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How well did Civil Defence do? Have your say…

By Philip Duncan

There are mixed reviews from people I’ve spoken to about our government’s official response to the very real threat of a devastating tsunami in New Zealand from Saturday night’s large quake in Chile.

Here are my thoughts.

I think Civil Defence have mastered modern technology very well and their website, Get Thru, along with twitter updates, meant that and other kiwis had “real time” updates throughout the night and across today.  The updates were detailed and answered most of my questions. 8 out of 10 I’d say.

But I think their response early in the evening was incredibly poor.  Here’s why:

The quake happened in the 8pm hour on Saturday night.  I was alerted around 8:30pm via a text from CNN.  My initial response was to think about the major quake that hit in the 1800s – New Zealand’s most damaging recorded tsunami, which also came from Chile.

While CNN and other international media organisations gave me news for New Zealand the Civil Defence department said “No threat for New Zealand”.  This, to me, was a major mistake. 

I’m not a scientist but I know fully the ripple effect a tsunami has.  One had been detected and the details broadcast soon after the quake. 

Not too much further in to the evening Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued Tsunami Warnings for the east coast of New South Wales north of Sydney, Lord Howe Island, and Norfolk Island – which is just 700kms north west of New Zealand.  Still, nothing from our government.

Towards midnight a warning was finally issued.  This was unacceptable in my view.  It was far too late and explains why so many people on the beaches on Sunday morning had no clue a tsunami was even coming.

I would’ve preferred to have seen “No threat to New Zealand, but it’s very likely the tsunami will have some affect on the country.  Stay tuned for updates”.

It’s not over hyping the situation – it’s educating the public that there is likely to be a risk on Sunday.  With the weather so stunning across New Zealand it was even more important that this warning go out early – or at the very least a basic “advisory”.

I’m not wanting to “rip down” Civil Defence.  They covered today’s events brilliantly.  But Tsunami’s are hard to predict and in the past several years they have killed hundreds of thousands of people.  We need to learn at every single opportunity to ensure the safety of everyone.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts – am I being too harsh?  Or do you agree?  Post a comment below and have your say.


David New Brighton on 28/02/2010 11:27pm

Mmmm….first I heard about it was when I logged into Weather Watch about 8.30am Sunday morning! So had a good sleep Saturday night! Mind you, I don’t have t.v or listen to radio…8 – D…wonder why?
Good coverage on the Sumner weather cam and witnessed the first surges 9.34am right on cue!

David New Brighton on 1/03/2010 12:04am

Apparently a journalist in Chile witnessed strange colors in the sky as the earthquake hit …video showing this at News and Commentary

David New Brighton on 1/03/2010 4:18am

….sorry, no actual pictures of sky color,on this video, just journalists description…

trevor martin on 28/02/2010 9:01pm

It seems to me that the Civil Defense Department can’t win. They ostrasized when the media beat them last time and the department is ignored when they do perform. Oh well; This seems to be one of the major problems with NZ society. Trevor

Andrew on 28/02/2010 9:25pm

they are only using the info that they can lay there hands on and make there informed decision from that. Looking at various webcams from around NZ yesterday it seemed there were still people that no matter what you broadcast across the different media types that still believed it was safe to go down to the beach “for a look”????? Are they stupid or is it the boy who cried wolf senario.

Suz on 28/02/2010 10:25am

I agree with your article totally after being on twitter most of today keeping NZers and overseas people up-to-date so they knew what to expect. I believe those of use that don’t have pay-to-view (Sky, etc) tv should’ve had TVNZ covering BBC and CNN in between their reports rather than replacing with “unscheduled programming”.

I believe Civil Defence did the best they could considering a lot of NZ’s blase attitude, I also feel that NZ needs to be informed of the past (see and the terminology – 1m height is not an indicator to the generalised public as to the potential threat of what happens when the water line recedes.

Personally, I’m keeping up to date and in touch due to the past big Chile earthquake in 1868 and the fact that huge tsunamis hit NZ approx 15hrs later… better safe than sorry!

JohnGaul on 28/02/2010 9:43am

Another comment, there was no mention of low lying areas like Rockinghorse Road on the South New Brighton spit to be evactuated. This must be one of the lowest lying areas as par to sea level in NZ with population.?


Steve on 28/02/2010 8:53am

Was stunned to turn on TV One this morning to get some up to date information and they were showing some political talk show. I know they broadcast news every half hour but, during a civil defence emergency, would expect them to have a continuous tickertape showing current situation and advice. It can’t be that hard as they do it every morning during the week. If we are advised to seek advice on National TV or radio, surely they should be giving continuous information. You could have turned on the TV, watched 15 minutes of debate and turned it off and known nothing of a potential disaster looming. Come on TVNZ, review your emergency procedures and find out what more you could do to help.

Lynne on 28/02/2010 8:32am

NZ Civil Defence may have improved but its still got a long way to go. I lost confidence when I read there was no threat to NZ, while knowing that it was far too soon to make such a definitive statement. The warning was issued approx. 3/4 hour after the Pacific warning center (NOAA) issued their warning for NZ. People who were still awake and who were monitoring the situation would have known a warning was in effect but many did not know when they woke on Sunday morning.

Local Civil Defence is supposed to be the first port of call for regional emergency information yet for Horizons, one of the largest regions in the country, the national warning was clearly meaningless – they withdrew theirs at 10am, before the first tsunami waves hit Wanganui.
Look here: Tsunami threat to New Zealand.
The webcams on that page showed people and cars at those two beaches all day.

“As at 10.00am the Council is advising the public in the Horizons region to be aware of tidal variations on both the east and west coasts of the region but has withdrawn earlier warnings for people to stay away from beaches and not to take to see in small craft.”

(The misspelling of “sea” is theirs, not mine!)

I admire the work that Civil Defence takes on but feel that its luck, rather than good management, that NZ has not experienced a tsunami disaster – yet.

JohnGaul on 28/02/2010 7:37am

I first learnt of the earthquake on the NZ Weather Forum about 10pm and I was surprised that when I eventually went of to bed about 1130pm, that a Tsunami warning had not been issued then. An Earthquake of that size, should have tsunami warnings IMMEDIATELY, not matter of waiting to how long the resulting consequences may evolve.


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