Christchurch earthquake deployment – day two

Another early start. I put the kettle on and watch the news in Maori. By seven I am in the office with a cup of tea in hand, chatting to some volunteers before they start their shift. Some are off to the welfare centres, others to walk the suburban streets checking on residents. A select few are heading to the CBD to assist with the USAR work.

We have a team meeting and plan our day. There are non-Emergency staff working upstairs who have been heavily impacted by the earthquake themselves, as well as the emergency workers themselves. One lady has no power or water at home, and their house has been moved on its foundations. It is still fit to live in – so far – but the lack of electricity and water is getting to her. She was at home when the quake hit, and watched as the street outside her garden cracked and swallowed itself. She was trapped in her house for four days. She comes to work early in the mornings to have a shower, and her workmates around her help her through the tough days. Her elderly neighbour patrols their suburban street every night with a torch, waiting. Waiting for trespassers, a gas leak, the next quake.

A lady walks off the street and offers to volunteer for us. She has been displaced herself and is living with family friends, but does not feel like one of the unlucky ones. A fresh juice supplier calls in with 60 boxes of freshly-squeezed fruit juice for the welfare centres. An older man and woman get help from our lovely receptionist upstairs about what assistance they can get access to. A gang of amazing young university volunteers sit in a meeting room with their own laptops and internet connections, working off community databases, Facebook and anything else to reconnect missing people with their loved ones. Less than a week ago they knew nothing about Red Cross and now they make up one of the core teams.

Downstairs, Steve’s Emergency Operations Centre takes shape. Tables are configured into Operations, Logistics and Planning pods. There is even an EOC Manager space. I still can’t tell anybody apart (no tabards) but he and his team work hard all day, and the structure and discipline grows around them. It is impressive work.

We celebrate the little wins. A new fridge. Plenty of crackling on the roast pork at dinnertime. The beautiful sunshine and warmth, despite a blustering nor’westerly. Cake and more cake – handmade, delicious and donated by grateful citizens. A shiny new organisational chart on the wall by evening.

We chat to staff and volunteers as they come and go. They are tired, and they know it. Most are supporting each other really well. Later in the evening two reunited team-mates embrace in a bear hug for a good minute or two. One lady comes back from shift, queues up for a hot dinner, hops in her car and drives home with the full dinnerplate on the seat beside her. A sixteen-year old Christchurch team member takes a crash course in media handling and becomes assistant National Media Advisor. A veteran of Hurricane Katrina, she and her four siblings are at the heart of the Christchurch crew.

The team leaders talk about how to support their teams better, how to run a good hot debrief, how to recognise the symptoms of the ones who need a little more help. A new team from Auckland arrives, old friends who have helped before, last week and last year. The locals hail them when they see the familiar faces. It’s good to be back, they say.

Chatting to a couple of team members before dinner, I ask a local how you ever get used to the earth moving. We have a funny discussion about the correct night attire in an earthquake zone (something modest and acceptable to wear on the street!) and I am glad I packed my fleecy pyjamas. Thanks Dad.Then I ask when is it appropriate to evacuate. “Oh,” one of them said, “I am getting a bit lax about that. You feel a bit of a shake and then it stops, and you think you are OK. Another time the shaking goes on a good deal longer, and you reckon it’s time to leave, but you can’t be bothered moving.” So when is it definitely time to leave? “ If you are in bed and the tremor is strong enough that your body is being moved about, it’s time to evacuate.” Seriously, if that was happening to me, I am not sure I could move out of sheer panic.

The USAR crew are late back. They’ve been decontaminated as a precaution and they are all wearing white Tyvek jumpsuits. It’s been a day searching through the rubble, not sure what they are going to find. Their Red Cross overalls will need special deep cleaning tomorrow. It’s been a long, hard day and they look worn out. Thankfully they get a day off tomorrow.

Somehow, inexplicably, it is past ten at night and we’ve been here fifteen hours. A very long day, and it won’t be that long again. But there has been some good work laid down, some support mechanisms reinforced, some one-on-one chats to help.

I get to the end of my first full working day without the earth moving again. Back at the Thistle, I have been moved into a single room from my palatial twin room. It’s barely three metres square but has everything I need, especially a comfy bed. I know the drill tonight: boots by the bed, well-thought-out night attire, phone on charge ready to grab. My little table is far too small for anybody but a ten-year-old to hide under, so the doorframe will be my refuge. As I get ready for bed I hear a low rumbling, growing in intensity. Instinctively I reach out to steady myself against the inevitable swaying of the building, but it turns out to be a distant truck or plane. I relax, but not completely.

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