Are we ready for disaster?

A street corner, a noticeboard and lots of talking. Photo: Motoki Yotsukura

How ready are New Zealand’s communities for a natural disaster?  Not very, if the experiences of Christchurch residents are any thing to go by.  A year after the first quake, N8N’s Annette Taylor talks with east Christchurch couple Peter and Vicki Hyde.

Vicki Hyde lost track of her mother after the September quake.   “They’d evacuated her, but we had no idea where she’d been taken.  There was no note on the door, no records about where anyone was.  We simply couldn’t find her.”

Vicki’s mother, Kathleen, it turned out, had been taken to the local bowling club with half a dozen other people.

“But we had no way of finding out where she was.  It was very frustrating.”

Following the quake there was no information and a lot of chaos.  The Hydes, as journalists and communication/IT specialists, picked up a big whiteboard and marker pens, headed down to the street corner, and started up their own information centre for locals.

“The problem was that we didn’t have information that allowed us to make sensible decisions about what we were doing, what we should do.  There was no reliable, accurate, up-to-date information about the simple things, where we could go to get supplies, gas to boil our water, where to get that water.  How long would it take to get across town to go to these places – what were the roads like, is the bridge open?” says Peter.

Little help was found in contacting official earthquake numbers.

“If you were lucky enough to have a charge on your cell phone, you’d be on hold for 20 minutes, and then get someone who knew nothing.  And they’d refer you on to another number, which took another 20 minutes, and your battery would be dying.

“It was very frustrating for everyone, you couldn’t ask a question and get an answer,” says Vicki.

The day after the quake they’d learned a lot hiking around the city, trying to find Kathleen.  “We realised,” says Vicki, “that the situation we were facing was not unique, everyone was facing the same issues.”

Setting up communications

They based themselves at the ruins of the supermarket. It had been “munted” by the quake, and wasn’t open. But it was on a main road, and there was a generator outside with a plug, handy for charging cellphones and other devices.

The first thing they did was develop a community database, which was a matter of asking people as they passed the street corner who they were and where they lived.

“We built up a stack of cards, which meant when someone came to us and asked us about so and so, we could say, yes, they’re fine,” says Vicki.

“We assumed, in a disaster, responsible authorities would step in and take over. This didn’t happen, and we had to fill the gap ourselves,” says Peter.

Redcliffs is a drivethrough community and it was immensely frustrating watching the army or Civil Defence drive by on their way elsewhere.

For whatever reason, Civil Defence did not open up sector posts.  “I really haven’t seen any reason for this.  I guess one argument is they were so busy that they weren’t able to tell people what they were dealing with.”

They realise a lot of attention was centred on what was going on in the centre of town.

“The rescue operation, the broken buildings, the human tragedy.  All the focus was intensely laser-like on the centre, but the people and communities away from there were largely being ignored.  The point remains that Civil Defence, in terms of its planning, in terms of its execution in that first week or more, was not up to the size of the catastrophe,” he says.

Lessons learned

Better planning was and is needed.  “And hopefully, some of the lessons learned will include that.  They [officials] could have brought people in from outside, stuck one person in each community and say you’re it.  We had some cops come in for one afternoon with no preparation, and then they were off elsewhere.  That’s hopeless.”

They say that communication in the city between different agencies was appalling.  “The police didn’t know what the army was doing, what Civil Defence was doing, the council had no idea what the police were doing, and so on.”

What advice do the Hydes offer?  Have plenty of old-fashioned resilience, says Vicki.

“Be prepared or self-supporting for seven to 10 days.  They say prepare for 72 hours, but that’s not enough.”

Have access to fresh water, power and gas.  “And a way to charge your cell phone, so maybe having batteries on hand.  Consider getting a telephone that just plugs into the phone lines, when there’s no power you can’t use more complex ones.”

And, she adds, assume you’ll be on your own.  “It’s up to you and your neighbours to get things done.  Meet and get to know your neighbours, it’s useful to know who has got what.  Maybe someone has a trailer, or a generator, or their own private portaloo, very handy in an emergency.”

Peter says supplies are the big ones for him.  “You really need to have some source of power, some way of cooking.  Batteries, lamps, and the like.”

While having a larder filled with supplies of rice and tinned food is helpful, Peter says it’s interesting what runs out early.

“We didn’t actually run out of rice or flour, it was things like meat, because your freezer is gone, or you run out of gas to cook, and you worry about getting more fuel.”

Centre still open

One year almost to the day the information centre is still going, and has evolved somewhat from its bare beginnings.

“It went from the whiteboard, duck-taped to a telephone poll, to a caravan, then to the other side of the road with bits and pieces cobbled together and now it’s in an abandoned shop, with volunteers,” says Vicki.

Soon after setting up, they were able to print off newsletters, which were then posted on a website.  The office has been used by various organisations, including Winz, the earthquake commission and AMI.

It was also a space where people could drop supplies off. “While it had no official status, it developed this simply by being there,” says Vicki.

One guy dropped off 50 kilos of bananas, others gave vegetables or their defrosted frozen goods.

“People want to help, if they have somewhere to do it from.  There are people living on their own, the elderly, solo parents with children; some people are completely isolated. How are they going to get 20 litres of water back to their house?  We had 93 people on a waiting list for a chemical toilet, then three weeks later we found out they weren’t going to deliver any chem toilets to our area.”

Information is power

Peter and Vicki believe the official authorities dropped the ball on this one.  “We needed a centrally managed response, with lines of communication being managed and going both ways.  With an ad hoc response like ours no one knows to deal with you.  The best information I got early on was by texting my brother in Auckland, and asking him to trawl through all the websites that we couldn’t get to, and find things out for me,” says Peter.

The one organisation that shone from day one was Orion, who were in the car park next door, he says.

“We could talk to them about what streets they were working on and get a fairly good forecast of what streets would have power tomorrow. This makes a huge difference to people, who are asking themselves questions like, ‘should we stay, should we go, if we stay, how do we get supplies’.  If they get told the power will go on in the next three or four days, they say, ok, yes, we can live with that.”

The lowest point for him personally was the day he drove across town, on the hunt for supplies.

“I went over to west Christchurch, with the idea of filling up our gas bottle. I spent almost an hour driving on shit roads. I had no idea if the road would lead to where I thought it would, many were closed off.  There were cracks and rubble, I’d have to turn around and get back into a queue.  It was a huge expedition just to get to a station.   I pulled up and was told by the atendant that the bottle was out of date and it was more than his job was worth to fill it.

“That experience told me that the rest of the country didn’t understand what was happening.  The officials weren’t looking very hard, or if they were, they weren’t talking about it.  So we just started to talk for ourselves.”

  • Chris Laidlaw interviews Peter Hyde here.
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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

6 thoughts on “Are we ready for disaster?

  • September 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Congratulations on an article to make us think, and perhaps act. We’ve always known we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves in at least the first week after disaster hits. Civil Defence is a worthy organisation, but nowhere near as instant as neighbours helping neighbours, as was the case in Christchurch. Perhaps the answer for those first days lies in some form of Neighbourhood Watch not dependent on Police to “press the buttons”. We need to accept responsibility for our neighbours and be aware of skills available in our immediate community in the event of emergency. Rural communities are far ahead of town and city communities in this regard. It bears thought – and action. Now!

  • September 12, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I agree with Roy. Excellent article and advice. If anyone still thinks the cavalry will ride to their aid in a disaster this puts them straight. Thanks.

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  • September 19, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Neighbours talking, sharing and caring about each other – that’s how it should be, that’s how it used to be, and forums like N8N are rolling it back! May the word spread and may your emailing list expand like an overfed waistline!

    • September 19, 2011 at 10:12 am

      Thank you Roy – we look forward to becoming nice and plump!

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