Some Musings on the Nature of Information Flow in a Disaster Situation

Vicki Hyde, 6 March 2011, Redcliffs

There seems to have been a slow shift from Rescue City (ie the telegenic collapsed CBD) to the Refugee City (those of us out east) this past couple of days. The reporters have been very keen to be in Rescue City (it is near Shower City in the west which has power, water and functional toilets after all), and have only just started to come out in the Refugee City to report. David Fisher of the Herald on Sunday has been one notable exception. He turned up out here early on and kept on coming back in the ensuing days to get a sense of how things were (or in many cases weren't) changing. Good chap!

The Rescue/Refugee/Shower City breakdown comes from an analysis by my husband Peter, which appears to have gone viral; we've seen it used in a number of media reports now. See it here.

Most of the media coverage, naturally, has been limited to soundbites, with any real information stored on websites. The radio coverage in the first few days kept mentioning websites to go to -- not so useful when there's no power, you're struggling to keep a charge on the cellphone and have a 20-minute wait on hold to the helpline, and when you do get through no-one knows anything of immediate relevance....

Information reduces the Fear, Uncertainty and Dread factors considerably; lack of local knowledge on the part of short-term relocated officials passing through does nothing to reassure anyone. Clearly people were working very very hard under very trying circumstances but the information flow wasn't flowing at all.

The only real source of useful information for our area was gained by stopping people on the street and asking "what do you know?", then writing that down and sticking it to the whiteboard we'd lugged down the hill and duct-taped to a telephone pole.

We spent three days down there hooked up to a Telecom cellphone generator at the corner of the street, giving people a plugbox for their cellphones and getting some internet via a laptop and mobile phone hookup. The noticeboard continued to gain notices -- lost pets, the location of the neighbourhood water tanker (as it shifted on a daily basis), offers of help, where the nearest functioning supermarket was.

We got a bigger board and kept going, kept asking locals what they knew as none of the officials we could get hold of on the phone could tell us, and none of the ones driving past stopped... We couldn't even feed corrected information back up the line as no-one manning the phones knew who to talk to (eg to tell them to stop saying water was available at the Redcliffs School as the school had been cordoned off for two days by that time).

Then we graduated from word-of-mouth journalism and joined the broadsheet age, collecting the information together into the Redcliffs News-Sheet, a double-sided listing of important info (which streets were getting power, the cellphone for a local doctor, what roads were useable). We sat under our pop-up gazebo in the carpark of the condemned supermarket pounding out the info, lugged our printer down to the corner generator and ran off 150 copies, which all went.

I started collecting names and contact numbers, making a database of around 300 local residents on the back of old business cards, as people passed by to look at the notices in an effort to decide whether to stay or go.

(And this at a time when the Press was running facile stories on how the Redcliffs "Riviera" was a ghost town of rubble -- there's a 90-year-old lady here, still without electricity or power but determined to stay, who wants to punch Geoff Langley on the nose for that particular headline! Did he really come across the Ferrymead Bridge?)

Many locals elected to stay once they read the updates we were able to give them from the helpful Orion boys parked next to us. Being able to tell them "Orion is working on getting James St powered today" is a lot more useful than the general "65% of houses have power" announcements from on high.

We published the fourth edition of the news-sheet on Friday (300 copies), and there's now a daughter publication being done for the people of Sumner by people there. (Half the time the media has misindentified the areas, saying Redcliffs is being evacuated when it's people up on Clifton being shifted out; creating more fear and concern for people here and families elsewhere. Local grassroots knowledge is vital for press and populace alike!)

We'll be putting out another news-sheet on Monday if we get any useful information from the first official community meeting to be held for our area since the quake nigh on two weeks ago. A carpark meeting with MP Ruth Dyson and Mark Yetton from the EQC on Friday was the first actual contact with any representatives of the Powers That Be.

You can see the Redcliffs News-Sheet here.

Now that we have power on at home and our web connections reestablished, we're putting the newssheet online. Not so much for the locals - many of whom still lack power or phone lines - but for those residents who did leave, or who have friends and family here. It's spreading throughout the social networks as people are desperate for local information.

We're getting calls from around the country, around the world. We had someone turn up asking about a neighbour who had been reported missing -- I riffled through my growing stack of cards and was able to say "no, he's fine; here's the cell number he left me".

It's very very basic citizen journalism, but it's very very necessary. Especially when there's no other source of local detailed information.

We started on this because a forced night-time evacuation saw my mother, who lives just down the road from us, taken away and no record left anywhere of what had happened to her. We trekked across our shattered bridge and through endless traffic to get to Cowles Stadium to try to find her -- no information. We went to Pioneer Stadium -- no-one there had any idea.

Turned out she'd been taken to the nearby bowling club and had spent a sleepless night wondering why we hadn't come to the club (we had no idea it was being used -- none of the cops who'd come to the house could tell us where people were going, so we'd stayed at a friend's place nearby).

Clearly there was a major information disconnect. When I managed to get through to the Council line, I asked to be connected to whoever in Operation Suburbs was information coordinator for our area. Not only was there no such person, the entire area apparently wasn't included in the list, despite being mentioned as one of the hardest hit....

That's when we lugged our whiteboard down the street....

I don't know how many editions of the Redcliffs News-sheet we'll get to. Not too many I hope. But come the next major emergency anywhere in New Zealand, I hope we have better information channels in place in both the general media and in our emergency response teams.

Vicki Hyde

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