Running an airport in a crisis

10 Mar 2024

When it comes to extreme weather or other natural events, nobody can ever be fully prepared.

You don’t know what you don’t know, the saying goes. That’s why lessons learned from every such episode are so important, both for those who went through it and others, and help to close the windows of uncertainty.

Cyclone Gabrielle in February was the most damaging storm to hit New Zealand for decades and one of the worst in living memory.

The clean-up from torrential rain and the vast amounts of silt which flowed down river valleys in Hawke’s Bay is expected to take at least another seven or eight years, depending on further weather disruptions and funding.

Our colleagues at Hawke’s Bay Airport Ltd (HBAL) were in the thick of it. At our hui in October 2023, operations manager Deb Suisted described what happened during the cyclone and outlined the lessons learnt, which can also benefit other airport operators as climate change energises and intensifies storm systems.

By the time the cyclone hit in earnest later on Monday February 13, the airport had already made preparations for the predicted wild weather, she said.

These were done with the knowledge of the airport’s potential fragility, given it is on uplifted land from the 1931 earthquake and has a high-water table, with estuaries on two sides.

The preparations included lowering the water table by setting one of its pumps on manual to provide a buffer for the expected rain. Water was also pumped from a drain which usually only empties as a result of evaporation and percolation into the soil.

“On the 13th, we physically visited all airside tenants and asked them to hangar their aircraft and, where this wasn’t possible, to tie them down. We asked them to remove any equipment, rubbish bins and the like, and place them in their hangars.

“We also spoke with the local tanker driver. His fuel storage tank had been filled over the weekend and on the Monday he kept his tanker full in the lead-up to the cyclone.

“A NOTAM was issued by HBAL on Tuesday to restrict fuel for the emergency response only. When Air New Zealand commenced operations on the Wednesday they were required to carry additional fuel. Once power went off, Air BP could not transfer fuel from the bulk tank to the tanker until they obtained a generator.”

The four Air NZ aircraft which normally overnighted at the airport were sent elsewhere.

The airport company borrowed a generator from Napier Port for use for the pump station, Deb said.

“The lesson here was that we didn’t realise what was offered to us was the size of a truck and, once the power went out and we needed it, we had difficulty sourcing a truck to uplift it.”

Fortunately, a Landcorp farm manager next door to the airport found suitable transport and moved the generator, which was shared by both organisations.

Gabrielle brought the airport’s second wettest day since 1950, with 175.8mm of rain in the 24 hours to 9am on the 14th, more than three times the average rainfall for February.

Winds gusting close to 100kmh folded an apron light stand in half and, when the volume of water was too great for the airport’s drainage system, the chocks from a corporate jet lifted and the aircraft was turned 90 degrees by the wind.

Deb said while the airport itself was relatively unscathed and remained operational throughout the cyclone, it was the loss of electricity and then cellphone coverage which had the biggest impact, including on external communications.

“We lost power at 0730 (Tuesday) when the Tutaekuri River breached and flooded the Rissington substation. Then, once the batteries to the cell towers failed, we also lost cell coverage and were unable to communicate.  Some cell services worked randomly but both my phones (Spark and 2degrees) never started working until the following Saturday.

“Our generator at the airport kicked in, and once we got the internet back up and running, at midnight on the Tuesday/Wednesday, it meant we could Facetime/iMessage.”

In terms of the airport, there was minor flooding and large puddles in places. The rain had blown into the entrance lobby and the building had a couple of leaks. The grass runway had been closed since before Gabrielle’s arrival.

“We were lucky that all three of our operations team and our chief executive lived in Napier and were able to get to work,” she said. “Three of our team couldn’t get in because of bridge closures between Hastings and Napier or localised flooding in their areas.

“One of our firefighters struggled to get in when the water was over the bonnet of his car but managed to get in later that day. He and one of the air traffic controllers were airlifted home that night.”

The Civil Aviation Authority declared a restricted airspace above the region and Airways New Zealand was forced to manage a large number of flights with staff restrictions.

Support from the local aviation community throughout the state of emergency and after was strong and valuable, she said.

“They say adversity makes you stronger and, as a community, I think we have grown. Our community helped in so many ways.”

And vice-versa. The airport was never designated as a welfare centre but found itself looking after locals who had been airlifted off the roofs of their homes with just the clothes they were wearing.

“We cared for them, finding them something to eat and a hot drink and supported them as much as we could to get them to friends or family locally.

“On the first and subsequent days, the terminal was full of people obviously traumatised by the situation and people who had lost loved ones during the cyclone. Then there were the others who just wanted to get out of Napier.

“On that first day, we were the only place with power where people could charge devices, use the internet and connect with family and friends. At times it was chaotic with hundreds of people hugging the walls near power points.

“Word quickly got out and people were coming in with multi-boards to power devices. However, we drew the line when someone came in to charge their power tool batteries.”

To reduce the number of people in the terminal, internet use was capped at 30 minutes per device, Deb said.

So, what were the main lessons for HBAL and others?

  • Preparation helps big time;
  • Check what you are actually being offered. We should have made prior arrangements for the delivery of the generator if required;
  • Relationships are everything – from the Landcorp team, Civil Defence, to our airport community, CAA, and our tradies;
  • Ask for help from other agencies when you need it;
  • Know who the problem solvers are who can think outside the box;
  • Keep radio-telephones handy ­– as long as we were within the airport surrounds we were able to communicate;
  • Maintain an external landline phone link;
  • Keep a checklist for all staff on how to run the airport in case the operations team cannot be there in an emergency;
  • Use whiteboards to list what is happening, which issues need addressing and which have been dealt with;
  • Give clear instructions as to who is managing what;
  • Provide a hot meal for everyone at work – it sustains your team, generates togetherness and helps lift morale;
  • Consider space for staff who may have been evacuated from homes;
  • Put family first.