Charlotte Graham used to live on the top floor of a wooden house in Wellington. On November 14, 2016, two minutes after midnight, it began shaking so badly that she struggled to make it to the doorway to shelter. When the earthquake finally subsided, and she heard her flatmates return to bed, she wondered: Do we all need to evacuate? Head up Mt Victoria?
She couldn’t find anything online about tsunami risk. Someone on Twitter sent her a map of Wellington council evacuation zones. It didn’t have street names, but she knew the city well enough to place her house in one of the safe zones.
It made her wonder: What about people who didn’t use social media? Or the internet?
A longterm Radio New Zealand producer, freelance journalist and community volunteer, Graham was well versed in earthquake reporting. She wanted to know what provisions were in place for the vulnerable in disaster planning in New Zealand, and whether the organisations looking after them were getting the same kind of help as quake-stricken businesses.
“It became clear that the picture in Wellington was a lot more interesting than I’d first realised,” she says, “but also in the way that Wellington’s most vulnerable were not included.”
In early 2017, she won a Scoop Foundation grant that enabled her to do the legwork of finding out more: “I ended up putting in an Official Information Act request to every council in New Zealand to find out what they actually had in documentation to address the safety of vulnerable people.”
Councils were, by and large, baffled. No one had asked this before. Some have yet to furnish Graham with answers to questions first posed beginning in April 2016. It’s information she believes is vital.
“You can ring a government department and ask for the national picture, but you’re not necessarily going to get the minutiae of the challenges that different areas are facing,” she says.
Sometimes the reporting process is time-consuming and boringly administrative—and sometimes the outcome is vitally important. The result of Graham’s research, which has spanned eight months and counting, is a national picture of our disaster readiness, more detailed than ever before.