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.

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.

Christchurch earthquake deployment – Day Minus One

What do you pack to travel to an earthquake zone? I hurry home from a relaxing weekend away by the ocean, to a last-minute travel health check and a few hours at home before heading to New Zealand. I have been busy these past two months with Australian disasters. Floods, more floods, cyclones, fires, and yet more floods. My packing has become quicker and tighter every time. Don’t worry about a book or a Walkman: you won’t have time. Only pack one or two non-Red-Cross pieces: you will end up eating dinner in uniform every night in the canteen. Forget about makeup (well, except eye-liner – remember when the Governor-General visited?) and always double-check you have enough hairclips otherwise you will faint in that Brisbane heat.

Other things not to worry about so far: a bed for the night. A shared bathroom. Sweaters and rain jackets.

This time I am not so confident. I am told I will have a bed in a motel, but really? In an earthquake zone? I pack a sleeping bag, inner sheet and carry-mat anyway. And socks to wear when it gets cold. And cover-all pyjamas in case there are communal facilities (or another earthquake in the middle of the night). I carry my trusty Red Cross high-vis jacket and my incident management folder like comfort blankets. Extra medication, thermal vests, teabags, own mug and water-bottle, a Swiss Army knife and at least one torch. I feel like I am going camping again.

this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people – part 4

Dedicated to Julie Groome and all those who work with spontaneous volunteers…

It hurts when there’s nothing but a slow growing queue
And your fear seems to say you won’t get them all trained
All alone I have cried; “Get HR on our side!”
We need more volunteers for the field…..

Well I run the training, run the police checks, see them learning
Run around, sign them up for the cause….

VOLUNTEERING, bein’s believin’
You can have it all, volunteering all your life
Take your passion and make it happen
Dreams can come alive, volunteering at Red Cross!

gong hei fat choi

We should have known it was going to be a difficult day. We stood in the early morning heat at the hotel before seven, while taxis came and went. None of them were ours. We had to re-book several times before somebody would take us.

A second day of computer problems plagued us all day, making the simplest of operational processes a huge ordeal. The clever idea of the Queensland state government to centrally coordinate all emergency response travel to the cyclone-affected areas was a good one, but it meant we were one step further away from controlling the travel of our own people. Things moved so fast – and then so slowly – many people’s heads were spinning before noon.

We continued to struggle to keep our head in the various games we were presented with. Queensland is hurting from wave after wave (pardon the pun) of flooding and cyclone activity. Despite the urgency of response required along the Far North Queensland coast, we could not forget the previous weeks of activity and the recovery process people are struggling through in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Emerald and so many other places. As well the ongoing threat to inland towns by the ex-cyclone as it winds down in intensity. Not to mention the Red Crossers in Victoria and other states staffing the National Inquiry Centre, answering calls from people registering as flood or cyclone affected, or taking calls from others seeking their loved ones.

What else could possibly happen?

By mid-afternoon more news started to reach us of wild weather in Victoria. The scenic town of Hall’s Gap in the Grampians has been evacuated this evening due to an imminent major landslide (rain-related, of course). As I write, Red Cross people are working in a relief centre now open in nearby Stawell. Local emergency services have already pre-positioned search-and-rescue teams, which is never an encouraging sign.

People in Mildura, in the far north-west of Victoria, have found themselves suddenly congregating in the high street, waist-deep in water from rain that fell over no more than an hour. Two relief centres have just been set up, with Red Cross in attendance.
A lot of western Victoria and central Melbourne is seriously flooding. They are predicting around 200mm of rain this evening across western and central Victoria, and Melbourne itself, but anything more than 100mm will bring most river systems back up to major flood level. The water is less than three houses away from some colleagues who live by the bay very close to central Melbourne. Motorists on the St. Kilda Road were over their wheel arches in floodwaters this evening.
Meanwhile in Queensland, not forty-eight hours after the height of Cyclone Yasi, the Red Cross deployments continued along the coast today. We are also watching Alice Springs in NT very closely: it is under a severe weather warning as ex-cyclone Yasi continues inland.

Oh, yes, and Adelaide Red Cross were only stood down from a heatwave response on Monday, and WA are still working on long-term recovery outreach operations following the floods in Carnarvon in December.

So a few colleagues and I went out for a quick bite to eat on the way home. We ended up in a Chinese place across the road from the Red Cross offices. Halfway through our meal, the noise began. What else could possibly go wrong tonight? Suddenly, the crashing and banging made sense, as two huge Chinese dragons entered the restaurant. Gong Hei Fat Choi, everybody! It’s Chinese New Year! We just hadn’t realised. The packed restaurant clapped and cheered as the dragons came in and terrorised us, dancing and prancing and chasing little children (much to their delight) and gobbling up red-and-gold envelopes with coins in, in payment for prosperity for the year to come.

The Red Crossers at my table took photos, clapped and cheered, and for about five minutes forgot the litany of emergencies and situations swimming around our heads. As the red dragon approached our table, we snapped away on iPhones and cameras, laughed out loud and waved madly (alright, that last one was just me). The banging and crashing of cymbals and drums reached a crescendo as the dragons produced a Chinese sign which (presumably) said they had been bribed enough, and would leave us alone for another year of prosperity.

As we paid our bill and slipped away into the night, those few minutes of light and sound and levity stayed with us. It was a tough day, with more curve balls thrown at us than we cared to count. By bedtime the Red Cross emergency response across the country was even bigger than before, but we will handle it. It’s what we do.

disasters in the future tense

I am an Australian. Naturalised, naturally. Born in Ireland, and having spent over twenty of my adult years in England, I am a child of a cool temperate maritime climate, a post-war Britain, a post-Independence Republic of Ireland.

Nowhere in my personal or national psyche has prepared me for the enormity of experiencing a disaster in the future tense.

What were the biggest national events in Ireland in my formative years? The daily onslaught of the IRA, the INLA, the UVF, the UDA on the national news, reporting day after day of terrorist activity, often no more than a hundred kilometres from my home. These news reports were always in the past tense, often only reported many hours after happening.

One year, 1982, we had “the big snow” in Ireland, with record snowfall over January and February, which reduced Dublin and much of Ireland to Alpine conditions for almost two months – a little like the events of this past northern-hemisphere winter. My father never acknowledged “the big snow”. He was in hospital recovering from a heart bypass, and didn’t see many snowdrifts from his city centre hospital bed. Ergo, it didn’t really happen.

As an adult living in the UK, my life was peppered with tragedies happening all around me. The Kegworth air disaster happened about eight weeks after I moved to England. I was living less than thirty kilometres away at the time. I drove past the scorch marks on the side of the motorway for months after: the visible evidence of a mangled aircraft and almost fifty deaths.

Those days, with my accent, I was seen as a potential terrorist myself. My landlady in Leicester warned my neighbours about me. Travelling weekly to Northern Ireland, the UK’s Prevention of Terrorism Act made air travel deeply inconvenient even then. I was bombarded with paperwork, patted down by a female PC and asked to operate scientific calculators and pagers every time I tried to board a plane. I travelled so much even then, I knew some of the airport police by first name.

Then, through the eighties and nineties: the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton, an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher. The Harrods bomb. The Lockerbie disaster. Manchester. Warrington. The Baltic Exchange, then Bishopsgate, both in London.

Years later, I lived and worked through the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London. Over fifteen minutes one Thursday morning, our lives were changed forever. We were not afraid. The Londoners’ Blitz mentality kicked in, and defiance was the natural response.

But living in Australia is different. Here, as we were told before we moved here, everything is trying to kill you. Sun, sea, sharks, jellyfish, spiders, snakes, you name it. We were not long here when Cyclone Larry hit, but I was not working in emergency management then. All I remember was that bananas went up to more than $30 a kilo for a year. Fires in Victoria also loomed large in our early years, culminating in the dreadful events of February 2009. Like others, I was personally involved in the emergency response and recovery phases of this natural disaster, but even then those events unfolded so quickly, we just reacted as the situation emerged.

Now, I sit in a hotel room in Brisbane, aware that right now the far north of Queensland is being hit by the beginnings of the worst cyclone to hit Australia in over a century: Cyclone Yasi, twice as big as Hurricane Katrina and happening right now. Almost exactly 1,000 miles north of here, 60,000 homes are without power and more than 10,000 people are already sheltering in evacuation centres. Down here in Brisbane, in the Red Cross National Coordination Centre and Queensland Emergency Operations Centre, all day we have been watching the TV footage and doing what we can to assist or prepare to assist.

For me, this unfolding of a guaranteed catastrophic event in the very near future is unnatural. I have reacted to quite a few serious emergencies after the fact, but I cannot remember a time when I sat at my desk and watched such a severe event about to happen. Looking at a disaster in the future tense, I am fortunate in that I don’t feel powerless to act, but I do feel powerless to stop what is happening.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up and check the cable TV stations. I will have a quick breakfast briefing with colleagues, and we will hit the office before 7.30am and keep going with the emergency response work of Red Cross. There are things I know I can contribute to this, but only tomorrow.

Tonight, I sit alone in my hotel room. The weather outside is ominously quiet. I will resist the temptation to switch on the TV and watch the storm of the century unfold. It is time to sleep.

things I saw in the Roma Street Parklands

On the only stroll I got up in Brisbane, I spent twenty minutes wandering around Roma Street Parklands in the middle of the city. What a lovely park. I shall make an effort to spend more time there on my next visit.

  • More than twelve huge spiderwebs with spindly spiders about the size of the palm of my hand in the middle (the whole spider, including the legs, were about palm-sized). The first three were OK and then I started to freak out as I stepped back to avoid one, and almost crashed into two more behind me.
  • Red and blue and yellow and pink agapanthus, as well as the more traditional lavender-coloured blooms.
  • A lizard – I think it was a blue-tongue although I didn’t see its tongue! – about two feet long, just standing in the sunshine in the middle of the path.
  • A flowerbed full of red and yellow chilli plants – looked fantastic.
  • A camellia bush in full flower surrounded by blooming garlic plants – they smelled lovely and the delicate white flowers were beautiful.