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Christchurch Quake -- More action needed in Eastern Suburbs right now

Peter Hyde, March 2, 2011 --

It's 2am and, like many people in Christchurch, I am not sleeping too well just now. But at least we now have power, so I can use the time productively.

My personal history of the past week will have to wait. It may be interesting to some, but it's not important right now.

What's important is what is is NOT happening adequately in the acute post-quake period, because the official response is dwarfed by the size of the problem.

HUGE CAVEAT: I don't have all-seeing eyes, or a helicopter, or good bandwidth. I certainly don't have any kind of special "in" with officialdom and their view of the situation -- though not for want of trying to make contact during the past five days. So this is based on my perspective locally in the south-east, and from several drives into the middle-east, south and north-west of the city.

Here we go:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.

RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!

It's given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It's extremely television-friendly.

My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.

SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that's about 65% of the city -- much of it out west.

In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life -- though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.

The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.

REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch -- mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.

Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours', for over a week now.

That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad - and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.

Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the "must boil" water that is available -- assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.

They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers -- if you can get one -- are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn't help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!

All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no "voice" either. It's remarkably hard to call talkback radio - or your local politician -- or emergency services -- when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes - but not 20! - when calling the sole government helpline.

The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don't cover it that much. From my observations, the officials - those who are making decisions about the relief effort - seem to do likewise.

(We saw Opposition Leader Phil Goff the other day - he stopped for a photo op with the Army group who had paused briefly at the cordon. Not that he or they talked to any of the locals waiting amidst they dust they'd stirred up, hoping for a nugget of information.)

Judging from the media coverage to date, the official response in this part of the city sounds reassuring - "Relief Centres" (if you can get to them -- and if it hasn't been relocated to Rangiora), a field hospital (ditto), Army (two drive-bys in the past week), "Operation Suburbs" teams (ditto; and this whole area is not even listed with them), increased police presence thanks to 300 loaned Australians (some sign of them, but not enough). And some worthy and welcome images of food and other supplies being distributed at marae and other central points.


I come from a relatively well-off area - most of its folk were better prepared than average for something like this - good supplies of food, water, batteries, BBQs and the like.

But even here, by the weekend, many people were bailing -- mainly because of lack of information about how to survive here any longer. Their only contact with officialdom was being pushed from pillar to post by often-unnecessary (and though they didn't know it at the time, temporary) evacuations, conducted by police who were doing their best, but who themselves were overworked and under-informed. Such actions considerably eroded local confidence, especially when there was also no clear information about when power or water would return locally.

My family's personal, local response to that situation can be seen at - NOT the web page itself, but the physical noticeboard and printed newsletters and, especially, the local volunteers and extensive human contact and moral support which it represents.

Basically, we started making stone soup, and our neighbours and fellow citizens contributed the other ingredients. And for this suburb -- though not for everyone in it -- the acute phase has now passed, because more than half of us at least have electricity now. THANK YOU ORION.

But all that was ONLY possible because our family had the personal security, skills, communication equipment, stationery (pens, paper, cards, bulldog clips, noticeboard), chutzpah and, above all, electricity -- "borrowed" from a cellsite generator -- to make it happen. And also a couple of family members outside the city willing to be gofers for information and key supplies.


You might think that there are Civil Defence or Red Cross or Army people who are doing all this as part of their role -- helping people to stay in their homes by providing the essential information and (where necessary) key supplies they need to do it safely. My direct observations over the past week suggests otherwise - especially away from officialdom's chosen central points. They are simply overwhelmed by the nature and extent of the crisis, and tired and understaffed to boot!

So this is a call to action.

If you are local:

* FIND OUT WHERE THERE IS STILL NO WATER and (especially) NO POWER. These are places where the acute post-earthquake phase is still happening, right now, and will go on happening until they have those services. This is where people are under the most stress, and where the risk of gastro-related illness and other major problems is inevitably going to be the highest.

* Take them batteries, clean drinking water, bulk washing water, bottled drinks, milk, camp-stove gas cartridges, face masks, transistor radios, alcohol hand cleaners, wet wipes, fresh fruit, dry and canned food (not frozen -- unless you plan to hand it directly to someone at their house. If you ARE going to do that, take bags of ice too).

* Ignore the few main distribution centres - people who can get there easily WILL get help, as will those with good transport of their own -- provided they have cash to spare. Instead, look for smaller water points or obvious drop-off/drop-in sites. I can't help you find these, and nor can "officialdom" -- just drive to an affected area with a carload, and ask some locals. If there's one happening already, they will know! And even if you end up putting it on an obvious street corner with a "please take one" sign, it would do Good.

* Rinse and repeat. Until all these suburbs have (especially) power and reliable transport, the need will NOT go away.

If you live further afield:

It gets trickier. I have personally met people who drove from Timaru, Oamaru, Akaroa and the West Coast with supplies, and boy were they welcome! But in my view, the best thing to do is to find someone local who you know and trust, and who is willing to act, and send them money so they can do the above. Their time + your money = immediate help.

If you are thinking along normal lines, you'll feel that the best thing to do is to donate to a government appeal, or the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army. Know that they are focused on the most needy cases, but they are far from omniscient. And their efforts are noticeably understaffed (and their staff are getting weary too - they often live in the same suburbs that most need help).

Help them with donations by all means ( - every dollar is spent on relief, no admin). And volunteer if you are local. But the direct response outlined above WILL have a more immediate effect on many, many people who need help today.

REGARDLESS of where you live:

Please do something to help the media to change their script. Lost lives and broken buildings do matter, and so does our nation's economic future. But there is potential for much more stress and suffering in the hidden Refugee City if we fail to help where help is needed, right now.

So call talkback, post on Facebook and Twitter, email radio stations, hassle the Press, TV staff and any politicos you know -- until the focus shifts away from Rescue City a little.

Put the message out! [I'd give you contacts for all the above -- and many others nationally and internationally -- but almost every one of you reading this has better bandwidth than me today, so go look them up! Likewise appealing photos to illustrate this story.]

The acute phase will pass for these suburbs once power, adequate transport and running water (or good access to drinkable water) is commonplace in each of them. But that's not today and -- for some -- it will be weeks away.


That's it. There is a real, immediate problem, and the solution is not an easy one. But there ARE things that you can do, if you are willing.


Don't forget about the resource sections on the main page.

Published courtesy of Webcentre Ltd, with many thanks to Vodafone for their initial mobile data donations. And to the guys on the ground from Orion, who were just great.

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