“Wellingtonians are being told to stop viewing Civil Defence centres as war-style supply bunkers and realise they may have to fend for themselves following a disaster.
The call to self-reliance accompanies a major overhaul of the region’s 120 Civil Defence centres, which have begun being emptied of ageing survival supplies and renamed Community Emergency Hubs, to be used as communication gathering points.
The Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (WREMO) said there were perception problems around the centres – which are primarily school buildings and churches.
Their supplies, like old blankets and stretchers, had been distributed in decades-past, and in volumes too small to have been a lifeline to sustain entire communities, WREMO regional manager Bruce Pepperell said.
But the change has left at least one community questioning whether the new direction places too much faith in Wellingtonians to muster their own disaster plans.
Tawa School principal Ian Dewar raised the issue, saying school principals were told about a fortnight ago of the change at a disaster preparedness meeting.
While the school has its own supplies for pupils, parents and staff, he worried the rest of the community would follow the Civil Defence signs to its gate, expecting help. They could offer people shelter, but little else, which probably would not be received well in an emergency situation, Dewar said.
“The issue isn’t that we agree or disagree with their philosophy, the issue is – are we aware? We think our Tawa parents are symptomatic of the wider community and we know now the community don’t know what will be available to them in the event of an emergency.”
He said the old vision of Civil Defence Centres as “Cold War-style bunkers” stocked with blankets and tinned food was outdated. Authorities were not realistically able to keep them freshly topped-up for entire suburbs to rely on.
“There’s an expectation in some quarters that Civil Defence will sort out everything after an emergency. This is about being resilient from the bottom up, empowering people to take responsibility for their own communities.”
Wellingtonians grew up being warned of the risk of “the big one” shaking the region to isolation: “We know that Centennial Highway will be cut off for up to four months, we know we wouldn’t be able to get supplies over the Rimutakas.”
If Wellington’s low-lying airport was wrecked, the main route for supplies to get into the region was by sea, at a rate of about 400 20-foot containers a day, Pepperell said.
The logistics of how the region would respond to different types of disasters, at different times of day, was constantly being plotted and updated: “All of these things should have been in place yesterday, they won’t be in place tomorrow.”
Wellingtonians should have their own plans and not assume someone in authority would be available to feed them and tell them what to do immediately, Pepperell said.
“People need to look after themselves and their neighbours first”