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When disaster strikes How our region’s response stacks up

Wairarapa is no stranger to severe weather events. But how would we fare when faced with a sudden natural disaster of a similar scale to Auckland’s unprecedented flooding? SUE TEODORO investigates.

A Greater Wellington Regional Council [GWRC] spokesperson has previously told the Times-Age that over 800 properties in the region are at risk in a one-in-100-year flooding event: About 590 properties in urban Masterton, 130 properties in urban Greytown, and a further 120 properties in “upper Wairarapa”.

The region’s fragile transport network, exclusively dependent on State Highway 2, was highlighted by Thursday’s transport debacle on Remutaka Hill when one broken-down logging truck disrupted traffic for hours.

‘The Hill’ is no stranger to problems, with a 35-tonne truck crashing over the side in 2021. In a major disaster, this transport lifeline is vulnerable to damage, especially slips.

Inquiries to Masterton District Council [MDC], Carterton District Council [CDC], and South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] reveal that in extreme events like the one experienced by Auckland, control will be centralised. Taking command will be an Emergency Management Controller [EMC], a role currently held by MDC manager of regulatory services Steven May. Other staff from CDC and SWDC have been trained as alternate controllers, and they will be supported by staff trained in logistics, planning, welfare, and public information management.

May – or whoever is EMC at the time – will coordinate response escalation, depending on whether the disaster is local, regional or national in impact.

A cross-agency effort will kick in, with “all members of the Wellington Civil Defence Emergency Management [CDEM] group working together to provide support to communities,” he said.

The CDEM includes Wairarapa’s three councils, emergency services, lifeline utilities, welfare agencies, and a range of non-governmental organisations.

In addition, a regional joint committee has the power to manage disasters across the region, including the ability to declare a state of emergency on behalf of more than one district or the entire region.

CDC Mayor Ron Mark is the committee’s current deputy chair and said the local and regional teams are always ready to respond.

“Our council has its own Incident Management Team
who is on standby from the moment any severe weather warnings are in place,” he said.

May said regular training exercises were carried out to ensure responders were ready and – perhaps spurred by the poor reviews Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has received for his recent performance – noted that “we are acutely aware of the need to maintain good communication with the community throughout an emergency event”.

He expected improvements
to Hood Aerodrome, on Masterton’s outskirts, to enhance its capacity as an emergency response asset.

“The reality is, when the Remutaka Hill Rd is closed, roading access will be via the north of Wairarapa,” he said.

MDC Mayor Gary Caffell declared himself confident the current process is robust and said he’s very conscious of “the requirement for the council to be responsive to these types of events”.

“Communication is key during these events, both internally and externally. Our communities need to know how we are responding as quickly as possible, and my council and I will always strive to ensure this takes place.”

SWDC Mayor Martin Connelly agreed.

“Declaring a Civil Defence Emergency is the most serious power a mayor has to exercise. I hope I never need to, but I am ready to do so when it must be done. I feel particularly well supported for such an event.”

Connelly said the scale of the emergency would determine
the type of local response.

“At the extreme level, we’d call a Civil Defence Emergency, at which point a Civil Defence Recovery Manager basically takes over. We have our own emergency plans for lesser emergencies, where we believe that we manage the emergency locally.”

SWDC activated the response systems during Cyclone Hale, he said.

“We called upon neighbouring councils for assistance, which they readily provided because all three Wairarapa councils cooperate very closely on their emergency management operations.”

In an extreme situation, a state of emergency will be declared on the advice of the local emergency management controller. Mayors – or in their absence, deputy mayors – can make a declaration, but only for their own district.

This confers powers on the regional controller to evacuate premises, enter properties, and close roads, while additional funding and resources – both local and national – also become available.

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