More engagement lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes

Recently, John Hamilton, the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management, New Zealand, spoke about the Canterbury earthquakes at the National Board meeting of Neighbourhood Support.

Resilience and personal fortitude

John was effusive in his praise for the “personal fortitude” of Cantabrians and the resilience of their communities. Their response has negated the myth of weak neighbourhood spirit prevalent in pre-quake discourse. The tragic impacts of the earthquakes have strengthened community engagement and communication.

the Student Volunteer Army in action in Christchurch

In immediate response to the quakes, Christchurch citizens checked on their neighbours. In the following days and weeks, community groups such as the student army arose and self-organised to check on people’s well-being and remove the liquefaction flooding streets and properties (see an earlier post). Unlike many overseas disaster scenes, Christchurch people used emergency accommodation for just a few days and quickly returned to damaged homes (where that was safe). Most of the fatalities occurred in the CBD, but thankfully residential buildings performed well and no lives were lost in residential building collapses. And, according to John “schools did a fantastic job” – no school children lost their lives.

Situational awareness

But the people of Christchurch and Canterbury weren’t anticipating an earthquake, and may not have been as well prepared as they could have been. The authorities found it difficult to get timely and accurate intelligence about immediate impacts and particularly in suburban areas. Effective community networks established before any disaster help the authorities gain situational awareness and better target response actions.

John believes that Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, has heeded lessons from Christchurch and is improving community preparedness. Wellington sits on a major fault line and people have been anticipating “the big one” for decades. Wellington civic leaders have engaged at community level to build emergency response capacity. Should a big earthquake occur, Wellington’s strong community infrastructure should  enable a good response.

Neighbourhood Support’s role

Community groups such as neighbourhood support play an important role in fostering community engagement. Neighbourhood Support was originally set up to improve security and reduce crime in neighbourhoods. This necessary, but reactive role, is dramatically enhanced by the more pro-active community engagement role – where people are encouraged to get to know their neighbours. Thus resilience is built into communities as people learn (or relearn) to engage with neighbours. Resilient communities are better placed to respond to destructive events, whether they be natural or man-made. And on the positive site, increased neighbourhood engagement opens up opportunities for an enriched social life and greater prosperity through community initiatives.

If you want more information about neighbourhood support, or would like to form a neighbourhood support group check out the Neighbourhood Support New Zealand website. Please comment – I would be interested to know about similar initiatives in other countries.

image credit: http://iprepared.blogspot.com/2011/02/helping-each-other.html

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