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Quiet Desperation:

The New Zealand Floods Of 2053


By Chris Oakley

Part 2


Summary: In the first part of this series we recalled the New Zealand floods of 2053; the seaquake which caused those floods; and the highly controversial choice made by New Zealand prime minister Henry Woodburn to place the inexperienced Emma Keeler in charge of the post-disaster recovery effort. In this chapter we’ll examine how Keeler’s errors in judgment exacerbated New Zealand’s post-flood problems and started the political crisis that would eventually topple Woodburn’s government.


As July turned into August, the criticisms about Emma Keeler’s handling of the post-flood recovery effort were getting louder and more biting with every passing day. Prime Minister Henry Woodburn’s detractors in the media were even more vocal than they had been in the immediate aftermath of the flooding; even his supporters were beginning to have second thoughts in the face of Keeler’s repeated missteps. The surest sign that Keeler was in the media’s crosshairs came on August 3rd, 2053 when a blogger for The Australian posted a commentary likening Keeler to “a new car that looks good when you see it in the showroom window but turns out to be a real clunker once you drive it off the lot”.

The broadcast media was hardly much kinder; the same day that the blogger’s comment went online, New Zealand’s largest private satellite TV news channel aired a BBC News documentary that shed an unflattering light on Keeler’s hiring policies when she was in charge of Woodburn’s media affairs team. The two-hour program featured scores of interviews with former Keeler employees whose memories of their ex-boss were, to put it mildly, unpleasant. One particularly disgruntled ex-staffer was quoted as telling the documentary’s producers that as genial as Keeler might seem on-camera, behind closed doors she was notorious for being extremely ill-tempered and at least once had actually thrown something at an unlucky secretary who happened to incur her wrath.

And to make matters even worse for Keeler, the documentary revealed that her infamous faux pas with a Korean TV news correspondent during her Christchurch press conference wasn’t the first time Keeler had put her foot in her mouth where people of Asian descent were concerned. In an interview with a former Keeler staffer who had since quit her team to teach communications sciences at a university in Australia, it was revealed that at a private dinner just before Woodburn won election to the prime minister’s office Keeler had made what she thought of as an innocuous joke concerning the alleged preponderance of Asian students in science and technology courses at New Zealand’s major colleges and universities. Only it wasn’t quite so harmless as far as New Zealand’s citizens of Asian descent were concerned-- and when video clips of the offending joke surfaced on social media two days after the documentary was first broadcast, those citizens voiced their displeasure with a sea of anti-Keeler online postings and with a massive protest rally outside Prime Minister Woodburn’s offices.

But that was only the beginning of her troubles, as it turned out. A prominent Maori advocacy group, incensed by what it perceived as Keeler’s lack of consideration for the needs of Maori victims of the July floods, launched an online campaign to force Prime Minister Woodburn to replace her as director of the post-flooding recovery and relief program. For that matter many white New Zealanders were just as fed up with Keeler if not more so, flooding print and broadcast media offices with nonstop phone calls, e-mails, and tweets demanding Keeler either resign or be fired. In retrospect, it can now be seen that the delays in getting post-flooding aid to Maori victims was less a result of ethnic bias than of Keeler’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the disaster which had been inflicted on her country.

That said, it should be noted that Keeler’s capacity for relating to people from a cultural background other than her own was, at best, underdeveloped-- an ironic flaw considering she worked in a profession where the ability to connect with a diverse range of human beings is a crucial ingredient to succeeding in that profession. Keeler was out of her depth on this and many other scores, but Woodburn was reluctant to admit this even to himself because of Keeler’s devotion to him. It was an error in judgment that would cost him dearly in the long run....


As we’ve said in the previous chapter, Woodburn’s first critical mistake in his response to the floods was to place the post-disaster recovery effort in the hands of someone who had no experience in those matters. His second critical mistake was to rely too much on civilian transport aircraft in the delivery of relief supplies to the survivors of the catastrophe; as small as the Royal New Zealand Air Force was at the time(and has been for most of its history), its transport aircraft were better suited to the task at hand than the overburdened fleet of cargo planes being leased to the government by the nation’s commercial airlines. In fact, the RNZAF chief of staff had offered at least twice to activate his reserve transport squadrons to take some of the burden off the civilian cargo jets-- an offer Woodburn illogically declined at first because he believed accepting it would be interpreted by the media and public as a signal he was giving up on his efforts to revive New Zealand’s struggling commercial airline industry.

It took an aggressive online petition campaign to get Woodburn to change his mind-- and even then the prime minister quite vehemently protested at having to do it. Woodburn’s relations with his military leaders had never been entirely smooth in the first place, but by the time of the July floods they were downright glacial; just prior to the disaster the prime minister had been carrying on an extremely public and extremely nasty feud with his army, navy, and air force chiefs of staff over his handling of the Pakistani civil war, and his blistering response to their criticisms had neither been forgiven nor forgotten. In particular the head of the RNZAF’s logistics corps had to be talked out of resigning his post after a heated exchange with Woodburn over a variety of sore spots between the two men-- including Emma Keeler. One senior Royal New Zealand Navy admiral eventually did resign, worn out by the almost constant quarreling between his colleagues and his prime minister.

On August 15th, 2053, nearly a month after the floods, a scathing New Zealander defense ministry internal memo about Keeler was leaked to NZTV News by an anonymous source in the defense minister’s office. When the suspected leaker was arrested by Auckland police it turned out to be none other than Prime Minister Woodburn’s official liaison to the New Zealand Army general staff; he was summarily dismissed from his post and court-martialed for insubordination. The ensuing scandal further eroded the Woodburn government’s already shaky credibility and was viewed by Keeler’s critics as a vindication of their earlier harsh judgment of her. One New Zealander lawmaker filed a resolution in the country’s parliament calling for Keeler’s immediate termination, and a former associate of Keeler’s from her first job as a newsreader for an Internet public affairs service published an autobiography in which he revealed that Keeler had been forced to resign from that position due to numerous arguments with her bosses over she how handled her staff.

Within two weeks after the memo surfaced, the Woodburn government came under attack in the courts when the families of twenty-two flood victims who had died as a result of inadequate post-flooding medical attention filed a wrongful death suit against Keeler-- the largest one of its kind the New Zealand court system had seen in more than fifty years. More than a hundred witnesses would testify on the plaintiffs’ behalf during the lawsuit; before it was over Keeler would be driven to the brink of mental and emotional collapse. The already relentless pressure on Woodburn to get rid of Keeler and replace her with someone more competent was about to increase threefold, but by the time that Woodburn finally got around to dismissing her from her post it would be too late to save his political career....




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