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Sergeant Yvonne Tremain, of Hastings, prepares to make inquiries to locate people reported as missing after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: NZ POLICE

In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, thousands of distraught Kiwis relied on police to confirm their family and friends were safe. Hundreds pitched in to answer the call.

‘Uncontactable' might be a familiar term to police (aka 7Ms), but in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, the word became part of most Kiwis’ vernacular every day for weeks.

Gabrielle ravaged the eastern North Island in mid-February, killing 11 people. In the days after, the list of family and friends who reported that they had grave concerns for someone peaked at 7950.

Detective Inspector Warren Olsson helped to lead the National Criminal Investigations Group (NCIG) team that managed the mammoth task of whittling down the uncontactable list.

“There was intense interest in the team’s progress from the public, from media and from Police and Government leaders,” Warren says.

Many of the people reported missing were from areas where communication networks were damaged, creating a void for misinformation to fill.

Rumours swirled of a secret, makeshift morgue hiding the bodies of far more people than were announced as dead – one man saying it was in the hundreds. Police repeatedly stressed information about the number of deaths was not being held back and that it had established a team of more than 100 staff who were working day and night to confirm people as safe.

Once Police decided to assemble that specialist team, it took only 24 hours to set up an operations base at Police National Headquarters, Warren says. “We had two shifts working over the following two weeks to investigate and locate these people. Within the first week we had the list of people unaccounted for down to 50.”

Police members from many PNHQ groups assisted the operation as well as a team of Auckland NCIG staff and three recruit sections from Wing 363. “This was their first deployment and they enthusiastically took up the challenge,” Warren says.

“Everyone from Police was keen to help in the effort to find people and pitched in at short notice. We had up to 130 staff working the list at one stage.”

If a person was missing from an area where communications were down, the team worked to contact family or friends who might have heard from them through other means. “Our team hit the telephones and searched social media and community sources to verify that people were safe.” Some of the hardest to find were those who hadn’t been in contact with family or friends for some months, Warren says, and those that didn’t want to be found.

One of the biggest tasks was filtering out duplicate reports for the same person and cross-referencing the uncontactable list with people reported safe at evacuation centres or by someone calling into a police station.

“Police analysts constantly reviewed the list of people remaining uncontactable, and prioritised inquiries based on age, last known location and other known vulnerabilities,” Warren says.

The PNHQ team sent 170 tasks to the Eastern District for physical inquiries. There, a rotating team of 20 or so local and out- of-town staff had also put their detective skills to work, phoning, looking at bank transactions and CCTV footage, checking homes and evacuation centres and visiting family and friends.

Once the teams had the uncontactable down to only 50 people, the PNHQ team intensified its efforts. Four days later the list went from 50 to 20 people and then, on Tuesday morning, March 7, there was evidence the last person on the list was safe.

Exactly three weeks after Cyclone Gabrielle did her worst damage, it was officially announced that all the people recorded as uncontactable with Police were located.

“The work we did was a great example of police coming together from different teams to lend a hand, working to provide assurance to the community and helping people find their loved ones,” Warren says.

One of the keys to their success, he says, was the police-built Investigation Management Tool (IMT). “It was able to be quickly modified to ingest the list of reports of concern from NIA [National Intelligence Application] and acted as the investigation system and database for the operation. It is just one example of how IMT is being used to manage both serious crime and major investigations nationally.”

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