Be prepared. Be very prepared, is the word from Civil Defence’s Paul Blewman.
“To be really cold about it, you’ve been told for years and years you’re going to be on your own for three days if disaster strikes. So you are going to be on your own,” he says. “Unless you’re injured.”
The Waikato Valley Emergency Operating Area manager and local controller – to give him his full title – is talking with me from the purpose-built emergency centre on Duke Street.
Paul has been with Civil Defence just short of six years, and says before he got the job, he wouldn’t have been prepared for even five hours.
“Now I am, and I understand the risks.”
Civil Defence steps in when all else has failed, he says. “We are literally the final backstop, we’re the cavalry, but we’re running short of horses. There are only three of us for 285,000 people; we take in five council areas [Hamilton City, Waikato, Otorohanga, Waipa and Waitomo]. So it’s important to us that people understand what Civil Defence is about and what constitutes an emergency – the first response is from the fire service, the police, ambulance. When they are overwhelmed and can’t contain it, that’s when we take over.”
A bit of worry is a good thing
People tend to think there’s nothing to worry about in the Waikato. That’s not quite the case, says Paul.
“Alerts often happen at 2am, you get out of bed, and check it out. The whole of last year there were 1800 alerts. We’re almost at that now, with 1777 in the first six months. They can be earthquakes, weather warnings, tsunami, volcanic alerts, they go on all the time. And they all get dealt with, and most often, no one knows it’s happened.”
For a start, there are three large active faults which are considered a risk – the Kerepehi Fault, extending along the Thames Estuary and Hauraki Plains, the Rangipo Fault, on the eastern side of Mt Ruapehu and the Wairoa North Fault, running along the Bombay Hills.
“Most people have never heard of the Kerepehi Fault but it’s consistently active. Most of the quakes you won’t feel, but it has the same return period as the one in Christchurch, and it will hit us with the same size event. Christchurch’s time was September 4 – ours could be a thousand years away or in an hour’s time. And most faults get pretty close to our dam systems as well.”
Flooding is an issue for the Waikato. “A 100-year-flood is the worry, huge ponding problems follow. Even out in Gordonton, with gently rolling land, the amount of water that can accumulate is enormous.”
“A large volcanic event could be utterly catastrophic for us, for a lot of reasons. It only takes a few millimetres of ash on the grass before it’s poisonous to animals. In extreme cases it will wear the teeth out in seven days, so the cows can no longer eat. There are 1.5 million cattle in our area. How do you dispose of all of them?”
Two of the world’s worst eruptions in the last quarter of a million years were Taupo. The volcano erupts on average every 900 years and the last time was about 1800 years. It’s considered dormant rather than extinct. “The silver lining is that with a Taupo eruption, we do get a little time. So we can cover up the water supply.”
There’s also Auckland to be concerned about – the city is built on an active volcanic field – and the fact that it’s estimated 260,000 Aucklanders will flee to the Waikato.
“These things can happen anytime. We tend to think only in terms of our own lifespans, and we do that so we don’t worry ourselves silly.”
There are also man-made risks – about every six minutes a truck and trailer full of dangerous goods drives through the middle of Hamilton.
“In a couple of years’ time they’ll be trundling through your area, with the Eastern bypass. Accidents happen constantly.”
Probably a low risk, and Paul Blewman didn’t even mention it. However, N8N knows that zombies were seen shuffling down Victoria St last Friday night. Here’s the evidence, left.
(Actually, zombies are very useful creatures to get the message out there – the creative folk at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, US, used them as a way to get people thinking about emergencies. It was wildly successful.)
Understanding the risks in one thing, he says, but to be prepared for them is another matter.
“Because how prepared could you ever be for the earthquake that hit Christchurch? Civil Defence there had just spent $3 million on a brand new emergency facility, it was beautiful, and had everything. But it was housed amongst old buildings, and after the earthquake they weren’t able to get to it.”
The Duke St centre has all the gear and technology in the world needed to coordinate and respond to an emergency, he says. Further, it is surrounded by a large carpark area, making access easy for rescue vehicles including helicopters.
But when something happens, as in Christchurch, the focus will go first to the trapped and dying people.
“Yes, we understood people were without sewerage out in the suburbs, they didn’t have water, but they weren’t dying. That’s why we say to people, you will be on your own for three days. Or more.”
It only takes a moment, but it might be well worth it:
First up, throw a bottle of water into the car. Many emergencies won’t happen when we’re at home but out and about.
If you need it, make sure you have extra medication, at home and at work. Heart pills, asthma inhalers and whatever is necessary.
- Do not use the cell phone. They take out the emergency services communications. “Which means we can’t do our job. Everyone in Christchurch was texting or calling, and it jams up our systems.”
- Eat food sensibly. “Start with fresh. Eat everything in the fridge. Then open up the freezer, but only with the neighbours present, so you can share the contents and only eat what’s in the freezer. Then you can get into the rice and pasta and dry food.”
- Have some old shoes under the desk at work. If there’s glass about or rubble you might have to do a lot of walking to get out.
- Have alternative cooking and lighting – gas, extra batteries and candles. “Those long, white candles our parents, grandparents had, are great. A couple of bucks for a pack of six. You know where they are, and they never go flat.”
And get to know your neighbours. “Humans are good people,” says Paul. “They do good. Yes, we had people burgling after the Christchurch quake, but it was only half a dozen. Thousands were out supporting and helping each other. At a time of crisis, people come together.”