Lower Hutt's $700 million RiverLink project.

NZ - Top 5 emergency management planning rules needed

New Zealand - Katharine Moody probes how planning might respond to help disaster recovery, to prevent future tragedy and incorporate lessons from recent extreme weather events

…there but for the grace of God go I.

All too often when considering others’ misfortune, there is a tendency to lean back on homo-economicus to guide our ethical thinking. Adages such as caveat emptor, moral hazard and King Canute are often trotted out in public discourse. Recent weather events however heighten our recognition that others' misfortune could be well be our own were it not for the blessing of God, Gaia or atua, or fortune or fate.

Many here would agree that disaster recovery in Christchurch took too long, and too many people suffered unnecessary anxiety and depression as their businesses and lives were disrupted for years. How might planning respond to aide disaster recovery, to prevent future tragedy and to take lessons from these recent weather events?

1. Impose nationwide minimum set-back rules for residential building which is on, above or below steep slopes.

We sadly now know full well the threat posed to lives from slips – both houses tumbling down cliff faces and others in the path of slips from above. Normally, when consent is sought to build on, above or below a steep slope a geotechnical engineering report is required to determine the safety or otherwise of such construction. Retaining walls and other engineering methods are used to mitigate the hazard.

Perhaps it is time to put a pause on mitigation, and simply avoid such hazards under Resource Management Act (RMA) section 5(2)c as a temporary emergency measure while we take stock in the aftermath of these events.

2. Impose nationwide no-build areas for newly identified flash flood hazard zones.

A distinction needs to be made between assets at risk of flash flooding events (with potential for loss of life) versus assets at risk of overland stormwater flow paths. In planning we often call the latter ponding, but in most of the GIS (Geographic Information System) systems I’ve seen, both are categorised on LIM (Land Information Memorandum) reports as a flood hazard.

To my mind, ponding and overflow is a flood nuisance that can be remedied via improved stormwater infrastructure management. In the recent case of flash flooding of the town of Edgecombe, it is my understanding that water was not spilled early enough from the Matahina Dam, and led to the failure of an already weakened stopbank. That was likely preventable with improved flood defences and better dam management.

Regarding the more widespread tragedies we have seen recently with loss of life, I commented here on 9 February about when evacuation orders would be given with respect to Cyclone Gabrielle’s approach.

by Kate | 9th Feb 23, 11:32pm
This is so weird - we have a Cat 3 storm on the way - the Meteorologist interviewed on TV1 tonight said in all her time, she'd "never seen a storm like this" (referring to the size of it and the wide area it will affect) BUT there has been no suggestion regarding early evacuation where possible?
Cyclones Tracy and Bola were both Cat 3s…
The least they could tell people is if the storm tracks as they predict and evacuation is to be considered - what day they will call it on?  It's Friday tomorrow and this is expected to make landfall on Monday morning.

Let’s be frank – we were woefully unprepared for this. Perhaps no amount of flood defences would have prevented the carnage in the Esk River Valley, but early mandatory evacuation would have saved lives. Politicians interviewed have referred to difficult conversations and tough calls.

Urgent assessment of communities at risk of riverine flash flooding need reassessment the nation over. Once identified, all new residential building in these areas should be made a prohibited activity under the RMA. New building and/or re-building in harm’s way now, on the premise of potential future mitigation actions, does a dis-service to our children, in particular. Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, and particularly so in children as they are less able to rationalise about the likelihood of a repeat event or experience.

3. Mayors come together to review NZTA funded or part funded major roading projects in their regions, to divert money and resources to the cyclone ravaged areas.

Unless an existing NZTA (New Zealand Transport Agency) funded project has a high chance of resulting in loss of life if not completed urgently, perhaps all local government Mayors as a gesture of goodwill could voluntarily agree that infrastructure funding already secured should be diverted to the Coromandel, Hawke's Bay and West Auckland area roads to restore access as soon as possible.

For example, this NZTA project in the Hutt Valley has been long fought for by many of our central and local government representatives. And good on them, it is needed work. But, as a community, I think we can wait another year for the major bridge/road construction to begin. I’m certain many other tasks as part of the wider project can commence in the meantime.


This Top 5 comes from Katharine Moody, a senior tutor at Massey University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Palmerston North, who comments on as "Kate." The views expressed in this article are her own and don't necessarily reflect those of Massey University.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 5 yourself, contact

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