Cyclone Gabrielle: What is State of National Emergency, what powers do authorities get?

A National State of Emergency has been declared as Cyclone Gabrielle whips the North Island causing flooding, damage and evacuations in many places. But what does this mean?

This is only the third time in New Zealand history a National State of Emergency has been declared.

They are reserved only for very large emergencies, when a situation meets several legal tests, including overwhelmed emergency services and the threat of danger to people.

The last national emergency was the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and before that, the Canterbury earthquakes.

A National State of Emergency gives a national director and their national controller legal authority to allocate further resources across the country and set priorities in support of a national level response.

It lasts seven days, just like a local state of emergency, but can be extended as needed.

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty signed the declaration at 8.43am on Tuesday, and said both the prime minister and the opposition spokesperson for emergency management supported the move.

The declaration applied to the six region's that had already declared a local state of emergency: Northland, Auckland, Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, and Hawke's Bay. In Manawatū region, the Tararua District had also just called a local state of emergency.

McAnulty said in those areas, the local civil defence teams as well as emergency services had been briefing NEMA about the situation and their needs since Sunday, and while support was already being provided by the government, the situation had now reached the threshold where a wider nationally coordinated response was needed.

"Cyclone Gabrielle has had major impacts across most of the North Island, this is a significant disaster with a real threat to the lives of North Islanders ... we know that we are all facing extensive flooding, slips, damaged roads and infrastructure," McAnulty said.

Now that a National State of Emergency has been declared, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) manages the response to the situation, with the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management in control - in this case, Acting Director of Civil Defence Roger Ball, with their national controller acting for them.

The coordination centre is in the Beehive Bunker.

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty.
Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty.

"This declaration ... is a significant legal instrument, and ... will enable the government to support the affected regions, provide additional resources as they are needed, and help set the priorities across the country for the response," McAnulty said.

"A National State of Emergency gives the National Controller legal authority to apply resources across the country in support of a national level response. "

Ball said not every region with a local state of emergency needed the national declaration but there were a number that did. The Hawke's Bay, Tairāwhiti and Coromandel Peninsula were of particular concern, and at about 8am when the national declaration assessment was made, the lack of communication from Tairāwhiti was one of the concerns that was taken into account.

Communication was "severely disrupted" in some areas, and the telecommunications companies were working to get cell towers working again.

"Our message to everyone affected is safety first, look after each other, your family and your neighbours. Please continue to follow local Civil Defence advice and please minimise travel in affected areas," Ball said.

"If you are worried about your safety - particularly because of the threat of flooding or slips, then don't wait for emergency services to contact you, then leave and seek safety."

The acting director of civil defence Roger Ball said no effort would be spared in the response to damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

He said it was important to stay informed even if power was out. RNZ is the civil defence broadcaster and is available on AM and FM frequencies.

The intent of the national declaration was not to micromanage local responses, but to allocate critical resources nationwide, Ball said, and the situation was developing minute-by-minute.

Ball said people were fleeing their homes in Hawke's Bay with formal evacuations taking place, and a request had been made for immediate Defence Force support.

"That is being provided right now, so that would be a good example of where the difference is being made immediately".

If other regions or areas declared local states of emergency they would be added to the national declaration, and safety information and emergency messages from emergency services and local civil defence groups could be communicated nationally, Ball said.

McAnulty said the strength of New Zealand's civil defence structure was how localised it was: "They know their areas, they know what's at risk most in severe weather and they make their calls accordingly."

The Defence Minister had been in contact and every request for assistance by the Defence Force had been fulfilled: "At no point has it been indicated to me that there's been concern around allocation of resources to the need."

Ball said anyone who felt unsafe could go to a civil defence centre, and if relocating they should let friends and family where they were going.

"In impacted areas if the advice is to stay at home or to minimise travel, please follow that advice."

"Drive to the conditions, watch out for flooding and debris on the roads. Do not enter floodwaters, do not play in floodwaters."

National state of emergency: What you need to know

  • The New Zealand government has declared a National State of Emergency, to assist in the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.

  • The declaration will apply to the six regions that have already declared a local State of Emergency: Northland, Auckland, Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, and Hawke's Bay.

  • A national state of emergency gives the national controller legal authority to apply further resources across the country and set priorities in support of a national level response.

National Emergency Management Agency advice:

  • Put safety first. Don't take any chances. Act quickly if you see rising water. Floods and flash floods can happen quickly. If you see rising water do not wait for official warnings. Head for higher ground and stay away from floodwater.

  • Stay at home if it is safe to do so. But have an evacuation plan in case your home becomes unsafe to stay in.

  • If you have evacuated, please stay where you are until you are given the all-clear to go home.

  • People should stay up to date with the forecasts from MetService and continue to follow the advice of Civil Defence and emergency services.

  • Do not try to walk, play, swim, or drive in floodwater: even water just 15 centimetres deep can sweep you off your feet, and half a metre of water will carry away most vehicles. Flood water is often contaminated and can make you sick.