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New Zealand boasts incredible natural features—from mountains to volcanoes to beaches—but residents have to live with the dangers that make the beauty possible. Franka Leehr explains.
Text by: Franka Leehr
Country: New Zealand

he image that many people on the other side of the world have of New Zealand is one of stunning and varied landscapes that inspire daydreamers, outdoor lovers, and adventurers alike. Movies show fjords, glaciers and snow-covered peaks; novels describe lush farmland and soft sandy beaches; and photographs depict primeval forests of giant ferns.

But often it is also an image of islands exposed to clashing elements: the breaking sea on all sides, hot and cold winds from the equator and the Antarctic, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Most travel guides will contain a passage about these forces of nature, and some might even include information about the locals’ attitude towards them. One states, for instance, that “as long as nobody comes to grief, in New Zealand floods, storms and avalanches can create an atmosphere similar to that of a folk festival. The men slip into their wellies and oilskin jackets and move out into the beastly weather, with sparkling eyes and a merry tune on their lips. The women smile as they put the kettle on and bake biscuits for the return of the heroes.”

For those who live in faraway countries, in places where nature has been all but tamed and the worst that bad weather usually does is cut power or disrupt the public transport network, life under these conditions must appear adventurous. Accepting the inexorability of nature instead of trying to adapt it to your needs and comfort must seem fascinating. But on the other hand, you cannot help but wonder how to cope with these threats day in and day out, and how to live with the knowledge of being so inescapably exposed to the forces of nature.

Beautiful, dangerous nature

The elements that cause the natural hazards in New Zealand are the very same that brought forth its unparalleled beauty. Unlike most other countries, New Zealand sits on two neighbouring tectonic plates that grind past and subduct each other. While the North Island, the northern part and a thin strip of the west coast of the South Island are on the Australian Plate, the main part of the South Island lies east of the tectonic boundary on the Pacific Plate. The collision of these huge pieces of the Earth’s crust has shaped the country and keeps shaping it even today.

On the North Island, it has created volcanoes and areas of geothermal activity, both firm favourites with tourists. During the summer months, tens of thousands of hikers walk the 19.4 kilometre Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a track that leads through a magnificent volcanic landscape, past steaming vents and the two active volcanoes Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. And countless visitors are fascinated by the geothermal areas, such as Waiotapu, south of the city of Rotorua, that feature geysers, boiling mud pools and brightly coloured hot springs.

On the South Island, the subduction of the Australian Plate underneath the Pacific Plate has created a very different set of beauties. The majestic Southern Alps impress with mountains that reach up to 3,750 metres, ancient glaciers, dense primeval forests, beautifully branched fjords and steep cliffs that rise from the sea.

But New Zealand is not all beauty. While for tourists, the possibility to come to harm during a major disaster is low, locals have to live with a series of threats posed by their beautiful surroundings. According to the World Risk Report of 2013, exposure of the population to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, storms, and floods is high.

Due to its position on the boundary of two tectonic plates, there are more than 14,000 earthquakes registered in New Zealand every year. About 150 of them are strong enough to be felt or to cause damage. Volcanic eruptions are less frequent and usually few people are affected by hazards like volcanic gases and lava flow that occur only in the immediate surroundings of the vent. Volcanic ash, however, can be carried several hundred kilometres by the wind and cause damage to infrastructure, property, vegetation, and livestock in a large area, thus affecting a great number of people.

Both earthquakes and volcanic activity can also produce tsunamis, which can occur along the entire coastline of New Zealand and can cause inundations of devastating proportions. Floods are the biggest and most frequent hazard in New Zealand. Caused by thunderstorms and heavy rain, tsunamis or coastal storms, they too can be dangerous for humans and animals and can cause great damage throughout the affected areas.

How Kiwis cope

Considering this variety of possible hazards, it is astonishing that the same World Risk Report ranks New Zealand among the countries with an overall low risk. This is due to the excellent coping capacities in New Zealand. In other words: the Kiwis, as New Zealanders are often affectionately called, are prepared to deal with emergencies that come their way.

On a national level, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management is responsible for risk management. On regional and local level Civil Defence groups, police and fire services work to reduce the impacts of the hazards, prepare communities for emergencies and support them when disaster strikes. School children have regular earthquake drills, and civil defence shelters all over the country can provide refuge for those who have to leave their homes. In an emergency, local media provide information and give advice about how to react in the specific situation.

Moreover, the Earthquake Commission, also a government agency, and the Civil Defence website “Get Thru” issue detailed information about how to prepare for emergencies, how to quake-safe your home and how to respond when disasters strike (e.g., drop, cover and hold in the event of an earthquake, move to higher ground in case of a tsunami or flood, stay indoors during storms and ash falls).

As a general rule you should always have a survival kit, a getaway kit, and a first aid kit at home and in your workplace. The survival kit should contain everything that you and your household will need to survive for three days or more. Important items include drinking water, non- perishable food, waterproof clothing, dust masks, blankets, toiletries, first aid supplies and essential medicines, a gas barbeque, a torch and a radio with spare batteries. The getaway kits should be packed and easily accessible in case you need to evacuate in a hurry. They should contain similar items as the survival kit and copies of important papers such as passports, insurance policies and financial documents.

You are furthermore advised to create a plan that will allow everyone in your household to react quickly and safely in case of emergency. It should cover how you will communicate and where you will meet if you are separated; where the emergency kits are stored and what they contain; how and when to turn off water, electricity and gas in your home; which local radio stations provide civil defence information during an event; and whom to contact for assistance during an emergency.

Theory and reality

With this excellent civil defence network and high degree of preparation, it is no wonder many Kiwis don’t seem to be bothered by natural hazards. And despite the apparent frequency of these events, some locals have never experienced a disaster. Lisa from Auckland, for example, does not worry about natural catastrophes affecting her life at all. “I really should have a ‘civil defence emergency kit’ in my house, but I have never got around to making one. I suppose it is because I have never been in any emergency situation,” she says.

Witnesses of the Christchurch earthquake make similar statements, and many only began preparing thoroughly for emergencies after they experienced the devastation of the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

Their relaxed attitude towards natural hazards, however, does not mean that Kiwis actually like floods, earthquakes or storms, as our travel guide suggests. “In NZ we do pride ourselves on having a ‘can do’ attitude”, Lisa states. “Early settlers to New Zealand had to tame a wild landscape and overcome many difficulties.

Because of this heritage we tend to think of ourselves as people who can cope with anything. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say we enjoy earthquakes and floods.”

The Christchurch Earthquake

On Tuesday 22, February 2011 at 12:51p.m. local time, New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Although it was preceded by a stronger quake only a few months earlier, the resulting devastation and casualties exceeded by far anything the country had experienced for 80 years. Because the epicentre was located only 10 kilometres from the city and the earthquake hit in the middle of the day, many buildings collapsed, infrastructure was destroyed and 185 people were killed. Even now, four years later, the catastrophic impact of the earthquake is still visible. All over town old buildings are coming down, while new ones are being built. Christchurch is, and will be for a long time, a city in transition.


Living at the Mercy of Nature

New Zealand is a land with varied landscapes that inspire daydreamers, outdoor lovers, and adventurers. It is a beautiful country with fjords, glaciers, snow-covered peaks, lush farmland, sandy beaches, and primeval forests with giant ferns.

But it can also be a dangerous country full of natural hazards. New Zealand sits on two neighbouring tectonic plates that grind and subduct past each other: the Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. And the collision of these plates is responsible for many of its natural disasters.

Some of the disasters you can find include: floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and lava flows, storms, and tsunamis. But it is unlikely that as a tourist you will face any of these hazards.

New Zealanders, however, are well-prepared to deal with any emergencies that come their way. There are national agencies, as well as regional and local groups that work to reduce the impact of these hazards and prepare communities for emergencies and support them when disaster strikes. School children have regular earthquake drills, there are shelters all over the country, and in an emergency local media provide information and give advice on how to react in the specific situation.

Kiwis are used to these natural hazards and as they are well-prepared, they have a very relaxed attitude towards them, but that doesn’t mean they actually like them!



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Living at the Mercy of Nature



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