Civil Defence hit with tidal wave of criticism
By Elizabeth Binning
The Government has ordered a review of Civil Defence operations after the handling of yesterday's tsunami warning, which saw thousands flee their homes in panic.
Civil Defence Minister Rick Barker called for the review last night, saying the flow of information needed to improve. He wants media and other agencies informed of what's happening within half an hour of Civil Defence headquarters being told about an incident.
"The ministry will be looking carefully at the dissemination of information to the media and all our Civil Defence partners," he said. "We will also be looking at better ways of telling New Zealanders and the New Zealand media that there is no emergency when warnings and alerts have been withdrawn or downgraded."
The shakeup follows criticisms about the lack of information from Civil Defence after an international tsunami warning yesterday morning.
The alert was issued at 3.42am by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii after an earthquake in Tonga that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale.
The warning said it was large enough to cause a destructive tsunami. It then listed times that the wave would hit parts of New Zealand if it eventuated, the first impact being at Gisborne at 6.21am.
Within half an hour of the warning, international media were running the story. That prompted calls from expat New Zealanders all over the world.
Hundreds of residents fled their homes after receiving calls from loved ones. Many were dressed in their pyjamas and had no idea what was going on.
Local councils and emergency service workers were unable to provide much information as they had not been given any official word of the tsunami warning from Civil Defence.
Mr Barker said international media misreported the situation after it had been downscaled and caused unnecessary alarm.
"Misreporting by the BBC overnight led many people to believe a tsunami was heading for New Zealand. It was not," said Mr Barker.
Greg Ward, the BBC's reporter in New Zealand, said he was given his information about Gisborne being in danger at 6.10am by Auckland police.
He told the Herald he repeatedly tried Civil Defence staff and local council emergency staff but could get no response.
Mr Barker acknowledged the flow of information could have been better at this end.
Civil Defence national controller Mike O'Leary defended procedures yesterday, saying headquarters received word that a tsunami was unlikely within 15 minutes of receiving the first Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre report at 3.45am.
For that reason the information was not passed on to the media or any Government agencies.
Mr O'Leary said staff were not aware until 6am that people had begun evacuating. Once aware, they prepared a press statement, but that was not released until nearly 7am.