John Cowpland

Hawke’s Bay had no emergency plan for a big flood

And it didn’t need to. No regional council is required to make detailed emergency plans for natural disasters. The vast majority of Hawke’s Bay residents, however, live in on a flood plain and what happened on the night of February 13-14, 2023, was a test case in unpreparedness.

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The family had climbed into their roof cavity in the dark—two parents, two young children. Above them, the wind screamed. Underneath them, floating furniture thumped and bumped up against the ceiling. Freezing cold, they pulled roof insulation around themselves in attempt to warm up. The hours wore on, until early in the morning, they heard a motor coughing outside. It was an inflatable boat, carrying three men in wetsuits.

“Are you the Navy?” the father yelled.

“Nah, we’re just three Māori boys,” came the reply.

Mikey Kihi, Rikki Kihi and Morehu Maxwell, all forestry workers, piloted their boat into turbulent floodwaters in the Esk Valley just after 5am on February 14, 2023. They dodged downed power lines, massive logs and floating cars to save more than 50 people from rooftops, caravans and trees. The trio were among a number of individuals who have been rightly celebrated for their heroism that day.

But in a disaster we’re often so eager to cling to the hopeful stories—the ones where people didn’t die—that we miss the lessons embedded inside. This wasn’t just an inspiring tale of courage: it was evidence of system failure. Why did so many people need to be rescued by three brave guys in a rubber boat in the first place?

In the past six months, I’ve interviewed many survivors of the Cyclone Gabrielle floods as well as some of the ordinary people who risked their lives to save them. And the more I heard about the chaos of February 13 and 14, 2023, the more a very basic question nagged at me: Did Hawke’s Bay even have a flood plan?

Now, we have the answer. The independent review of the region’s civil defence response, authored by former police commissioner Mike Bush and released on Monday, confirmed that Hawke’s Bay had “no disaster Master Plan or flood emergency plan at regional or local level”. This observation is tucked away on page 34, but in many ways it’s the most damning revelation in a report full of shocking details.

On Monday, 13 February 2023, swells driven by Cyclone Gabrielle were topping the seawall at the port of Napier.

Around 80 per cent of Hawke’s Bay’s population lives on a flood plain—nearly 140,000 people. Yet the region’s civil defence had “no large-scale evacuation plans”. Nor did it have a contingency in place if normal communications went down (unlike some other districts, which had invested in Starlink years earlier). Plans that did exist were too generic to be useful. One particularly head-scratching conclusion: “Evacuation plans lacked details about how evacuations would be conducted.”

When I started reporting on Cyclone Gabrielle, I assumed that the entire purpose of Civil Defence was to game out the worst things that could possibly happen and develop plans to deal with them—the institutional equivalent of a go-bag. But it turns out that under New Zealand’s rickety emergency management system, a plan can mean many things depending on where you live. In theory, local and regional councils in charge of civil defence are required to have various planning documents, and Bush’s review found Hawke’s Bay’s overall civil defence strategy to be “as good as any we have seen”.

But it turns out there are no national standards or oversight to ensure civil defence plans have the kind of practical, operational specifics needed to run a disaster response.

And so some regions, like Canterbury’s Selwyn District, have meticulously detailed documents for tsunamis, fires, floods, and earthquakes, with pre-prepared task lists and individual evacuation plans attached. Other areas, like Hawke’s Bay, haven’t done anything close to this kind of vital groundwork. Cyclone Gabrielle was an object lesson in just how much can go wrong when you don’t have a plan.

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On February 9, as Cyclone Gabrielle approached our shores, and as WeatherWatch warned that it could be “one of the most serious storms forecast for New Zealand so far this century”, Hawke’s Bay’s civil defence manager Ian Macdonald went on leave to walk the Routeburn Track.

In a disaster, Macdonald would normally act as controller, coordinating emergency services, local authorities, power companies, and other players, from a new custom-built facility in central Hastings (the Group Emergency Coordination Centre, or GECC). Hawke’s Bay Regional Council had a team of 14 full-time civil defence staffers—larger than many in New Zealand. Its structure was unusually centralised, since when Macdonald took charge in 2011, it disbanded its community civil defence groups.

With Macdonald away, Iain Maxwell assumed his responsibilities. Maxwell, a freshwater ecologist at the regional council, had some experience with emergencies, but he wasn’t a specialist. He would wind up leading the Cyclone Gabrielle response as acting controller, trading off at times with another council staffer, Edaan Lennan.

Two days later, gaps were starting to show in the region’s preparedness. When asked for a list of civil defence centres—places people could evacuate to—the team realised it didn’t know which of its facilities were safe in a flood.

If detailed plans had been developed in advance, the life-or-death questions of whether to evacuate people or declare an emergency would have been guided by pre-determined trigger points and routines honed by regular drills.

Instead, leadership took a much more subjective and tentative approach. When the acting controller received a draft text for an emergency mobile alert on February 11, he replied that he’d only send one if MetService issued a red warning—reserved for the most extreme weather—or if the mayor declared a state of emergency, “which I still think is unlikely”, he wrote.

That was the same day that Dan Gale, owner of the Eskdale Holiday Park, knew it was time to evacuate. Gale’s parents bought the place in Esk Valley right after Cyclone Bola in 1986, and to obtain a resource consent they had to make a flood plan. They installed an alarm that monitors the Esk River at the nearby Waipunga Bridge. Today, Gale also receives readings from the regional council’s telemetry system. In the years since Dan took over the campground from his parents, he’d become an expert in assessing the river.

Dan Gale, who owns the Eskdale Holiday Park, on a summer’s day in the Esk River, which flooded his property in 2023.

When I first met Gale last year, he fired off a battery of numbers explaining his decision to get people out two days before the flood: the level of the river and the projected rainfall at various times on Saturday and Sunday, compared with those figures the last time the valley flooded, in 2018. He opened the regional council website displaying river monitoring levels and pulled up the figures for the days in question, confirming that his recall was almost perfect.

“I knew my place was going to flood, with the information I had,” Gale told me. “They said 300-400 millimetres of rain could fall in 24 hours. We’d had a very wet summer, and Cyclone Hale three weeks earlier. The ground was saturated. Up to 250 millimetres is a lot when the ground isn’t saturated.” With the forecast, he realised, “we’re definitely flooding”. Early on February 12, he had everybody out of the campground, but remained at home to keep an eye on things, checking the telemetry on the Waipunga Bridge and MetService’s three-hourly updates.

The next day, February 13, was critical. Here, different decisions could have saved lives. Hawke’s Bay’s civil defence leaders knew that if they were going to evacuate people, they needed to do it before nightfall. That day, Tarāwhiti, Waikato, Hauraki, Ōpōtoki, and Whakatāne districts all declared a state of local emergency—Auckland, Coromandel and Northland having already done so. At 3.15pm, the MetService updated Hawke’s Bay to a red weather warning. But at a 5pm meeting, controllers decided it was “too early” to declare a state of emergency. They also opted not to issue targeted declarations for high-risk areas like Esk Valley, and didn’t discuss sending an emergency mobile alert. Meanwhile, the locations of civil defence centres still hadn’t been publicised.

Around the same time, a local with deep knowledge of the area became alarmed by the conditions on the Napier-Taupō road, which leads into Esk Valley. When she called to alert Civil Defence, said Bush, “she was told, ‘You’re probably overreacting’. The review found other credible warnings to emergency management from members of the public that day, and Dan Gale also told me he spoke to a senior council manager and advised him his place was going to flood. “He said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen,’” Gale recalled.

In Hawke’s Bay’s top-down hierarchy, there was no system to gather or use observations from people who had lived in the area for years and knew its environment and communities intimately. By contrast, Al Lawn, head of civil defence for Selwyn District, proudly described its extensive network of local volunteers who receive regular training in standard operating procedures, such as “how to write a good sitrep”, or situational report.

“They are our eyes and ears,” Lawn explained. “They can tell us things like, ‘This river is rising.’ They will know in their area who can’t evacuate. Things we probably won’t know, things we need to make better decisions.”

During the next three hours, river monitoring alarms started going off all over Hawke’s Bay. The rain remained relentless. Emails warned that the Mangaone River near Rissington had passed the one-in-20-year mark and was still “rising fast”, while the Esk River was “on a steep rise”. Fire and police officers had started visiting some houses in Esk Valley’s Shaw Road, which is particularly low-lying. Despite all this, at 8.33pm, Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence posted a message on its Facebook page reassuring people that “there was no need for residents to evacuate—those who should move have already been contacted”.

Yet at exactly the same time, officials were being told the opposite—that flooding in areas like Esk Valley could be worse than in 2018, when dozens of houses were submerged and people had to be rescued by jetboat. After that, at 9pm, some key civil defence staffers went home, and the command centre reverted to a “skeleton crew” for the night.

Of all the decisions made that day, this was perhaps the most baffling. As if by way of confirmation, five minutes later a MetService update signalled that the storm was about to escalate. It warned of a further 200 to 300 millimetres of rain in the southern ranges and 80 to 110 millimetres elsewhere, on top of what had already fallen. Given the speed that rivers had been rising up until this point, this was an ominous development.

“If they’d had a plan, that’s when they should have hit the get-the-f— out button,” Gale said, whose methodical way of thinking reminded me of civil defence professionals I’d talked to, possibly with extra profanity.

Dan Gale and his brother look over piles of silt deposited by the storm.
By Tuesday, 14 February 2023, Awatoto and surrounds were inundated.

With fewer staff, it took more than two hours for a flood forecaster to collate the MetService update with river monitoring data throughout the region and revise projections. During this window, Civil Defence received a message from Gale that the Esk River was going to go over its banks. At some point, the GECC reversed its decision to operate with a skeleton crew (“some of their colleagues suggested that this wasn’t the right approach”, Bush told me, tactfully.) Still, the flood forecaster’s email to managers didn’t go out till 11.30pm.

But by then, it was too late. The GECC sent a flurry of message to first responders asking them to warn residents in Esk Valley, and suggesting Gale evacuate his campground, which he’d finished doing more than 24 hours earlier. From around midnight, 111 calls started coming in from area residents who were scrambling onto roofs to escape the water—until the 111 system started to overload. Then river monitoring devices also started to fail, though the urgency of the situation should have been clear well before that point.

Hawke’s Bay now faced a full-blown emergency, one that ruthlessly exposed all its weaknesses. The GECC had never practised for a major natural disaster. Some of its key personnel were unaware of the precise requirements of their roles. “The GECC was chaos,” one person told the review. “No organisation initially. No focus. No structure. People everywhere. No disaster SOPs [standard operating procedures].” Another person observed that “far too many adrenalised desk jockeys cluttered the initial response”.

To make matters worse, civil defence, police and fire services didn’t share a common communications platform, so critical information was constantly getting lost. A first responder described the GECC as a “black hole” when it came to providing information—they still couldn’t obtain the locations of civil defence centres. Another gave up dealing with the GECC entirely and worked with emergency services instead, “as they were calm heads under pressure and subject matter experts”.

As power outages rippled across the region, the GECC simply didn’t know what was going on. It had no backup communication plan and no local networks to call on. At 1.58am, fire services relayed reports of up to 1.5 metres of water on State Highway 5 and vehicles starting to float. “Probably best to consider any houses in Esk Valley may be at risk,” the flood forecaster emailed half an hour later. A duty officer notified him of another river reaching dangerous levels—“so perhaps warn Waipawa people”. Twenty minutes later, the forecaster responded, “Will do the warning. Power was out at my place but back on now.”

But warning people was becoming increasingly difficult. Civil Defence had decided earlier to use Facebook as its main channel for public messaging, which became virtually useless as people started to lose cellphone reception.

Cynthea and Raymond Greene were exhausted and trapped by floodwaters in their garage. Raymond knocked a hole in the ceiling and tied a plastic bag to a stick, waving it in an attempt to attract help. They were finally rescued by local orchardist Cam Taylor in one of the Squirrel helicopters his family business uses for crop spraying. He and pilot Geoff Keighley saved more than 100 people that day, with Cam jumping onto roofs without a winch or safety harness.

Controllers and leaders from emergency services met at around 2.30am. Rescue options were limited while it was still dark, they decided. They talked about sending a mobile alert, but realised it wouldn’t be useful for people already stuck on roofs. But they did deem it time for a declaration of local emergency. At around 3.40am, the Hastings controller made a perilous drive to the mayor’s house, navigating fallen trees and submerged streets, because the declaration had to be physically signed on paper.

Finally, at 5.15am, a state of emergency for the entire Hawke’s Bay region was declared. By then, Mikey Kihi, Rikki Kihi and Morehu Maxwell had already pulled on their wetsuits and headed into the storm.

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This, of course, is far from the end of the story. And it isn’t just about Hawke’s Bay.

The report demonstrates the need for a total reform of New Zealand’s civil defence system. (Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence declined to respond to specific questions for this story but sent a statement acknowledging the need for “a complete overhaul of how we approach emergency management in Hawke’s Bay”.) As Mike Bush observed, the current regime unfairly places all the responsibility for massively complex disaster responses on local officials who may not even be emergency management professionals. “[It] actually sets up good people to fail,” he concluded. One respondent was more blunt: “You can’t run a disaster using inexperienced people taken from day jobs.”

Bush recommends a system that remains locally led, but with national standards for training and planning, and National Emergency Management Agency professionals who can be quickly deployed to provide support in an emergency.

It might be tempting to think of the review as something that’s only relevant to Cyclone Gabrielle: a near-unprecedented storm, with well-meaning people in the wrong jobs at the worst possible time. But in fact, it’s a blueprint that can be used to figure out if your own area is really, truly prepared.

Flooding is New Zealand’s most frequent natural disaster; two-thirds of our population lives in flood-prone areas. “If you’re ready for a flood, you’re ready for most things,” Al Lawn told me. As Cyclone Gabrielle made brutally clear, the reverse is also true.

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