

ACT leader David Seymour said: "Every ACT MP is in Wellington ready to do their job and hold the Government accountable, but Labour has cancelled Parliament."

"New Zealand needs democracy to continue, with Parliament functioning whenever possible, not cancelled whenever the Government can get away with it."

Luxon, who flew into Wellington on Sunday, said it was good Hipkins was in Auckland. He said he had flown out of the city in preparation for the week at Parliament. 

"Obviously, subsequent to that, events have moved on and we've obviously got a national state of emergency which is important and we support."

Te Pāti Māori's Debbie Ngarewa-Packer claimed National had earlier opposed Parliament sitting virtually, leading to MPs having to travel to Wellington.

Responding to that, Luxon said it had been National's view on Sunday that MPs should be in Parliament doing their job. However, he acknowledged "events have superseded it". He would instruct MPs to head back to their electorates. 

Speaking in the House on Tuesday afternoon, Greens' co-leader James Shaw thanked the Government for the "decisive and comprehensive course of action" they are taking.

But he said he "[struggled] to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling about this particular crisis" as it highlighted "the lost decades we spent bickering and arguing" about climate change and its existence. 

Seymour said ACT supported the state of national emergency, but questioned what led McAnulty to declaring it on Tuesday morning, rather than in the previous 24 hours. McAnulty repeated the Government had been receiving advice for days and it was a high bar to meet.

Ngarewa-Packer said the seriousness of the cyclone had been obvious for day and criticised politicians who stopped others from staying in their communities to respond to the disaster.