Wellington Scoop

Disaster preparedness at grassroots level: the Newlands example

by Jarrod Coburn in Wellington
Perhaps the thing that hurt me most was seeing the spire of our beloved Christchurch Cathedral spread out across the city’s central square. This may sound trite, and I apologise because there is no comparison, but I finally understand how people in New York felt when they lost the twin towers. It was standing there – for so long it became part of the sense of place I have for my hometown – and now it’s gone.

My next thought was for the visitors who were trudging up or down the steep and winding staircase inside that spire. Rest in peace.

This devastation hasn’t caused me to be more sensitive to the threat of disaster, as for five years I’ve been trying to get the movers and shakers in government to take a more community-centric approach to disaster preparedness. Will they be moved or shaken by the moving and shaking this time round? Time will tell. But we don’t have that luxury of time.

Disaster preparedness must start at the grass roots level. It must be owned by people who live in a community. We speak of ‘resilience’ in our national emergency management strategy, and I am certain that those high up in government are committed to this concept. There is a strong will by people in communities to become more resilient. But the house of cards collapses when the middle-men step in at the local government level.

Councils in New Zealand are mandated by law to own Civil Defence and Emergency Management. Practically, this means planning to ensure lifeline utility services are reinstated as soon as possible post-disaster. However some Councils feel they also own disaster preparedness of the communities in their district, yet do nothing meaningful that sees an increase in social capital, community competence, equality or information flow (the basis of community resilience). Let’s face it – it’s a huge job unsuited to a central agency. In any case they are not funded to do this job, most of their emergency management staff have no background of community development work, and many Councils are not trusted by their ratepayers.

I’m proud to be a part of a community experiment that began four years ago in Newlands. Wellington is ripe for an earthquake, balanced precipitously on the seam of two highly active tectonic plates, with only one route out and no independent source of potable water. Rather than waiting for the Council to do something, the local residents’ associations have developed a ten year strategy that includes – amongst 19 other projects – the implementation of Civil Resilience.

You can have a look at the strategy on www.Newlands.org.nz. The main goal is for the community to take ownership of its own threats and opportunities and not rely on external assistance unless absolutely necessary. We already have our own community ambulance and radio net. Now we’re implementing a plan that will see a professional team of volunteers owning the community’s emergency preparedness and response brief, working toward implementing standards set by the UNHCR and becoming a beacon for other communities who are serious about resilience.

There was nothing anyone could have done about the spire of Christchurch Cathedral tumbling down, but there could have been much work done to improve the level of resilience of the people of Christchurch who will face severe adversity in the weeks and months to come.

Despite many emergency management professionals throwing their hands up and saying ‘people are apathetic,’ I propose that people will take responsibility if properly empowered and enthused. Take our little area of Newlands as a sign of the way things will be done in this country in the future.

Jarrod Coburn is the former Executive Director of the New Zealand Resilience Trust. He is a proud Cantabrian but now lives in Wellington. He splits his time between running an emergency management consultancy company and working for the government in the enforcement and risk management sectors. You can visit some of the organisations he is involved with at www.civilsociety.org.nz.

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1 comment:

  1. vryn evans, 25. February 2011, 11:31

    One can only sympathise with J. Coburn’s opening commentary related to the horrific situation in ChCh. However he then goes on criticise the Civil Defence and Local Body organisations and suggests that organisations he is associated are better. If he saw deficiencies of the established arrangements, why didn’t he become a member of them to offer his wisdom and knowledge?
    Insofar as Newlands is concerned, I would like to know if the “ambulance” which is an old Japanese van is fully certified by the transport authorities as such? Newlands is fortunate to have a great volunteer Fire Brigade who have highly trained personnel and over many years their response to many emergency situations has been and continues to be inspirational.
    Of course, people in communities have to be resilient and endeavour to look after one another in times of emergency. Probably one of the most appalling aspects of major disasters is the usual criminal element who surface with gusto to steal, plunder from the homes and businesses of citizens. ChCh has not been immune from these low-lifes. Perhaps J.Coburn has a plan for this situation as well. There is an old adage about leading a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Emergency and disaster situations bring out in humans a whole different behavioural pattern.