In legal language, an ‘act of God’ is an extraordinary natural event that cannot be foreseen or prevented. In New Zealand, however, hazards such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity are not unforeseen – in fact, they are inevitable. These hazards are constantly monitored, and communities make preparations to lessen the dangers and damaging effects.
Flooding is the most common cause of civil defence emergencies in New Zealand. Thousands of kilometres of stopbanks have been built to keep high flows within the river channels. Local authorities can regulate land use and restrict or prevent the construction of buildings in flood-prone areas.
The illusion of security provided by stopbanks, however, has often encouraged the dense settlement of riverside areas. For example, the Hutt Valley (north of Wellington city) remained sparsely settled until extensive stopbanks were built along the Hutt River in the early 1900s. In New Zealand towns and cities, thousands of people and much valuable property are now at risk from the rare floods big enough to breach the protection.
Earthquakes can’t be avoided, but local authorities can determine areas where shaking will be most severe, and prohibit building directly over active fault lines. They can also prohibit building in areas where landslides are likely.
Building for safety
The collapse of built structures during disasters often presents the greatest dangers. New Zealand has a building code with specific safety objectives. For example, a building must be able to withstand the forces exerted by earthquake shaking or by the stongest wind gusts likely in the region. If people wish to build in a flood-prone area, the lowest habitable floor must be high enough that water will not enter the building in the event of a 1-in-50-year flood.
Other structures such as bridges and overpasses, and utility pipelines and towers, must be designed to withstand extreme events. New Zealand is recognised internationally for its research into the behaviour of concrete structures during earthquakes. Many New Zealand buildings and bridges are protected against earthquakes by lead dampers and lead and rubber bearings invented by New Zealander Bill Robinson.
On your own
The National Emergency Management Agency recommends that all people have a survival kit with enough water and food to last for three days, a battery-operated radio, torches, a first-aid kit, and other supplies. Information about how to prepare for emergencies, reduce the chances of being hurt and what to do after the worst has passed is provided on the agency’s website.
Both national and local agencies provide hazard warnings. Weather forecasters broadcast warnings of possible severe weather. Local authorities maintain automated instruments to measure rainfall, and river and lake levels within their regions. Using this information they issue flood warnings.
New Zealand has a national network of instruments and data centres, called GeoNet, operated by GNS Science. This service detects and analyses earthquakes, and monitors volcanic activity and large landslides. Warnings of tsunamis are received from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world with government-managed natural-disaster insurance for homes and the land beneath them, and personal possessions. From 2019, Earthquake Commission (EQC) insurance covered homes up to a limit of $150,000, and personal possessions up to $20,000, with some compensation for damage to land under or close to a residence.
The cover includes damage from earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hydrothermal activity, and fires resulting from these disasters. Private insurance is needed for storm and flood damage to homes. EQC insurance does not cover commercial properties or vehicles.