Wellington Scoop

Wave warnings – but not for coastal communities

owhiro bay 2

by Eugene Doyle
Who do you call when you know massive waves are coming? Nobody apparently – you send an email.

The release of a report prepared by WREMO (the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office) in the wake of the devastating swell surge event that struck the South Coast on April 15 raises questions about Wellington’s readiness for a civil defence emergency.

The protocol set by the Regional Council instructed Metservice to send the alert of incoming over-topping waves by email, with no immediate follow-up by phone. It turned out that they were instructed to send it to the wrong email address: a Regional Council office in the Wairarapa, and not to the 24-hour Duty Officer of WREMO.

The email wasn’t read and no action was taken. Nobody had picked up the error in process anytime in the last few years.

Worse still, Wellington City’s coastal communities were not part of the wave warning system – though Lake Onoke in the Wairarapa was – and so the South Coast was struck unawares on April 15, having several homes shattered, multiple injuries and lives put at risk. There was no warning.

Both these glaring errors have been corrected as part of the review, that was initiated at the insistence of the Owhiro Bay Residents Association, supported by Southern Ward Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons. Whilst impressed with some of the work conducted by the panel which included the Wellington City Council, the MetService, the National Institution for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and WREMO, the Owhiro community has been left with concerns about WREMO’s systems and processes.

It was pretty gob-smacking that the system involved one email to a single address rather than emergency phone calls to both the Duty Officer and the Wellington City Council. That’s the sort of thing a good capability audit process would have revealed.

The review also revealed that WREMO and the Wellington CDEM Group, which includes the WCC, have not undergone a capability audit in years, despite being required to do so by law.

Technology moves fast, social media is evolving, climate is changing, systems (like hazard warning apps) need reviewing, protocols need updating, memories are lost. Capability audits by top-level external reviewers are essential to ensure we have the best systems in place to protect the citizens of Wellington before, during and after a major event.

I can’t say with confidence that is the case today.

Another priority identified in the review is the need for a low-cost communications campaign to reach every coastal home. We will need to keep the pressure on WREMO and the WCC to ensure this happens.

Metservice New Zealand took the initiative early in the review process and offered its deep ocean warning systems to the City free of charge for a six-month trial. That will ensure the availability of far better data – which now needs to be translated into effective communication streams through to households.

This is a partial victory for community activism. The report signals some very good work done by WREMO and the WCC to improve our city’s preparedness for tsunami and other wave events. But we have some way still to go. More needs to be done and, as this process has shown, the community must be at the table.

Eugene Doyle is a member of the Owhiro Bay Residents Association and participated in the Wave Warning review.


  1. David Mackenzie, 18. June 2020, 10:53

    Why did the warning not go directly to Civil Defence, who could have immediately activated a mass-message. Why is WREMO in charge, if they are not competent of managing?

  2. lindsay, 18. June 2020, 11:04

    WREMO does not yet seem to have published the waves report online. Their website contains “guides and tools” written in 2014 and 2013, and the latest report in its section of “research reports” is about composting toilets, and was written in 2013.

  3. Eugene Doyle, 18. June 2020, 12:44

    Unfortunately, WREMO have decided not to publish the report online as have WCC. Not exactly a model of transparency and community engagement …

  4. Ms Green, 18. June 2020, 17:59

    Ok Eugene, so there are blue lines for tsunami but nothing for big waves??!! So why is there not the same warning for ‘big waves’? Or is there no warning for a tsunami either and no system?

  5. Karori Residents Association, 1. July 2020, 11:19

    engagement is the issue, ongoing, and appalling. we have little confidence it will improve under the current local govt set up