Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It seemed so innocent

When the morning radio news reported there’d been an earthquake near American Samoa, it didn’t seem all that worrying, even when it triggered an automated tsunami warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. After all, such things usually amount to nothing.

But as the morning wore on, things began to look more serious, and it began to look like New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence had no idea what was going on. Colin Feslier, a spokesperson for the ministry, was grilled by Paul Henry, co-host of TVNZ’s morning programme, Breakfast. Henry asked Feslier specific questions, but got vague answers at best, despite the fact that it was by then known that the tsunami would hit New Zealand.

Feslier said he’d have some information “in an hour”—the same time it was due to hit East Cape. Henry was having none of it and told Feslier that simply wasn’t good enough, and Feslier finally said that it would be a good idea for people in the affected coastal areas to move to higher ground (meanwhile, ships were leaving ports in the affected areas and putting to sea for safety).

I often don’t care for Henry’s combative style, but he said what most New Zealanders would’ve. In fact, he badgered out of Feslier that he should’ve said unprompted. The ministry needs to have people who are trained to give information clearly, directly and quickly—none of which Feslier could do, so I think he was filling in. Breakfast was broadcasting live to the entire nation at that moment—a direct way to get official emergency information to people who needed it, especially people who might be in the tsunami’s path. TVNZ did the best it could, but got better information from Hawaii (which had no idea what NZ Civil Defence was doing—do these people communicate in an emergency?). Ultimately, the Minister for Civil Defence came on and provided useful information—finally.

Auckland radio wasn’t any better: The music stations largely had normal programming. The local talkback station, NewstalkZB, had the insufferably pompous and self-righteous windbag Leighton Smith on air at that time, and Radio Live had NZ's biggest dickhead, Michael Laws. Radio New Zealand National was, well, impossibly boring—I wondered if the hosts were even awake. So I relied on TVNZ to keep me informed, and they did a reasonable job, with updates every 30 minutes after 9am (they usually broadcast a news bulletin every hour between 9am and 12 noon).

It turned out that there wasn’t much to it in New Zealand—this time. People went down to the beaches to watch the tsunami arrive, as photos by the New Zealand Herald documented. Police tried to keep people away, but some people are stupid through to the bone. This could easily have been much worse if the earthquake had been even stronger, or in a different spot. Next time, New Zealand may not be so lucky.

And that’s something to worry about: If people were so blasé about this tsunami, even after the news became more serious, what will they be like next time, even if it’s a bad one? And if most of the media didn’t take this event very seriously, why would ordinary people?

Living on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” means that an earthquake, volcano and/or tsunami is always a risk—every hour of every day of every year. No one can afford to take things lightly or assume their own invincibility. One day, nature may prove them wrong.

The loss of life and property damage was in the Pacific Island nations of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. The New Zealand Red Cross is collecting donations for disaster relief.

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