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Chris Ford: Civil Defence Needs To Get It Right!

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The tragedy of last week's tsunami in Samoa and this week's earthquake in the Solomon Islands/Vanuatu region shows that Civil Defence needs to lift it's game.

I couldn't believe it myself but when I saw a clip of Paul Henry on TV One's 'Breakfast' programme interviewing Civil Defence's communications chief Colin Feslier on the day of the Samoan tsunami, I couldn't help but agree with Henry for once in that it seemed to be an inept response from them. It seems that Feslier during that interview appeared to be only half-awake from the sound of his voice. While it was early morning when the quake struck, surely Civil Defence should have learnt from the great tsunami alert fiasco of 2006 to have improved its response and warning times when an event like this had occurred at a reasonable distance.

Still, in the TV One interview, Feslier said that the situation was 'confused' after the earthquake off Tonga last week and that's why Civil Defence was supposedly slow off the mark in issuing a tsunami warning.

While an alert was eventually issued and (luckily enough) a tsunami did not eventuate along our nation's coasts, I would not like to have imagined our Ministry of Civil Defence reacting to a severe earthquake in this country that took out a city such as Wellington (which is a future possibility) or a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the North Island. In these cases, very minimal or nil warning would be given but Civil Defence needs to react more quickly in times of disaster in both responding to a potential one (where there is time to forewarn) and after one has occurred offshore, particularly when it might impact upon New Zealand (as in the case of a non-locally generated tsunami).

I agree with the review that the Government has instigated into Civil Defence's botched handling of another serious tsunami threat in as many years. While more resources have been poured into the Ministry (and it might still need more funding), I also fear that it is the continual restructuring that seems to bedevil state sector agencies that may have impacted on its ability to respond.

In my view, what should happen with Civil Defence is that it should have its communications ability beefed up as it is one agency where, in my opinion, that function is crucial. Otherwise, if it isn't, then we may get a repeat of the previous two fiascos and at a time when a tsunami or another potentially forewarnable disaster may wash over us before we know about it through the media.

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