Christchurch earthquake deployment – day one

It’s a long day after waking up at three in the morning. Why do we always feel we will miss the alarm? The flight to Wellington is delayed by an hour. I try to finalise a few budget tasks while I wait. I watch a movie on board and try to relax for the final hour. As we make our descent, I know New Zealand is falling silent as two minutes of silence are observed to remember the dead. It is exactly a week since the second earthquake hit. As I queue to disembark, the man beside me asks if I am headed for Christchurch. “Good luck”, he says.

Across town in the New Zealand Red Cross building, we are greeted by the head of Domestic and International Operations and briefed by the HR Manager. The building is amazingly quiet. Most of the action is, predictably, down in Christchurch. Angela and I head back to the airport for a turbo-prop flight down. As we enter Christchurch airport complex from the apron, a safety sign says “Welcome to Christchurch Airport. Caution: Uneven Surface”. Some wit has added to the bottom: “AND WOBBLY TOO”.

It is after seven by the time we find our Red Cross building. Yet again, it seems, Emergency Services have displaced First Aid training. Dozens of Red Crossers mill about, many in professional-looking red overalls.  A handful of our Japanese colleagues are also in town. Their uniforms are even more impressive, with first aid kits on their belts and serious badging.

I recognise Steve and Graeme from their trip to Queensland to help us, and a couple of Tracing colleagues. Wasn’t Catherine last in Brisbane in the Planning team? She is happier back in her comfort zone, doing what she knows best.

I cannot get my head around who is who. I know I am a stranger, but it has been a while since I have walked into a Red Cross operation and not been able to recognise structure and hierarchy by the colours people are wearing. How can you tell who is in charge? Who are the Logs people? Where am I staying tonight? Where – and who – is my team leader? Are all these people coming off shift, or is it a shift changeover? How long have they been working today?

We queue for dinner. Roast chicken with all the trimmings by a local rotisserie caterer. I eyeball my new colleagues. There are quite a few tired faces here,  a bit of bravado by one or two, a few others a bit too quiet for my liking. Steve, the new Incident Controller, briefs everybody outside after a team photo and the crowd begins to disperse.

As the “welfare team” we get a very brief introduction by Kristen, our team leader, and set to work leading a hot debrief for the local Christchurch team. They have not been working together, but start and end the day together. They have been doing Operation Suburb, USAR, welfare centres, logistics, you name it.  They express unhappiness at non-locals coming in and taking photos. Some of them have gone back to their regular work today – one is happy to get back to some sort of normality, whilst another just has to go back because he has run out of leave. Yet another is working a full shift with Red Cross as well as a full shift as a nurse. One guy had been rostered off but came in the evening for the briefing. This is their town, and most are going home to damaged homes, missing friends, no water, intermittent electricity. The camaraderie is pretty good but their resilience is wearing thin. We recommend EAP to them and remind everybody including ourselves about the “oxygen mask rule”: you have to look after yourself first before you are able to look after anybody else.

It is past nine at night and most of these people have been on the go since before six in the morning. Steve is aiming to get the shifts down to twelve hours. He walks the halls sending people home.

The Thistle guest house is a few minutes away by car. John is most welcoming to his old-fashioned but comfortable digs. I eye the washing machine happily. I’ll need that later in the week. My room has two single beds, a wash-basin with a single cold tap, a big TV, plenty of fresh towels and a kettle. We have to boil all the water before we drink it. The bathroom is down the hall. I try not to disturb my backpack too much: what if I have to make a sharp exit in the middle of the night? They have already had a tremor measuring over 4 on the Richter scale this morning.

I position my hiking boots right by the bed and leave my trousers and high-vis jacket within arm’s reach. My mobile phone is to hand and can double as a torch. I eye the fire exit: it’s a jump out the window to a secondary roof below. I think I can make it. I consider what to wear to bed. What if another quake hits in the middle of the night? How long does one wait until it is time to jump out of bed and hide under the table/ under the bed/ in the doorframe? Are my bedclothes appropriate to be seen in on the street?

I’ve not felt the ground shake yet, but it is only a matter of time. I only hope it doesn’t happen on my first night.

Less than a minute after I type that sentence, the bed shakes. The room shakes. The earth quakes. A car alarm goes off down the street. It lasts no more than five seconds and the bed doesn’t sway more than a few inches to each side, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

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