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Christchurch devastation hits home

Published 20/09/2012

Three representatives from Victoria State Emergency Service (SES) attended the Sixth Annual Australasian Natural Hazards Management Conference in New Zealand recently.

Christchurch's CBD has been rebuilt with shipping containers

Staff member Gary Whewell from State Operations, and two volunteers – Geelong Unit Controller Matt Smith and Marysville Deputy Controller Jo Hunter – attended the week-long conference in Christchurch last month.

The conference was an opportunity for emergency managers and professionals from other fields to discuss the integration of hazard management with emergency risk management.

Heavily influenced by the earthquakes that struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, the conference explored the ideas around warning systems, applying hazard information to best practice planning, improving response and recovery and creating resilient communities.

For SES’ contingent, surveying the still obvious aftermath of the earthquake was as valuable as the conference itself.

Matt Smith said visiting Christchurch was one of the most valuable experiences he’d had. Christchurch Cathedral

The SES group – some of the few first responders at the conference – took the time to tour the New Zealand Coast and Christchurch’s ‘Red Zone’, where buildings have been demolished and, due to the threat of future earthquakes, will never be rebuilt.

“What happened over there is quite different to what we saw on the TV in Australia,” Matt said.

“The coverage showed a few key images over and over, but it hit on such a broad scale.”

Matt said the devastating earthquakes had brought communities together, and given him pause.

“We’re very lucky the way things are set up here,” he said.

“A lot of preparedness can go a long way. Lots of communities had created hubs and emergency management plans which were run by volunteers. Volunteers were even involved in official briefings so emergency services could communicate their aims and involve them in the response.

“Resilience comes in from that: communities sticking together to get through.

“We’ve never faced a disaster of that scale, but I believe Victoria’s force of trained, competent, prepared volunteers will serve them well if that were to happen.”

Gary Whewell said the conference provided a deep insight into the socioeconomic and psychological impacts of the earthquakes, as well as the physical ones.

“The big takeaway, I think, was that this is a community that is still very much affected by the earthquake events of 2010 and 2011,” he said.

Gary was also struck by the widespread nature of the disaster – more than 1,600 properties will be demolished and the CBD has been effectively erased.

“Indications are that significant numbers of the community have already left, either through displacement or they’ve chosen not to return. This is a significant city that has lost its heart and soul, and research is now looking at how to rebuild that and instil confidence,” he said.

Community-level planning had served towns extremely well, Gary said, providing “pockets of hope” amongst the devastation and a model Victoria would be smart to adopt. A damaged home in Redcliff

“Towns that showed good forethought were able to maintain their own wellbeing and welfare even when cut off,” he said.

“Resilience brings preparedness; having these things in place cannot be underestimated.

“I think what it did for me was reinforce our planning in preparedness and response. We need to be mindful that our initial response phase is only a part of a wider impact on individuals, family groups and communities. We do our part for a few weeks but that’s only the start of the impact on people. What does that impact look like? How can we prepare people, families and communities to be better placed to survive those impacts that could be life-changing?”

While Victoria didn’t face the same level of earthquake risk as New Zealand, there was a risk across a large part of the state, Gary said. If there’s one question he’s taken away from his experience, it’s this:

“How well are our communities prepared?”