Disasters are going to happen and come in all different types, sizes and all have different impacts on the environments where we live in. The common element in all disasters is the profound impact on people.
In September 4th 2010 Christchurch, New Zealand, experienced a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. What resulted was an aftershock sequence that lasted years with more than 20,000 aftershocks. There were several large aftershocks with the largest and most destructive being February 22nd 2011. This 6.3 magnitude earthquake was right under the city and although the magnitude was smaller, because of the geology of the region the peak ground acceleration experienced was over 2x the force of gravity which devastated the city.
As a consequence of the February 22nd event over 1200 commercial buildings in the central city have been demolished and over 8000 residential properties have been abandoned and demolished never to be built on again. Eight years on the central city is coming back alive with huge investment into rebuilding. Whole suburbs have relocated to the other side of the city and many people moved to regional towns. The future of the abandoned land is still in planning, but the community has taken over many areas to create gardens and food forests to support locals living nearby.
Disasters whether by war, flood, fire, wind, famine, pandemic, economic or earthquake cause panic, they break down established systems, they cause crisis. The crisis no matter how much you plan is going to hurt. But depending on how you have prepared there are many incredible things that will happen. The first being the goodwill of people.
People in time of real need drop many of the social barriers established by our day to day lives and offer the most amazing help. People help people, neighbours help neighbours. This is very important to remember. Your neighbour will likely be your first responder. This has led to the collective understanding of the importance of building communities before disaster strikes and it starts with knowing your neighbour.
When disaster strikes information is critical. Getting information that is relevant and simple to digest is a must do. Once people get their immediate needs sorted, they seek to understand what has happened and you need to deliver it. People want to know who is in charge and what is going to happen next and you need to get this information out utilising all the goodwill at the time through traditional media, web, social media and good old face to face. Imagine needing to do all this when the ground is literally shaking every 5 – 10 minutes without fail. It is tough but crucial.
Initially in the Christchurch earthquake disaster the needs of people were very geographic, based on location. Over time this changed, and communities evolved. As such a community should not be defined just by the co-location of houses – that’s a suburb. In our ever changing and inter connected world you need to consider community in a wider sense.
Community needs to be defined by the relationship between people who belong – be it based on place, identity, interest or issue – and the decision-makers that can affect their community – be that local or central government or both.
This is where the new forms of communication through the internet such as websites and social media are invaluable. Building cross partnerships with these non-place-based communities is critical especially as the longer-term recovery and rebuilds take place.
The internet is changing our world. Most of us are connected. That connection is instant in many cases. But how do you build capacity to communicate in this changing world to those who aren’t online. This is where inter organisational and agency partnerships are critical and where knowing your capabilities and weaknesses are important.
Christchurch was the first city in New Zealand to adopt neighbourhood weeks. The city council funds through small grants opportunities for residents in different neighbourhoods to get together and have a BBQ and a beer each year. Get to know your neighbour. Remember earlier I said know your neighbour.
What has come from Neighbourhood Week is a rich network of residents associations in Christchurch that before the disaster happened were already well connected. After the disaster these pre-established relationships became the local glue on the ground. But they were all in need of information to pass on, often by hand to their residents.
These groups individually all had vital information to also pass back to authorities about what was happening in their areas. This intelligence is rich data for any resource prioritising that needs to happen during and post event.
This is where technology, innovation and trusted partnerships with the community come into play. You will also have new groups or people who pop up spontaneously to fill a need and they must be included and treated equally. This scenario is the one that can’t easily be planned for but can be prepared for.
There are two lessons here:
1. you need multiple ways to communicate and engage with individuals and communities. Online and offline.
2. Before a disaster or event happens, if you are in positions of authority you need to have clear plans about how to engage with not just pre-established people and organisations but also the emergent ones.
Relationships and partnerships formed before a disaster and managed well after disaster as well as the ability to recognise and engage emergent groups contribute to preparedness and resilience. Resilience is a big word that is dropped into plans and is often used wrongly to describe being stoic. In Christchurch we have come to know resilience in community or city terms not as a destination, but as a journey.
Resilience is not a top down exercise, but nor is it grassroots up alone. It has to be both. There is a saying that the wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts. But in reality it is the wisdom of the community when combined with the knowledge of the experts always exceeds what one can offer without the other. Partnerships and relationships get communities through disasters.
One of the great lessons of our experience is that leaders will always emerge from communities and they must be engaged as soon as possible. They usually already have the trust of their communities and trust is the one ingredient that we cannot do without if recovery is to be successful and if we truly want to build resilience.
In my current role as a city councillor especially in a post disaster rebuild I see now more than ever the importance of community leaders and supporting them and their energy to get things done. They should be treated as a critical part of the resilience of the city’s social infrastructure in the same way we treat our physical infrastructure – the buildings, roads and pipes. We need to be able to rely on both after disaster strikes and we can only initially rely on those personal relationships if they are pre-established and have trust.
Invest in your people and support leaders from all areas of your community. Authorities often fail to see the capability that can be unleashed by creating community partnerships through these relationships. Connected communities are empowered to help themselves and others in times of crisis.
No matter what disaster you experience or are involved with, they are not great experiences. They are destabilising and disruptive and they all bring their unique challenges. Everything In life changed when our earthquakes started, even us as people. But it was our relationships that didn’t change. Infact, many of them became enhanced.
Building relationships and capability with people, supporting people early and identifying leaders will all contribute to a more resilient place where you live. But learn from our experiences, when your world gets turned upside down, it is crucial that decision makers and authorities work hand in hand alongside people in all communities and ensure they are part of the decision making process.
Use all the tools in your tool box to get information out and keep putting it out. Even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Set up systems now but build in the flexibility to adapt them so you can be confident that top down and bottom up two-way communications happen with both pre-established and pop up people and groups and ensure you listen. This is what building capacity through partnerships is all about.
There is a maori proverb that sums up everything said here:
He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
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