Christchurch earthquake deployment – day four

A change of scene: I head to the centre of Christchurch, to the art gallery. Less than five years old, it emerged relatively unscathed from the earthquake on 22 February, with not one of its hundreds of panes of glass even cracked. As such, it made a perfect location for the multi-agency Emergency Operations Centre, and I am to be the Red Cross Liaison Officer there today.

We drive along towards the central cordon, two colleagues and myself. Within minutes we reach the outer cordon of the CBD, where traffic is controlled. The driver, a Cantabrian herself, remarks that she never imagined seeing armoured tanks and military personnel on the streets of her home town.

The cordon is a serious one. We stop the car and the young soldiers inspect our photo ID with care. Round here we can see a number of commercial and industrial buildings with the red graffiti on the front, showing that they are doomed for demolition. The further we go within the central cordon, the more beautiful the buildings become and the sadder it is that they have been irreparably damaged.

Walking the few blocks from the car park to the art gallery, the quietness is deafening. These streets should be lively on a sunny Saturday morning. Instead, the only movement is that of cars with lights and sirens on, and people with various uniforms on, all heading for the same building. We pass by the media tent where many Asian and worldwide TV outlets wait. As we enter the building we navigate the hand wash checkpoint (every earthquake brings a risk of gastric problems with it) and the sign-in table.

The Red Cross table is in one of the galleries off to the right. All of the paintings are gone now, taken down yesterday for protection. I was sort of looking forward to spending my day gazing at works of art when working. In the foyer a large advertisement heralds the coming of “De-Building: … inspired by a moment usually hidden from viewers – when an exhibition ends and the “de-build” begins.” Who knew?

Angela and I make a base camp at the empty Red Cross table and start getting our bearings. I wander next door to Strategic Planning and Intelligence, and head up the beautiful staircase to find where the Recovery team lives. Angela finds our outreach coordination people in the adjacent gallery space. Their day is starting off at a relaxed pace, but their afternoon will get frantic as two landslides threaten more than a hundred homes and the workload increases exponentially.

The art gallery café is still operational, but for free. Workers can wander in at any time for a cup of tea, a latté, a slice of cake, a piece of fruit. The lunchtime queues form quickly for chicken cacciatore or noodles or salad or a sandwich. A desk out on the foyer has box upon box of bottled water and Powerade.

The Planning Intelligence guys don’t have much to offer as yet in terms of recovery data. The Public Information and Media team are working in an interesting space, where “the rumour mill” whiteboard is given as much attention as fact. They know that out there, perspective is reality.

There are more than seventy or eighty people in this gallery space. The noise is deafening at times, with everybody talking to each other and on the phone at the same time. Suddenly the earth shakes and for three or four seconds, the whole room goes silent. I stand in a strange automatic surfing position (legs widely-spaced, knees slightly bent, arms a little outstretched) as the wall opposite me flutters lazily like a heavy curtain. That was a big one. Later I find out it was a 4.1.

I wonder how anybody thought this was a slow gig. People from strategic planning, welfare, Pacific Islander Affairs swing by the desk, passing on information and requesting help. I attend a couple of briefing meetings and manage at some point to visit the portable toilets parked outside, hoping nothing seismic will happen while I am on the throne.  Somebody wants to know where we think the transportable shower blocks should go first when they arrive. In between phone calls I develop some briefing notes for my successor, and wish they had left some paintings behind for me to gaze at.

Before I know it, it is past five o’clock and my colleagues from the outreach coordination desk are ready to go. We stand outside in the freezing cold waiting for our lift. Jenny is three weeks away from her wedding, but still she turns up every day for shift. Red Cross is important to her. She points out a nearby high-rise building, and tells me she was up on the sixth floor the other day. The whole building is deserted,  but tomorrow residents will be allowed back home for the first time. She tells me she would not want to be returning there. They are beautiful homes, she says, but their contents are destroyed and the view from their once-envied windows will be heart-breaking.

Back at base, I chat to my fellow Red Cross workers. Some have had bad days, others are worried that the tiredness has not hit them yet.  A couple of colleagues from Melbourne have now arrived and their familiar faces are so good to see. I brief the Incident Controller after my day, and am gratified to hear most of what I tell him included in the team briefing just before dinner.

It is Saturday night and some of us are determined to have at least one team dinner. Before I go I have a quiet conversation with a colleague who had a particularly stressful day. It’s what I was brought here to do: provide peer support to fellow Red Cross workers as they go about their jobs. We sit in a small room upstairs on a couple of comfy office chairs and I listen to the story of her day.

Just as we finish our chat, the building starts to shake. It’s a serious one this time. My colleague – a Kiwi herself – instinctively jumps to her feet, opens the office door and stands within the doorframe. The building is really shaking at this point. Others outside hold their dinner plates in hand, trying not to spill gravy, whilst others try to stop the white plastic garden table from migrating across the room. Graeme tries to dive beneath the table. I’m  not sure what protection it would have afforded. I watch as the wall opposite me curves and sways. Downstairs, Jacqui looks out the window and sees waves forming on the rain puddles in the car park. She is with four Australians and they freeze to the spot, waiting for somebody to do something.

After what feels like an eternity, but was probably fifteen seconds, the movement slowly stops. My heart is still racing. I sit back down abruptly. My colleague looks at me sagely and suggests that I should make my way quickly back to the doorway. I’ve never moved so fast.

Later over a glass of wine in a suburban ale-house, we learn that the quake we’ve just experienced was a 4.8. Graeme is surprised. He reckoned it was at least a 5. I am not sure I would like to experience anything more than this magnitude. I knew within a couple of seconds that my options were limited and that my survival was subject to sheer luck if the quake got any worse. Earlier in the day, a colleague in the EOC told me that most of the people in her sixth floor council office on the 22 February had been thrown around so much that one colleague had carpet burns.

Back in my tiny room I position my hiking boots a little more carefully by the bed this time. There have been fifteen quakes today, all above 3.0, and two above 4.0. What a day.

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