The unthinkable: New Zealand isn’t ready for ongoing disasters

Brian Rudman says what we all don’t want to hear.

It was pure luck that visiting sailors were on hand to join HMNZS Canterbury in the rush to Kaikoura after last week’s big earthquake.

The helicopters and trained personnel from the United States and Australian navies not only sped up the aid and evacuation process, they also highlighted how under-resourced we are to handle such a crisis on our own.

Despite the wake-up calls of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, the national tsunami alert system – or lack of it – proved Monty Pythonesque. And as one who foolishly assumes my masters will have these things already sorted, it was also alarming to discover that the only rescue helicopters the defence forces seem to be able to rustle up were a couple of NH90 helicopters which the promotional blurb says “can carry up to 12 fully equipped soldiers or up to 18 lightly equipped troops (allowing for door gunners.)”

All told the Air Force has a total of eight of these machines for use in military ground operations, disaster relief, search and rescue, counter-drug operations and counter terrorism.

In other words, if the big one strikes Wellington and all the roads north are blocked, and the port unusable, that’s it.

Most of New Zealand is only accessible through three or four major routes and otherwise quite inaccessible. ?It’s what makes it so beautiful. ?But at times of disaster – inconvenient. ?

Perhaps that’s why the Government and the Defence department slipped out their $20 billion defence “modernisation” shopping list just two days after the Kaikoura quake, while the media was otherwise engaged.

Called the “2016 Defence Capability Plan,” it fleshes out the broad brush Defence White Paper released in June.

In his foreword, Prime Minister John Key says the plan “sets out the Government’s expectations for Defence over the coming decades.” Along with the usual talk about battling terrorism and protecting our national security interests, he drew attention to two new priorities.

While fronting the news making lots of reassuring noises. ? But the actual white paper seems to bypass one of the NZDF’s most pressing requirements.

I were of a suspicious mind, I’d think that the PM’s awkward reference to “national resilience” and the White Paper’s predictions about an increase in natural disasters, were last minute additions, inserted to pretend the generals and politicians were serious about adding “natural disasters” to the our traditional list of enemies.

Certainly the Minister of Defence, Gerry Brownlee is all bows and arrows in his foreword to the shopping list. He talks up the replacement of the navy frigates and expensive air planes – including the Prime Minister’s ailing “Air Force One” Boeing 757.

But going through the shopping list, about the only things I could spot that would signal a new interest in responding to “natural disasters” is a reference to upgrading combat engineering equipment by buying small boats, explosive detectors, bridging equipment and bulldozers.

There’s also plans to buy all-terrain vehicles and/or motorbikes from 2019-22. What is missing is a chapter, or even a page in either the White Paper or the shopping list, outlining plans for dealing with our most immediate and potentially deadly threat.

The vast majority of us were born after the deadly Napier earthquake. But three major shakes in the South Island in the last six years, have highlighted how the enemy we are most likely to have to front is the one within. “Bishop” Tamaki paints him as a scary homophobic Old Testament God. Science tells us we’re at the mercy of tectonic plates rubbing against one another.

It’s not an enemy we can fight. But it would be nice to think that some of the $20 billion Defence spend-up over the next 15 years, was being earmarked for disaster rescue, relief and reconstruction.


– Brian Rudman, NZ Herald