Flow of info blown off course by Gabrielle 

By Colin Peacock of rnz.co.nz, and is republished with permission

A review of the Cyclone Gabrielle response found the emergency management response was not fit for purpose – and not good for media providing critical ‘real time’ coverage of the disaster. But one broadcaster that’s criticised officials for being overconfident and underprepared also downplayed the danger at the time. 

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The independent review led by former Police Commissioner Mike Bush found Civil Defence officials were not prepared for Cyclone Gabrielle and were overwhelmed by its severity, speed and scale. 

The review released this week also concluded they were “overconfident” and took a best-case scenario approach rather than preparing for the worst. 

The former top cop also led a review of the response to the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods which happened just weeks before the cyclone. 

That review – which didn’t pull punches either – also had a thing or two to say about the media’s disaster response.

The news media were caught out by the downpour on a holiday weekend – and the severity of it wasn’t highlighted in warnings by forecasters. 

When the water rose rapidly, the most useful information ended up on social media rather than traditional media channels – at least in the earlier stages.  

Last Tuesday Mike Bush told RNZ that emergency planners had responded well to previous emergencies in Hawke’s Bay. 

“That doesn’t mean that you can take a more relaxed approach to looming crisis,” he said. 

Most of the report’s conclusions were specific to the emergency management organisations and hierarchies – and not the media. But some broadcasters – including TVNZ and RNZ – are ‘lifeline utilities’ obliged by law to offer coverage during a disaster. 

The Bush report does say “the overall lack of a common operating picture  . . . made it hard for staff with public information functions to respond to requests from government, communities and media.” 

It also said overstretched staff had “little understanding of national communication assets and their role as lifeline communications channels, with the result that national media was arguably underutilised.”  

The resulting communications “were seen by many in the community as generic, lacking timeliness” and “overly focused on social media as opposed to mainstream media channels.” 

“I saw their comms. To me it was all just the usual Civil Defence spam,” the report quotes one person as saying.  

“I got more from watching TV than from the councils,” said another.  

“Why did the Council say to see Facebook for info when there was no bloody power? Why didn’t they just use the national media for more location specific info?” another complained. 

They did – but evidently, national and local media alike didn’t always get news people could use from authorities. 

The Bush report said NEMA should now develop “pre-planned emergency communications for use across multiple channels, along with clear criteria for the use of emergency mobile alerts.” 

The report said alerts communicated by national media “could have given some families and communities more time to prepare” and “ driven a heightened communications tempo which improved public understanding of the potential seriousness of the event.” 

One of the starkest quotes from those affected was this one: 

“We got helicoptered out after hours on the roof and with nothing to our names. We were taken to Napier and as we drove there, I could see people out mowing their lawns, with no idea of what was going on. It was surreal.” 

Clearly the message did not get through to them.  

Heather du Plessis Allan Photo: NZME

Media respond to report with blunt questions

“Is it true that when people were ringing Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence emergency management in the days before the flooding, they were told they were overreacting?” Newstalk ZB host Heather du Plessis Allan asked Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management joint committee chair Hinewai Ormsby, last Tuesday. 

“In the findings, he’s picked up things that relate to that. And so it’s really important that we take those learnings and make sure that we build a stronger system going forward,” Ormsby replied. 

That lack of clarity about why it happened in the first place disturbed du Plessis-Allan’s ZB colleague Kerre Woodham. 

“To hear that word-soup from the chair of the Civil Defense response unit in Hawke’s Bay . . . are we better off coming up with a neighborhood plan and relying on each other?” she asked her listeners on Wednesday. 

But when Cyclone Gabrielle was gathering strength in mid- February – and already caning Coromandel – Woodham was one of several voices on Newstalk ZB condemning over-reaction. 

Kate Hawkesby was also dismissive of other media raising the alarm early on the 14th of February.

“It may well be coming in later on, but if it doesn’t then they have really done their chips on these warnings. One of the headlines I saw was Newshub saying: ‘There will be destruction.’ Have you ever seen anything more anxiety-inducing in your life?” 

Mike Hosking. Photo: screenshot / Newstalk ZB

Mike Hosking took it up a notch knocking the experts who appeared on her show. 

“What we’ve done is whip ourselves into this extraordinary frenzy. I’m listening to you with Mike from the MetService talking about 100k winds like a hurricane. Anyone who has lived in Wellington knows 100k wind is a breezy day. You’re still outside at the cafe,” he said. 

Woodham and Hawkesby also criticised the closure of schools in Hawke’s Bay. 

“Did we reeeeally need to shut all the schools? I reserve the right to be wrong – if it comes in like a wrecking ball this afternoon, then, you know, they were right. Maybe it was just a bit slower than we thought  . . . but I don’t know,” said Hawkesby (who is now no longer on air at Newstalk ZB). 

She also claimed it was evidence the country had become “paranoid and soft.”  

Clearly the comments didn’t age well. 

The Broadcasting Standards Authority eventually ruled the comments were “dismissive and insensitive” but that ZB listeners wouldn’t have been misled. But that was only because of regular news bulletins that were reliable, accurate feedback from affected listeners and interviews with experts who were taking the situation seriously (even if ZB hosts weren’t always giving them the same respect). 

Emergency management officials criticised as over-confident and underprepared by the Bush report will have found it pretty galling to also be accused of that now by a broadcaster whose hosts were downplaying Cyclone Gabrielle stridently on the air even as it was intensifying. 

Reflecting on the Mike Bush report this week on his daily ZB news podcast, Mike Hosking’s sidekick Glenn Hart said it should have asked questions about “prevention rather than the response.”

 “I feel like the weather forecasting is terrible and it’s never accurate. Sack the lot of them if you’re basing their job performance on anything. They don’t know what they’re doing,” he said last Wednesday. 

It was just a tongue-in-cheek throwaway line, but interesting when you consider it wasn’t the forecasters who failed to warn Cyclone Gabrielle was coming – and the emergency response of ZB front-rank hosts wasn’t entirely fit-for-purpose either when it was on the way.

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