Ready or not
Preparing for a natural disaster has long been considered a matter of personal responsibility—but what happens to those without the finances to stockpile supplies or the physical ability to run up the nearest hill? Lessons learned during New Zealand’s most recent crises have shifted how towns and cities are building resilience. Researchers with the Resilience National Science Challenge and other agencies now believe that strong community connections will best help everyone ride out a worst-case scenario—but can we form those bonds in time for the next big one?
When Chhumvichhouk Rounh was a child, the floods swept into his village in Cambodia three years in a row.
Things were awful, he says. Many in the region died of starvation after they were cut off from food, but in Rounh’s village, people cut palm fronds to build rafts and paddled from place to place, taking food to those who needed it.
Now Rounh leans back on a lawn chair on a driveway in Manurewa, wearing the saffron yellow robes of a Buddhist monk. “You can call me Chhouk,” he says.
This is a quiet, suburban South Auckland street: the buzzing of DIY a few metres away, savoury smells drifting on the breeze, shoes paired neatly on the doorstep of the yellow wooden house behind him.
Only the carved stone fence, sculpted by the four monks who live here, belies this property’s use as a pagoda, or Cambodian Buddhist temple. Chhouk is visited daily by members of the bustling Khmer community—people like him who were transplanted from home to grow up in a new place.
Samrith Kim is the secretary of the pagoda society and is the kind of guy Civil Defence managers probably wish they could clone, so that they could install one of him on every street. Warm and brisk, Kim fans out the pages he has printed from the Civil Defence website, and talks about the go bag and survival kit he has prepared at home.
“Sleeping bags, blankets, bottled water,” he ticks off on his fingers.
Sheepishly, the others around the table, all members of Auckland’s Khmer community, admit he is the only one. They know they should be prepared, they say, but this is Auckland. It’s hard to remember you’re in danger of any natural disasters at all.
Kim has translated the Civil Defence lists into Khmer and tacked them on the pagoda’s bulletin board. This temple has about 250 members; there are three other pagodas in Auckland. Kim does not know whether other temples have made similar efforts, but he says Auckland Council is welcome to use his translations.
Most of the Cambodian-born members have experienced floods, their knowledge of scaling roofs and using bins to bail water acquired first-hand.
This Khmer community is one of six South-east Asian ethnic groups being studied as part of a research project, ensuring Auckland’s small communities are not left behind in disaster planning.
The government’s Resilience National Science Challenge is aiming to transform the response and recovery from natural disasters. In the urban setting, researchers have identifed the diverse ethnic composition of modern Auckland as an important factor in disaster preparedness for the city. How do you communicate with residents when around eight per cent of them—181,917 people—don’t speak English? How do these residents coordinate with their neighbours when communities are defined by shared culture as much as geography?
Chhouk would be an asset to his Manurewa street in a flood—one of Auckland’s risks. Council figures show 16,000 homes in the region are flood-prone, and a deluge in March 2017 flooded 320 of them, mostly in West Auckland.
Some of Chhouk’s flood wisdom—steering clear of dry land in a flood in case of snakes—may not apply in New Zealand, he says, smiling. But he also knows that sound carries more loudly on water than it does on land, and that children are at high risk even when water is shallow.
Chhouk is the most confident English speaker of the temple’s four monks, but he’s still nervous: in a disaster, he knows he would have to rely on his neighbours, but he isn’t sure if his English is good enough.
Kim worries that some Pacific Island people in the neighbourhood would face the same problems—they’re not confident English speakers either.
In a city like Auckland—a hub of what researchers call cultural, ethnic, and linguistic mega-diversity—communities can facilitate solidarity. But the difficulty of getting messages out to communities who don’t share a single language poses a real risk for disaster situations.
The ideas driving Civil Defence are changing, though to say so is still controversial in some quarters. Some planners are turning away from telling people what to do in the event of a natural disaster, abandoning suggestions that only a perfectly prepared survival kit is good enough and that people should wait around to get help from the authorities.
Instead, they’re increasingly driven by behavioural economists—experts who explore the difference between how people predict they will act and what they actually do. Community-driven approaches are increasingly favoured over top-down command-and-control models.
The main advocate for this shift in thinking is Dan Neely, manager of community resilience at the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office, or WREMO. He is American and enthusiastic. Sitting in the large, empty Civil Defence control centre near Parliament, the faded loops of words from past emergencies on whiteboards around him, you get the sense that what happens in this room is not the part that interests Neely. It’s what happens outside it.
Gone are the talks at school assemblies, he says, the lectures about emergency preparedness, the prescriptive lists that were so daunting, they put people off trying: “It’s just not great community investment.”
Those on the ground have noted what’s happened during recent disasters and realise it’s community resilience that will save lives, not making sure every New Zealander has read the official playbook.
But this new community-driven model puts WREMO out on a limb.
“There are no formal national or even international guidelines or model for this work,” says Neely. “It’s a new approach and those of us in this space are still trying to determine the right balance and which methodologies work best.”
Now, Neely is trying to tap into those communities using a new tool they can work through themselves. Harnessing the Stanford University Design Thinking process, which helps people find solutions to problems, WREMO has developed packs that neighbourhoods can fill out together, identifying their vulnerabilities and strengths, and challenging them to do what they can in advance.
Communities are encouraged to identify local resources they can harness—not to assume official help will arrive to save the day. For instance, a neighbourhood might not have a medical clinic nearby, but a veterinary surgery could do in an emergency, while Scout groups or sports clubs provide large groups of ready helpers who can be contacted through a few key people.
Roping communities in has been its own process. WREMO made little headway working with the Wellington suburb of Newtown at first, but after it built connections with community leaders, they returned months later to help facilitate a disaster plan.
Neely says success means “finding the energy” in a community—well-connected people to champion the idea. Otherwise, planning will “fall over the second you walk away”.
Initiatives that have arisen from different disaster plans around the Wellington region include the Long Walk Home event in Kapiti—where commuters walk the 50 kilometres from Wellington to Raumati to highlight what they might need to do in an emergency, when the road might be cut off. Meanwhile, MenzShed members offered to install rainwater tanks for the elderly and others who might struggle to do it themselves.
Neely cites stories showing the community-driven approach works: marae opening their doors after quakes, the Student Volunteer Army shifting silt in Christchurch, neighbours giving each other water and shelter. But there are fears that some people in the community remain under everyone’s radar.
Across Wellington from WREMO’s offices, alleyways burrow behind the stately, old Opera House. Wander down one of them, between the sides of two concrete buildings, and you’ll reach a courtyard filling up with men and women, lighting up cigarettes and calling out greetings.
The building behind them houses DCM (formerly the Downtown Community Ministry) and other agencies that work with some of Wellington’s most socially deprived residents, particularly the homeless.
Those who come here are under no illusions about their place in the pecking order, natural disaster or otherwise. They certainly haven’t been involved in anyone’s community-driven plan.
Many of the people who know and look out for Wellington’s homeless work here, in this building dwarfed by much taller buildings—some of which sustained damage during earthquakes in 2013 and 2016.
Stephanie McIntyre is the director of DCM, and she’s proud of this place. She shows off the dentists’ chairs that allow dental care for Wellington’s homeless, the nurses’ station, and Te Hāpai, a community space that hosts a busy programme of activities: music lessons, information sessions, a boil-up.
But McIntyre knows that DCM is in a precarious position. About 1000 people come through its doors every year, and it’s the only wraparound service for homeless people in Wellington. After the earthquakes in 2013 and 2016, DCM was forced out of its building due to danger posed by neighbouring structures.
McIntyre started looking for an alternative home, only to be confronted with the truth that many central-city landlords and businesses do not want a drop-in centre for homeless people as a neighbour.
After DCM lost access to its paper records following the tremors, it spent $50,000 of fundraised money on digitising them so that it could continue operations if it ever couldn’t get back into its office. The last time DCM was forced out of its building, the agency set up shop outdoors at the end of the alleyway to continue services as best it could. The experience brought home how vulnerable DCM was—like many organisations in the non-profit sector.
Businesses in central Wellington that were unable to trade after the magnitude 7.8 November 2016 quake were offered a slice of a business-recovery fund established by the government, but groups working with the homeless were not asked if they needed similar support.
In Christchurch, following the quakes, some non-profits successfully applied to the government’s business fund that covered wages, while others dug into their own funds to cover salaries for the extra staff they needed to support their clients.
At least two non-profits obtained grants in order to continue operating, rather than accessing government help. And in Wellington’s central city, there is not yet a community-driven plan that meets the needs of non-profits. That’s due in 2018.
A number of factors, including the quakes, have increased the levels of homelessness, and severe homelessness, in the city, says McIntyre. Many people in the sector interviewed for this story said an emergency in Wellington was already in full swing.
“We’re pretty much living in a disaster zone anyway,” she says. “We might as well be, with the state of things at the moment. We’re in an absolute crisis. There are some strong parallels to post-disaster situations.”
McIntyre is speaking of the shortage of housing, including emergency housing, in the city. While Auckland is normally considered the epicentre of any New Zealand housing crisis, Wellington has a 4000-home shortfall.
Paula Lloyd, who runs the residence for the Wellington Women’s Homeless Trust, says other than the night shelter, the city’s emergency accommodation is entirely made up of beds in backpackers and motels.
Those businesses sometimes force out people on the emergency accommodation grant when there is a chance to make more money, such as when sports teams come to town. Presumably, she says, that would happen in a disaster, too. The government’s emergency housing plan is “volatile, unpredictable and half-baked”, she says.
Lloyd often allows women to stay in beds in the house for months after the three-month limit on emergency accommodation, and she’s forced to turn away many. Meanwhile, the women are stymied when they try to be creative; they can’t band together to share a flat because it affects their accommodation supplement.
“And if you want to talk resilience,” she says, “that would actually help women to have more of a community around them.”
Community, the word driving so much of Wellington’s disaster planning, is familiar to some of Wellington’s most vulnerable residents, but not to others.
Makka is 35 and new to Wellington. Sitting in DCM’s Te Hāpai space, his hands burst with energy when he talks, and he has big goals for his time in the city. But he’s stumped at the thought of a natural disaster. For him, a disaster isn’t just what happens in an earthquake. He sees disasters around him every day.
A couchsurfer for years, Makka shifted from bed to couch, couch to bed, down the North Island from Auckland. He was transient with his mum when he was nine and fell into the same traps as many with the same experience: stealing, convictions, falling out of school, into the youth justice unit.
Now he has been off cannabis for two years, methamphetamine for five months, and alcohol for four days.
“I might not have a whare, mightn’t have a job, but I’m focused,” he says.
He talks of a time when he drank to block out everything that had happened to him. Battling mental health problems and the memories of abuse, Makka knows he has his work cut out for him to stay on the straight and narrow.
“Some days, I feel like I stand by myself, like I’m on my own,” he says. “I know I shouldn’t think like that.”
It’s a precarious position to be in. A number of homeless men told me they could fend for themselves alone after a disaster, and some didn’t mention other people at all when asked how they would cope.
“We’d do better than those guys in suits,” said Carl, 61, who sleeps under a wharf and knows how to make fishing lines. There was no one in particular he would contact after a disaster.
McIntyre cautions against seeing homeless people as more resilient than most. Doing that holds vulnerable people to a higher standard of coping than everyone else in the event of a disaster, she says. It isn’t fair.
“Disaster-preparedness initiatives aren’t reaching marginalised people, and then they don’t have the resources to be prepared,” says Denise Blake, a psychology lecturer at Massey University. Her research works to expose the gap that people in the social sector have been describing to me.
Issues of poverty, colonisation and racism that marginalised communities in good times are exaggerated in disaster settings and cannot be ignored in planning, she says. While councils around the country are full of “fantastic people” with the right ideas, the system they are working within makes it hard to ensure vulnerable people are protected.
Community housing providers say the same thing: they could tell tenants to buy emergency food supplies, for example, or even put these in the tenants’ houses themselves, but what was to stop them eating that food the next time they couldn’t afford groceries? And how could you blame them if they did?
Blake says Civil Defence planners need to ask hard-to-reach communities what their needs are, because sometimes the priority list differs from what people expect.
Her past research highlighted the way people undergoing opioid-substitution treatment are at risk after a disaster, due to the short period of time they can go without drugs such as methadone before they start suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. It’s a shorter time window than cancer patients can fare without morphine. But who wants to show up to a hospital after a natural disaster and ask for help with the medication that manages an addiction?
Preparedness is a privilege, Blake says; earthquake kits cost money, and the time and energy to get involved in community planning—when all around you is in crisis—are luxuries that many cannot afford.
Around the world, emergency management groups are wrestling with the same issue, and some, including San Francisco planners, have an eye on New Zealand.
When tragedies occur in the aftermath of a natural disaster, say international civil-defence experts, it’s often because of the failure of governing bodies to engage with that community.
It increases the urgency for such work to get under way in all parts of New Zealand, which is something the Civil Defence Minister, Kris Faafoi, has promised to make a priority.
Interviewed just a couple of weeks into his new ministerial role, Faafoi said the ability of different councils around the country to respond well to crises is “a bit of a patchwork quilt at the moment”. (New Zealand’s Civil Defence response framework is currently the subject of a ministerial review in Parliament.)
Indeed, Official Information Act requests to all of New Zealand’s city, district and regional councils, asking them about their preparedness relating to vulnerable groups, revealed wildly different approaches.
Some councils had not even considered whether vulnerable populations could follow their advice. Bay of Plenty Regional Council was among the local bodies whose tsunami evacuation brochure told people to “use your feet” and “walk, don’t drive,” without accounting for age or disability. In at least one case the brochure was supplied to a social housing site for the elderly.
While some councils identify “vulnerable sites”, such as kindergartens and schools, what’s defined as vulnerable varies from place to place, and there isn’t always a suggestion of what, beyond “checking”, should be done to ensure the safety of people there.
Even within regions, the specific attention given to vulnerable groups was drastically different. Waikato Regional Council has identified a long list of the people and animals who would be vulnerable in an emergency; its local district health board alone would “need to maintain contact with 12,000 people”, it wrote in a plan.
South Waikato District Council was in August looking to hire a welfare officer to identify and work with vulnerable people after gaps were identified in that area, while Waikato District Council said its welfare plan was “still in preparation and yet to be written”.
Others were using a number-eight-wire approach to tailor Wellington’s strategy to their region—and budget.
“I laughed when WREMO told me how much it cost to design their guide,” says Delia Riley, from Civil Defence Southland.
She’s part of a small team in New Zealand’s largest and most sparsely populated region—at risk of flooding, tsunamis and earthquakes. The region is broken down into 21 areas, and Riley admits that the team can’t possibly know everything that’s going on in all of them, which is where community-driven planning comes in.
The new approach, mirroring Wellington’s, has been adopted by Southland in the past 18 months, but the area’s diversity is throwing up some challenges. Farmers on isolated properties are sometimes surprised to learn they need to make disaster plans for foreign workers on their farms, which could involve calling embassies or families overseas. In 2018, Southland will become a refugee settlement centre for Colombian people.
“Some of the very small rural communities feel that they’re becoming urbanised,” says Riley of towns that traditionally would have seen themselves through a disaster with “freezers full of home-kill” and all the tools and skills they needed.
“They’re losing that community connection, because they have so many people in transient jobs in farming now. They’re losing that sense of everyone knowing everyone else’s business.”
It is hard to talk about disaster preparedness in New Zealand without Christchurch looming large in the conversation, not only because of the scale of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, but also because we don’t know what the lessons are yet. Often, they’re still being learned.
For Akash Drukpa, the quakes came just when he and his Bhutanese family thought they were finally safe. In 2010, when the first of the earthquakes struck, they had been in the city just nine months, after a short stint at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. Before that, they had spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where Drukpa and his sister were born.
The adversity had made his family resilient in the face of natural disaster, says Drukpa, but his local Bhutanese community had struggled in the aftermath of the quakes, with the language barrier causing myriad problems.
Because they could not follow the news, many did not know why the water was not working or whether they needed to leave their homes. Some wanted to move away from Christchurch immediately but did not know how to go about it. The difficulties persist today, he says: “We are in no way as prepared as the local community.”
But the kindness of the community response had surprised him. While some families chose to return to the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre because they were scared of more earthquakes, Drukpa and his family lived for almost a month at a marae in Dunedin.
Seeing a lack of leaders in the Bhutanese community who could advocate to agencies on their behalf, Drukpa decided to step up himself. Now 24, he’s the chairman of the Bhutanese Society of Christchurch, which has acted as a rallying point. He’s also an engineer, and has worked on projects including the Kaikōura earthquake recovery effort.
“Since I was young, I’ve always wanted to stand up for my rights and help out people around me,” he says. “As one of only a few who have been through university here, I felt a conviction to try and uplift the community.”
Shirley Wright, general manager at Christchurch Resettlement Services, advocates for refugees, migrants, and non-English speakers, and says communities can still be stymied by something as simple as an official website. She says the people she works with, just like Wellington’s homeless community, are “the last in line”.
“If they’re not integrated, they can’t get involved in their community-driven solutions,” she says. “That’s a risk—nobody should be left behind.”
After the 2010 quakes, says Wright, some of her clients bathed in and collected river water because they had missed the message that it was contaminated by sewage. Central government and councils badly need to take a stocktake of language resources, she says, and plug the gaps.
“Everyone has the right to the same level and quality of information. Equity of information is a social-justice issue.”
Nowhere is the problem of language writ larger than Auckland. In some communities, people such as Samrith Kim at the Manurewa pagoda are taking charge. In others, the council is trying to make inroads.
Rohan Jaduram, Auckland Council’s resilience and welfare adviser, released Civil Defence videos in Samoan, Tongan and Fijian during each language week in 2017. Profiling a Tongan family who had been caught up in the West Auckland floods seemed effective, he says: “We’re at the beginning stages of wanting to know what matters to communities and what they value most.”
Meanwhile, the council will soon launch its own channel on the Chinese social media messaging app WeChat in order to better reach the city’s Chinese community.
A number of researchers in Auckland are trying to shed light on the gaps between language and culture—to help the single council tasked with keeping its diverse city safe in a disaster.
One team, led by Jesse Hession Grayman, a senior lecturer in development studies at Auckland University, is exploring how Auckland’s South-east Asian community—in itself, a highly diverse population—understands, prepares for, and responds to natural disasters.
Grayman’s team will explore the best way of engaging Cambodian, Malaysian, Philippine, Thai and Vietnamese communities, which are often missed in the focus on the larger Chinese and Indian groups.
An Auckland Council document showed only 11 per cent of Aucklanders were “fully prepared” for a disaster, “a lower level of personal preparedness than in many parts of New Zealand”. What preparedness means, and how it takes place in communities where the authorities does not speak the language, continues to be a concern.
It’s mid-morning in the Te Hāpai space at DCM in Wellington. Ukuleles start to twang and people crowd into the room ahead of a music lesson. Soon, they’ll be playing and singing along to A Message to You, Rudy and Pokarekare Ana.
Shannon, one of the leaders of the class, is softly spoken, and the brim of her hat is pulled low. She’s from Auckland, but she was released from her prison sentence in Wellington, where she had no one. Over time, she built up a community: this place, where she knows everyone; a church group for women, and friends from social housing.
She used to be a client at DCM, and had to hustle to get a home.
“You’ve got to seek the help to get it,” she says. “I didn’t at first, but then I changed my attitude.”
She knows what to do in a disaster, and the social-housing blocks she’s lived in have prepared tenants well. That’s not always the case. One Wellington housing provider failed to prepare an emergency plan, which meant tenants stayed in a tsunami-prone place after the quake in 2016.
Despite her knowledge about what to do, Shannon is still nervous. A combination of medications for depression and epilepsy really knocks her out at night—in prison, she once slept through someone setting the cell below hers on fire—and after the 2016 quake, she fell straight back to sleep. Now, she’s got friends who check up on her.
I see Makka surveying the room as the music lesson starts, and ask how I can get in touch with him later. He’s stumped. He doesn’t have a phone, or Facebook—or, like many others here, a computer or a radio.
If he stays in Wellington, my only chance of finding him again is to return to this spot, down the narrow alleyway between old city blocks, where a wire fence still marks off the neighbouring building as precarious, a reminder that one big shake could bring it all down.
This story was produced in association with the Resilience National Science Challenge and supported by a grant from the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. More of Charlotte Graham’s stories about disaster resilience in vulnerable communities will be published on Scoop.