The New Zealand Herald

Storm a sign city needs disaster plan


After a long, hot summer that began unusually early, the first breath of winter arrived with a vengeance. The storm that blew through Auckland from the southwest overnight caused the city to awake to devastatio­n yesterday. Many homes were without electricit­y, gales and falling trees having brought down overhead lines. Traffic lights and bank ATMs were not working. Some cellphone towers were knocked out, putting additional load on those remaining and slowing mobile phone connection­s.

By noon about a quarter of properties were still waiting for their power to be restored. Some were schools that had to close for the day. The lines company Vector says it could take several days to get the power back on for everyone.

It may be an early taste of what winter has in store now climate change is upon us. Extremes of weather were predicted and New Zealand has certainly enjoyed an extremely good summer. April seems too early for the northeaste­rly weather to give way to the southweste­r that moved up the country on Tuesday. That was the 50th anniversar­y of the Wahine disaster caused by a storm that, typical of those during summer, came from a tropical cyclone.

If the overnight gales and the chill in Auckland’s air yesterday are a sign of what the city can expect this winter, it ought to be causing the providers of essential services to consider some precaution­s. The large number of properties that lost power — said to be about a quarter of the city — is a cause for concern. Overhead lines are extremely vulnerable in gales of a magnitude that had buildings swaying and windows flexing that night. It is just as well the storm hit when few were out in the streets. Live wires would have been a hazard.

How much safer our cities would be if power lines were undergroun­d. It would be an expensive project for the Auckland region but those households without power yesterday morning, and particular­ly those still waiting for it to be restored, might consider undergroun­ding was worth a small additional charge on their power bills.

Many would say it is high time power lines were buried for visual reasons as much as safety and security in bad weather. A modern country should not still have overhead cable strung along its streets. And its residents should not be sitting in the dark, resorting to torches and candles and lacking electricit­y for heating and cooking.

Trees falling on power lines were not the only problem. Vector also reported damage to its larger infrastruc­ture. Its communicat­ions also failed when residents tried to report outages. Clearly the company has some climate change preparatio­ns to make.

But no review of such an event should ignore those who went out during the night to do what they could to repair storm damage, clear roads and restore power. Nobody was prepared for winds quite as strong as these but a more accurate storm warning would have made little difference. It takes time to prepare to withstand such weather and the time to start those preparatio­ns is probably now.

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