Natural disasters in New Zealand are a real threat that can destroy land and property. They have the power to wipe out whole towns, kill thousands upon thousands of flora and fauna species, and leave many injured or homeless. Whilst New Zealand may not seem like an area prone to natural disasters, it’s important for you to be prepared for certain catastrophes.

In recent years, New Zealand has become more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and global warming. Natural disasters in New Zealand have the power to be incredibly destructive and life-threatening. It is important for people to know what kinds of disasters are possible, where they tend to happen, and how one can stay safe from them.

Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, extreme weather events like cyclones and hurricanes, and more frequent flooding are all symptoms of climate change. The most common natural disasters that happen in New Zealand are tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, cyclones, landslides, droughts, tornadoes, bushfires, and volcanoes.

If you’re living in an area prone to these sorts of events, then it is essential that you know what the risks are, how to prepare for them, and what steps you can take if they do occur. This article will give you all the information on the natural disasters in New Zealand, as well as some tips on how best to stay safe!

Natural disasters in New Zealand

natural disasters in new zealand
Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

1. Hurricane or cyclones

The first major and catastrophic natural disaster that people might experience in New Zealand is a cyclone or hurricane. Hurricane storms are formed over water and carry high winds and rain throughout their paths. These storms are formed when warm moist air is lifted into the atmosphere, cooling as it rises. This causes water vapour in the air to condense, forming clouds that can carry rain. If these conditions continue for a long time, strong winds gather from around the centre of the storm and it becomes a cyclone or hurricane.

During this type of storm, the main hazard present is from flying debris, which can be exceedingly dangerous and lead to serious injury or even death. In fact in June 2021, The Guardian reported the death of an individual working at an Auckland shipping container site after a tornado hit the South Auckland freight hub. The storm tore through the suburb of Papatoetoe, bring down trees, tearing off roofs and smashing windows. An additional two people were injured as a result of the hazardous debris.

According to New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), during April 1968, Tropical Cyclone Gisele intensified as it moved over New Zealand, passing over Wellington and causing winds up to 75 metre per second (270 kilometres per hour). The interisland ferry Wahine was sunk with 51 people killed.

In March 1988, Cyclone Bola affected northern New Zealand, depositing over 900 millimetres of rain, and causing hurricane-force winds. In 1996, Cyclones Fergus and Drena brought torrential rains and storm-force winds to the North Island, prompting the evacuation of coastal resorts. All campers and hikers who were holidaying on the North Island’s East Coast were told to pack up and leave the area. Cyclone Fergus caused extensive damage to New Zealand due to the resultant landfall.

2. Tsunamis

Tsunamis are different from cyclones because they are formed when an earthquake strikes the ocean floor under the sea, sending huge amounts of water rushing towards the shore. A tsunami can travel across oceans in just 15 hours. By the time it reaches land, it has gathered strength and can rise to 30 feet high, destroying everything in its path.

Tsunami waves are so powerful that they can move cars and other large objects whilst carrying people out to sea. They will also gather debris such as trees and branches, which adds even more danger if people are trapped inside the water. The torrential waters also makes it hard for people to regain their bearings and surface, drastically increasing the risk of drowning.

According to GNS Science, there have been about 10 tsunamis higher than 5 metres in New Zealand since 1840. A few were triggered by distant earthquakes, but most were caused by seafloor quakes near the coast. In March 2021, the Kermadec Islands earthquakes led to tsunami warnings being issued around the Pacific, particularly for the North Island of New Zealand.

Thousands of Kiwis were evacuated to higher ground as a result of this warning. Tsunami heights measured by GeoNet ended up being around 0.35 to 0.4 metres at East Cape, around 0.15 to 0.2 metres at Great Barrier Reef and up to 2.4 metres at Raoul Island. Fortunately, the extent of damage was limited to property and no deaths were reported.

3. Floods

Due to climate change, floods are another common natural disaster in New Zealand. Many floods happen without people being aware of them. Some might just be a few inches deep, but they can also become deadly once the water begins to rise and move quickly over roads or into buildings causing damage from the inside out.

People living near rivers should be prepared for floods. If there is a warning about an impending flood, it is vital that people seek higher ground immediately. It’s also important not to cross the water on foot because powerful currents make it dangerous and can potentially sweep you away amidst dangerous debris. According to The Guardian, recent flash floods in Auckland in August 2021, resulted in the evacuation of 50 homes. The flood devastated the fruit-growing centre of Kumeu and caused extensive damages to houses and cars in the area.

4. Landslides

Another common natural disaster in New Zealand is landslides. Landslides occur when a shaking force causes a slope of the land to collapse and slide down. They can either be small or very large, covering huge areas and destroying roads, buildings, and other structures in their path.

Landslides caused by earthquakes are a common hazard in New Zealand because their geographical location on top of two tectonic plates means that there’s always a chance of earthquakes. In addition to earthquakes, landslides can also occur if deforestation is carried out without removing excess vegetation from hillsides in the process. The deforestation process weakens and degrades the soil.

Forested soil are more resistant to erosion, bad weather and extreme weather events (like the kind you might find in New Zealand). Tree roots help fix trees in the ground and the sun-blocking leaves helps the soil to slowly dry out. When removed, the soil becomes increasingly fragile and leaves the area more vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides.

According to The Guardian, a hundred hikers were trapped in a nearby town of South Island due to landslides in 2020 which resulted in 2 injured hikers. Nearly 400 others were trapped in the nearby township of Milford Sound and were waiting to be rescued after flooding cut off the highway in and out of the town.

5. Earthquakes

Unfortunately, the most common natural disaster in New Zealand are earthquakes. The country is situated in the collision zone between the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates and is part of the Pacific Basin Ring of Fire, where many earthquakes and volcanoes occur.

The largest city within this high-risk zone is the nation’s capital, Wellington, followed by Napier and Hastings. All three cities have been experiencing severe earthquakes since the European settlement. Around 14,000 earthquakes occur in and around New Zealand each year, of which at least 150 to 200 of these are big enough to be felt. As a result, New Zealand has very stringent building regulations.

As stated above, earthquakes are particularly dangerous natural disasters as they can trigger a slew of other events such as tsunamis and landslides. The 2011 Christchurch earthquakes was one of the worst earthquakes to hit New Zealand in recent years, recording up to 6.3 magnitude, with aftershocks up to 5.9 magnitude. The event took the lives of 185 people and is amongst the one of the deadliest disasters in New Zealand.

People in New Zealand should be aware of natural hazards and events, especially if they live in a certain area frequently affected by landslides, floods or earthquakes. However, precautionary steps to take when there is a warning about an approaching hazard can save lives, so it’s important for people to know what to do in case of a disaster.

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How to prepare for natural disasters

prepare against natural disasters in new zealand
Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Natural disasters in New Zealand are prevalent due to its geography and geology. The best way to deal with them is to be prepared by planning ahead for the worst things that could happen.

Kiwis are ready for any type of disaster that might strike. Most New Zealanders prepare themselves before anything happens, and if you’re planning to relocate to New Zealand, it might be a good idea to adopt that spirit as well. So here are some tips on how you can prepare yourself and your family members for any natural disasters in New Zealand.

  • Emergency kit

Preparing an emergency kit that includes water, food, a flashlight, batteries, and chargers for your devices. This kit should be easily accessible at all times. Things you might want to add are prescriptions, medication, or other important documents like passports or insurance information.

Check out this emergency kit checklist from the Red Cross

  • Keep your friends and family close

Make sure your family members know what to do if they can’t reach each other. Ensure that you have contact details of your family members’ friends and relatives, so if there’s an emergency, someone will be able to check on them. Consider making a Family Emergency Plan as it might save lives!

A functional emergency plan helps alleviate fears about potential disasters and can help you respond safely and quickly when a disaster happens. You can get a copy of a household emergency plan and checklist from your local council or download a printable template here.

  • Educate yourself about natural disasters in your area

Before you move, you should look into natural disasters that have occurred in your area and prepare accordingly. Regularly check around your property for cracks or movement in slopes and retaining walls. Do what you can to reduce the risk of damage to your home from earthquakes. For more information on how to prepare your home for an earthquake, refer here.

Check with your local council for a flood plain map to see if you’re living in or near a flood-risk area. Do note that homes in low-lying areas near waterways are generally more at risk of floods. Buildings with low floor levels are also more likely to be flooded in those areas.

  • Evacuating safely

Find out if you live near an evacuation route to know where you need to go, if there’s a warning, or when civil defence officials call an evacuation. For example, identify at least two ways to receive warnings – a loud alarm or a text message.

  • Emergency hotlines

In the event of a disaster in New Zealand, one of the most important things to do is stay safe. If you’re not able to evacuate on your own and need assistance, there are several agencies where you can look to get help during a disaster in New Zealand. These organizations include but are not limited to:

You can help reduce your risk of being hurt by these disasters by following the steps mentioned above, along with checking on your home’s stability before an earthquake happens and being aware of emergency hotlines. Have supplies ready for when disaster strikes, get involved with community emergency response plans so you know what to do if there is a tsunami warning issued near where you live or work. Be safe!

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How to cope after a natural disaster

natural disasters in new zealand
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A natural disaster is an extremely traumatic event and coping after such an event in New Zealand can be difficult alone. Various organizations play a vital role in helping individuals to cope after a disaster. Following are the few organizations that can help you cope after a disaster in New Zealand:

  • The Red Cross

The Red Cross is a good place to go if disaster strikes in New Zealand. They will take care of your immediate needs and give you information on how to cope with the effects of the disaster.

  • Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management

The Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management helps people cope with disasters by providing them with useful tools such as their mobile app, which gives you safety information and alerts about emergencies.

  • The Mental Health Foundation

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand provides information on the following topics: mental health issues, managing stress, feelings and emotions, depression, anxiety disorders, and self-harm. It also provides online guidance counselling services.

  • The Health Promotion Agency for New Zealand

The Health Promotion Agency for New Zealand also has many resources about health and well-being. They produce various documents, websites, publications, and newsletters on mental health issues, including anxiety disorders and depression.

  • Ministry of Social Development

If you or a family member has been affected by a natural disaster, then the Ministry of Social Development is a good place to go. They have information on everything from financial assistance to counselling and training programmes for employees. They also provide services such as Community Response Guidelines, which help communities establish their own response systems after disasters have struck.

The above are just some of the organisations that can help you cope after a disaster in New Zealand. If your home is ruined or if you’ve lost someone close to you, stay calm! There are people who want to help and be there for you. Learn more about these agencies so that at least one thing will go smoothly when disaster strikes: dealing with the aftermath.

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