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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

What to Learn from Cyclone Gabrielle?


Cyclone Gabrielle has been just terrible for those directly in its path. It’s formed part – just part – of an astonishing run of bad weather across the northern part of the North Island in recent months. And the Pacific cyclone season still has a few weeks to run. It ain’t over yet.

One of my conclusions from this is that we need to plan for regular or at least more frequent cyclone seasons in the years ahead. By that I mean expecting to be affected by cyclones most years, rather than assuming (or hoping) we have years between cyclones, and so treating these big summer/autumn storms as exceptional. We need to get both government and economy/community organised accordingly. What might that mean?

With extreme weather events, such as Cyclone Gabrielle, increasingly more likely, Ian Fletcher outlines a multi-pronged approach to establishing a more resilient New Zealand.

A New Emergency Service

First, the immediate response deserves better civil defence planning and preparation. Those involved have worked really hard in recent weeks. But I think we need a better framework: it’s time to seriously consider a version of the State Emergency Services that underpin disaster responses in Australia, augmenting the Fire, Police and Ambulance services with trained and equipped volunteers (and a professional backbone, with resilient communications). Adding up our floods, earthquakes and other weather events, the case for an organised and well-equipped response system looks overwhelming.

Improved Police Tactics

Matched by a better grip by the Police. The biggest disappointment for me in the Gabrielle response effort has been the public spat about Police response. I think there have been enough police in the right place, working really hard. But it’s a no-brainer that in a disaster situation, people deserve extra reassurance, more visible order, and that the authorities should want and need trained eyes on the ground. Whether or not there’s more actual crime is to just misunderstand what policing is about in this situation. It’s been a failure of imagination, which I count as a failure of leadership. Police need to get into the habit of ostentatiously moving towards the problem as news breaks, not as crime figures are collated. Public confidence matters.

The biggest disappointment in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle has been the public spat over the police’s response writes Ian Fletcher – “It’s been a failure of imagination, which I count as a failure of leadership”.

Recovery - $

And then there’s the recovery. Initially, once lives are safe and people accounted for, it’s about money. The Government has schemes for farms and businesses, and a Minister newly in charge. It’s set up a task force. Work and Income New Zealand can make civil defence payments to people and families, subject to conditions (have a look at the WINZ website; it’s daunting).

I think that is Wellington-centred thinking that misses the point: people will largely sort themselves out if they can get money quickly to buy what they need. A cash grant to everyone in the affected area is the ideal. Something like $2000 each. A flooded family of five with $10000 cash will still be flooded, but they’ll be a lot better off, the kids back at school, decent food on the table, even if incomes have stopped, and the family likely to stay in the district, get back to work and feel optimistic about things. Waiting for the employer to wrestle with MPI or MBIE (why aren’t they offering just one scheme?) or navigating the choppy waters of the WINZ system is all likely to be too little, too late and too much bother. People deserve better.


Then there’s reconstruction. There’s talk about managed retreat and not rebuilding in some areas. There may be some specific places where that’s right, but we can’t just abandon a whole stretch of coastline. The challenge is to reap the benefits of what can be very productive land while coping with potentially more frequent or severe floods. So, resilient infrastructure (especially bridges and water supplies, we’re discovering). New building rules (houses on stilts?).

“A clear commitment to sustainable harvesting rules that control slash and prevent erosion is the only place Government can go,” says Ian Fletcher following the damaged cause by forestry slash during Cyclone Gabrielle.

And two institutional changes that really matter: firstly, a new deal on flood and storm insurance for both insurers and policy-holders everywhere. That might mean extending the EQC framework to flood and storm risks. Or it might mean a new framework entirely. But in any case, it’ll take the Government to broker and implement the deal (and maybe to underwrite it). Government should announce that process now.

Secondly, forestry and forestry slash. It’s a more local problem, but an alarming one. It currently seems that forestry harvesting involves trashing the watercourses and stripping the soil resources of the affected country. Recovery takes years. Plans to plant a huge area of exotics for carbon sequestration seem just stupid if the harvesting process will be as wantonly destructive as current practices show. The ministerial review (already announced) feels limp. A clear commitment to sustainable harvesting rules that control slash and prevent erosion is the only place Government can go. How quickly they get there will be a real measure of how determined they are to tackle these and related climate consequences. Let’s see how they measure up.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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