Random Play by Graham Reid

Alt.Nation: When disaster strikes -- and misses

Good morning, I’m Katherine Rhine and this Nine to Noon. Later in the programme, the Comedy Festival: is it just a bunch of people telling jokes, or is it actually funny? We’ll talk with some British and local comedians, all of whom have a joke about being in economy class on an aeroplane.

Then it’s cooking with Alyson Gofton whose Meal in a Minute programme on television has celebrated it’s 1,000th product placement. We’ll be talking canned spaghetti and why it is superior -- nutritionally, and for your dental hygiene -- to the stuff you buy in packets and that Italians make such a big fuss about.

Before noon my special guest this morning will be Dr Peter Rapson who has undertaken some ground-breaking research into obesity, and the results may surprise you.

His five-year study of teenage girls reveals that not enough of them are getting the message from teen magazines that skinny is good, and our anorexia rates are declining at an alarming rate.
Fat is in apparently and he’s blaming manufacturers, not of fast foods, but of those low-slung hip-hugger jeans. And he doesn’t have a good word to say about tattoo parlours who let teenagers get their navels pierced in the hope it attracts attention away from their fat bellies poking out between their tank top and fake Gucci belt.

But right now: leaked to us yesterday was a damning report about the state of the Civil Defence services in New Zealand.

According to the report commissioned by Pupkin, Chen and Marbreck, if a natural disaster of any kind hit the country at any place Civil Defence would be ill-equipped to deal with it. The report says that the recent tsunami warning in Gisborne where people self-evacuated -- in layman’s terms, they started shitting themselves when the heard the big wave was on its way -- only served to highlight how dysfunctional Civil Defence actually is.

And the slow response to last night’s earthquake in the capital in which at least 60 lives were lost once again highlighted the service’s shortcomings.

I’m joined by Dr Allen Wood, Head Chief of Civil Defence for the Greater Wellington and Nelson Districts.

Good morning Dr Wood.
Good morning Katherine.

This report, a damning indictment of the service, surely?
Well not really, and first of all you have to understand the context in which it was commissioned. Initially there was no reason for anyone to believe that any natural disaster might happen and so in that breathing space, as it were, we allowed our services -- which are run on highly professional lines in accordance with the principles of transparency, rapid response and mild panic -- to be analysed. Regrettably what happened during that time was the tsunami which rather caught everyone unawares.

But isn’t that in the nature of such things, the element of surprise?
Yes, I see your point but we have professional monitoring systems and when, just by unfortunate coincidence, none of them were manned at that time, we were not in a position to respond as we might have done otherwise.

And if they had been manned, what might have happened?
I suspect much the same as happened anyway. People courageously used personal initiative, panicked and fled for the hills, which is exactly what we would have told them to do.

You would have told people to panic?
Not in so many words, but let’s be honest there are only a few ways you can convey certain information, like ’Christ! There’s bloody big wave coming and we’re all gonna die if we don’t get out of here!’ In the past that kind of clear and unequivocal message from Civil Defence has been quite effective.

But of course in this case there was no tsunami.
Yes, and I think no one could have anticipated that. That seemed to prove that the people who panicked rather than the service itself were at fault. But I don’t want to get into the blame game.

This report says that Civil Defence doesn’t seem to be much good at anticipating any emergency and has few protocols in place to deal with them if they do happen. Is that fair?
What you need to understand is that this is about people. For the past three years we have been undertaking a careful monitoring programme of the very protocols you mention, and when you crunch the numbers you’ll find at the end of the day the figures do actually match up. Cost analysis vis-à-vis achievable outcomes in accordance to the Treaty and the Charter are what we are about.

Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.
Yes, and that rather proves my point that this is a very complex area and reports such as the one we have just seen can only scratch the surface.

You mean if the report had gone any deeper it would have found even more fault with the service?
That’s not what I am saying. In the cold light of day it is all very well to be wise after the event, but our people are professional and very hard-working, and I might add some of them are very highly qualified, so I wouldn’t like this to turn into some kind of bashing of Civil Defence.

No, it isn’t. I’m just asking if the system is as fundamentally flawed as this report suggests?
Oh, indeed it is, and that’s why we welcome it. What it has allowed us to do is focus attention on some of the infrastructure, analyse the data and then approach central government with a realistic and workable plan to upgrade essential services. We are not running for cover. If we did, that would send an unfortunate message to the public and the next thing you know all the high ground would be overrun with civilians, and there would be no room for us anyway.

So at the moment people should have no faith in Civil Defence?
Not at all, we have a sophisticated monitoring system using the bNet radio stations which warn us of any impending crisis, we have people with cellphones at the ready to convey a sense of panic and urgency to the civilian population where necessary, and in the unlikely event of a natural disaster we have people who can swing into action immediately and start writing reports to protect ourselves from criticism later by those with a political agenda. Or even those who just want to know why lives were lost, homes destroyed or there was widespread panic, looting and mayhem. I’d hate to think anyone would blame Civil Defence for any of those consequences just because we hadn’t warned people.

So you are saying, despite this report, that all is well within Civil Defence and people should have faith in it?
I stand behind my staff and am prepared to let them take the consequences. So, most definitely people should have faith. I pray daily to every deity there is and I am commending that as a wise practice.

Well, were you prepared for the devastating earthquake that hit Wellington this morning?
What earthquake?