The Chief Ombudsman says there is still work to do to make sure the country has a resilient and robust emergency management system as extreme weather increases in frequency and severity.
Peter Boshier has just published an ‘insights and observations’ report following his visits to regions and communities worst affected by the series of extreme weather events that ravaged the North Island at the start of the year.
He says his first-hand look has given him a deep understanding of the complex challenges the country is facing and that New Zealand must maintain, with urgency, the momentum around preparing for future events.
“We know bad weather will become more frequent and severe and this will be an increasing part of our reality. Now is the time to look at our model for how New Zealand prepares for and copes with disaster,” he says.
“My report lays out the voices of the people who suffered during the devastating storms. It highlights where things didn’t work so well and also outlines where New Zealand got it right. One of those areas is the devolution of tasks and roles at a local level.
“I saw, myself, the huge benefits of this model and how it worked for many communities, especially iwi. People and communities at a local level know how to work quickly and how best to target the resources they have. They know what works for them in times of crisis and disaster. We need to factor this prominently into future responses.
“New Zealand cannot prevent storms from raging but we can make sure we have the right systems and people in place to be as prepared as possible for both when disaster strikes and during the recovery.”
Mr Boshier says his report identifies a number of issues and areas for improvement. Clear, timely and accessible communications from central and local government agencies are fundamental to an effective response in times of such stress and uncertainty.
“Disabled communities, older people and those who don’t speak English as a first language were particularly at risk when information wasn’t flowing through to them,” he says.
“Isolation was incredibly difficult for people, especially in communities that were cut off for weeks or were hard-to-reach. Some felt abandoned. People are concerned about land categorisations, buy-backs, and insurance. The importance of clear and easily accessible disputes resolution processes was evident.
“Councils and central government agencies were also experiencing frustrations of their own – many told me how thinly spread they were during and after the storms and some were also personally affected by the devastation.
“I want to acknowledge the commitment of those involved in the response and recovery efforts; I saw that everyone wants to do the right thing.”
Mr Boshier says he has already received around 80 complaints and expects many more in around 12-18 months after the storms and floods first hit.
“The reasons why people are unhappy vary. But many complaints are about decisions on requests for official information. Transparency, accountability and openness are vitally important in a time of crisis. People need to know what is happening so they can make decisions about their lives.
“My work after the Canterbury earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic and local flooding events means I am very familiar with the types of complaints that can arise in the aftermath of natural disasters and other significant events.
“My office will continue to play an important and independent role. We will stay in touch with government agencies involved in this work and we will provide support and advice. I will also stay connected with iwi and community organisations so I can keep learning about people’s concerns.
“I want to reassure people who think they have been treated unfairly while they are trying to rebuild their lives, that their complaints will be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated if required. Where I find there has been unfairness I am always prepared to make recommendations to prevent the same thing from happening again.”
Mr Boshier says his report does not contain recommendations, as it is not the result of a formal investigation.
“But I share people’s concerns, and by highlighting them, I hope this report will provide the new government, councils and other organisations with some valuable insights in terms of both managing the recovery effort this time around and preparing for the next event.”