Five years today. The person at the end of the EQC call centre phone line asked, ‘is the damage to your house minor, moderate or major?’ Our response – ‘how are we to know; it didn’t look like this yesterday.’
Back then when we were looking at broken houses, streets and businesses and trying to figure out how long this was going to take to fix, we never expected to still be wondering the same thing five years later. We had a lot of energy for action and good kiwi ‘number 8 wire’ ideas for solving the problems in our neighbourhoods. Unfortunately we also had a lot of 0800 numbers, useless systems, and overwhelmed and under-prepared organisations calling the shots.
These were frustrating days but out of the frustration came a call for community-led action and out of that action came CanCERN. One of our founding members, Tom McBrearty from hard hit River Road told the early CanCERN story eloquently in the Civil Defence magazine, TEPHRA. We have republished it in this newsletter in acknowledgement of all those people who have been part of or supported CanCERN over the last five years.
A land to be shaken – by Tom McBrearty
One of our founding members, Tom McBrearty from hard hit River Road told the early CanCERN story eloquently in the Civil Defence magazine, TEPHRA. We have republished it here in acknowledgement of all those people who have been part of or supported CanCERN over the last five years.
You can read the rest of the Civil Defence newsletter from November 2012 here. It features stories from other local community leaders that are well worth a read.
Challenging disaster management through Community Engagement
A land to be shaken
The Avon River meanders eastward out of the Christchurch central business district toward the sea, across land that would have been swamp, shallow lagoons, oxbow lakes and low-rolling countryside of metres-deep silt before Christchurch existed. For decades, Christchurch had suffered no significant earthquakes. There was no shaking, or liquefaction, and so the geological problems of the eastern suburbs did not impinge on the minds of the population.
Homes were needed for the city as it grew through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and some of the easiest places to build were either side of the Avon River where the suburbs of Richmond, Avonside, Dallington, Shirley, Avondale, Burwood and Bexley now sit. Following the river’s twists and turns is River Road, fed by tributary roads, home to largely low-to-middle income families. The people have typically grown up there, love it, and tend to shift only about once every 15-16 years – a length of stay more than twice as long as the rest of Christchurch.
These local people know the area very well and how the land, homes, businesses and people fit together. People know each other and there remains a strong sense of community ownership (Māori might say kaitiakitanga or guardianship) of the river and the area around it.
This community spirit came into its own after the first quake. With aftershocks shaking and shunting the suburbs, opening holes in the roads and pumping silt-slurry out of flower beds, the chances were high that people in leadership positions would take immediate action. The locals thought that it would have been wrong for decision makers to make hasty choices, and decided to make sure their voice was heard. Our communities had long histories and (we hoped) optimistic futures, we knew that we would need to keep dealing with central and local government politicians and other officials for months and years beyond the immediate crisis. We also thought that seeking victories over them, therefore, would have been an unwise approach. We decided, instead, to seek win-win solutions for our community and for government.
After the September 2010 earthquake we felt that in the main, politicians and government officials continued to communicate with the community in the same way they did before the quake. That is, top-down, “we know best, follow our instructions”. We thought their standard information sources that worked in normal circumstances were not working for our community. A group of local residents took the initiative and sprang into action, trying to organise themselves. A local Member of Parliament (MP) for Christchurch Central, Brendon Burns, tracked down some of these people and got them together in a room. Brendon seemed well attuned to respond at the community level, as too were some of our other local politicians. Each of the community members had a story to tell and a way of helping their neighbourhood, street or suburb, and after a bit of eyeballing and learning about each other, they quickly understood that they could work together to take action in pursuit of common goals to serve the people of Christchurch.
At local level the impact of the earthquake was about the simple things in life – toilets, water, food, phones and petrol. All that was about to get worse: the February 2011 earthquake struck, the power stayed off for days, petrol stations closed, there were no communications, and no cooking facilities for whole blocks. Radios with batteries were our most sought after assets. There were no working fridges to store food, no ability to recharge cellphones, and even home gardens were destroyed by liquefaction. All sorts of social challenges were created because the quakes made it very difficult to maintain relationships with friends and family in scattered locations.
That would not have been a problem when we could use our cellphones and cars, but many of us couldn’t even get to our cars because the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and Civil Defence had, quite rightly, prevented access to damaged office blocks and mall car parks. It was a time when neighbours, family friends and strangers stopped opening conversations with “what school did you go to?” and replaced it with “are you OK? How can we help? Let’s check on each other.”
Shaping the CanCERN organisation
We were asking ourselves, “was it possible to get vital local knowledge to the people in power, to facilitate good decisions for recovery and restoration?” In normal times, this familiar question attracts cynical responses, especially for lower income people, who so often feel snubbed and disregarded by those in power. Within a week of the September 2010 quake, some community members had started to become known as spokespeople for their street or neighbourhood. They all had different ages, shapes, genders, socio-economic backgrounds and political beliefs. The common denominator was they had the capability to care about the people they knew in their communities; seeing them for who they were, not as abstractions. It wasn’t that officials could not care in the same way as individuals, it was that their jobs made it safest for them to adopt a formal approach. There’s a time and place for that, we felt, but maybe not in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. To be told to listen to radio, phone in with problems, or to go to websites, etc. is easy to say, but harder to do when you have no power or phone, or are disorientated by a disaster.
This issue of the adequacy of information was to the fore when a dozen neighbours met soon after the 7.1 Darfield earthquake in September 2010.
CanCERN was born from these meetings. We had about a dozen active members who knew their street, block, community and suburb. Many were complete strangers, while others were neighbours who got on well. Our small group sat eating a restorative fish and chips supper in Avebury Park, and talked about how we all had knowledge that would be useful for the community. Among us were people who knew a lot about engineering, law and other professions, and many had contacts with people of influence in local and central government. We figured we had the capability to help officials understand what needed doing, to challenge misconceptions, highlight the consequences of bad decisions, and choose better policies and actions for outcomes that local people needed. We set to work identifying where the quakes had cut off water supply, where food was short, and where sewage and drains had failed. We then made sure the authorities knew the facts and prioritised things in a way that was centred on the needs of the people rather than the officials. By January, we had 60 members and a recognisable level of influence and community respect.
We spoke to more than 4,000 people initially in meetings at schools, churches, scout halls and homes. We had developed a reputation as a voice of the people, of common sense, and of understanding and knowing how to link to others.
We had, or were forming, branches in North Canterbury, Christchurch (North, South, East, and West), and Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts. By the end of January, membership was 200, and within a week of the February quake we had 400. The media calls ramped up and we tried to remain careful in our public positioning of having higher expectations, and demanding high standards. We called ourselves “CanCERN”. The CanCERN management structure was initially small so it could be viral and organic, and was organised out of a workingmen’s club. We set up street, block and suburb coordinators. Through this, we figured out what people needed and wanted. Their needs were the basics of life: food, water, shelter, toilets and medical help. Their ‘wants’ were mainly information. Initially we met on the side of the streets, and then at various homes, school halls, and community outlets, such as parks (the advantage of summer!).
When we met, we discussed individual houses, the state of a street, or the region. We identified needs, allocated crew members to help where we could, and taught other suburbs how to organise street, block and suburb coordinators. At first, because needs were so acute, individual volunteers became household coordinators and maintained good contact with about a dozen households. Handling them were street coordinators (often picked because they had the least damaged houses), then block coordinators, and eventually suburb coordinators.
We met everyday, then every three days, then weekly, and by mid-2012, fortnightly. We believed we knew what was happening in our community, but we rapidly began to realise we needed to pass on this information to decision makers, who often had incomplete or out of date information. We were persistent and insistent, and were seen rightly as activists. We were seen as politically motivated, and we were. We were seen as noisy, and we were that too. But the authorities couldn’t ignore us. They needed us because we were able to tell them what was needed where. Each of us had business, school, health, social and political connections, and so the collective of CanCERN initially won grudging acknowledgement, then acceptance, and then was finally invited to meetings. We ended up having weekly meetings with Civil Defence, meetings and discussions with the Ministry of Social Development, and we presented to council meetings and communities explaining how we worked. This was all in our own time, and with our own resources. It worked then, and still works now.
Some examples of what CanCERN did:
- Street level coordination – We divided the street up and allocated street coordinators to 12 to 18 houses each. Initially, we organised the coordinators ourselves, but as things expanded we allocated block coordinators to look after groups of eight to 10 street coordinators. The block-level staff attended regular meetings with insurance companies, EQC and government officials (e.g. Civil Defence). At the public meetings we quietly asked people as they entered the meeting what street they lived in, and sat them all together. When officials declared a street or area had been fixed, we got all the people from that area to stand up and raise their hands if they agreed things were indeed fixed. In the face of that, with the media watching, it didn’t take long for the platitudes to stop.
- Correcting the Gospel – We told Civil Defence what was needed and where (electricity, sewage, portaloos). EQC geotechnical experts walked and drove door-to-door down the streets examining buildings with engineers’ eyes. But CanCERN got busy and interfered, taking EQC staff down the sides of houses, and clambering over back fences to see what was really going on behind the frontages. There was subsidence, gardens ripped apart, and endless liquefaction. The experts’ notepads were quickly filled.
- Public forums – We provided a place for residents to meet with agencies like EQC. Many households had no power and could not access email and the Internet. We asked for, and got, public meetings.
- Advocacy with central government – Discussions with central government agencies commenced in January 2011. For the Ministry of Social Development, we led identification of needs for temporary accommodation and pursued rental subsidies for residents made homeless. Shifting ideas and opinions in CanCERN, a number of us were known to have strong personal connections to opposition political parties and MPs and we could have been seen as biased by central government Ministers and MPs, and some local councillors. However, we had not set up as an opposition group. We needed to work collegially and in good faith with all politicians, and for that to be possible, we needed them to trust us. We were not perfect in attempting to achieve this. We had our difficulties and our barriers, but we did achieve as much as we could. We sought to:
- Attract influential friends – Help from people that both sides of today’s politics would listen to, including former Prime Ministers (Labour’s Helen Clark and National’s Jenny Shipley). I asked them through intermediaries to talk informally with key politicians, urging them to put aside those perceptions of CanCERN’s bias, just for the time being
- Gain emotional buy-in from key figures -We sensitised officials to the personal effect of their decisions, especially choices that might give them a short term advantage. We needed them to worry about the consequences for real people, creating a do-it mindset, and overcoming communication blocks.
Develop strong formal relationships with key authorities – We contributed to government initiatives, attended meetings on a regular basis at management level, and helped organise public meetings. Through this, we influenced decision makers, the EQC, insurance companies, local and central government officials, and many non-government organisations (e.g. Red Cross and church groups). Sometimes the barriers were unusual, “patch protection” being one. Established administrators, and their leaders sometimes saw us as a nuisance or impediment to their way of doing things. I personally believe we brought energy, ideas, humanity and good old fashioned Kiwi “can do”. We promoted the idea that there needn’t be only one official response to a given problem, and that it could be more effective to harmonise a range of responses with what was already happening at a community level. Despite pressure from some frustrated members, we decided early on to avoid trenchant public positioning. It can easily be framed as conflict, and conflict is the last thing you need in a true negotiation, which will only work if the parties are able to be flexible. Otherwise, you’ll never even get to the table, let alone start talking. Every natural disaster is different in its impact and severity, and the ability of any given community will vary just as much. In Christchurch, we were privileged to be in a first world country, with the machinery of democracy around us, relatively good levels of employment, and well developed roads, telecommunications, electricity and other infrastructure. Many other disaster zones have none of these advantages.
But some things are likely to hold true for other people seeking to head in the same direction as CanCERN:
- Be straight, direct, open and honest.
- Accept what you can achieve immediately and what you’ll have to wait for. You can’t always have everything you want, as soon as you want it.
- Avoid public “scraps” with officials. Most of the time they’ll resist being seen giving in to a “mere” community group. Equally, remember it’s not about you and your victories, it’s about the people and what they need. It can be more effective to quietly encourage alternative solutions.
- Polite and professional. Thank people in private for their time and effort, and also as much as possible in public. Remember that after this episode, you still want them to take your calls. So play nice.
- Positive approach. Don’t waste time whining and repeating useless topics. You’re there to help them do a better job and get it right for the people – so get on with it.
- No party politics. The apolitical nature of the relationship between CanCERN and politicians kept going throughout the intense response period after the quakes.
- Media. Journalists love negativity and conflict, especially when powerful individuals are involved. On occasion, you may have juicy information that enables them to write those stories. Think twice. Will it damage or assist what you need to achieve for the community? How would it affect your relationships with people you need to persuade? And some final advice for the people in positions of authority who may have gotten this far:
- Plan for disaster? Yes.
- Educate the people? Yes.
- Embrace, engage and activate the community? That’s a no brainer, of course, yes.
Acknowledgements: It would be wrong if I did not personally thank some individuals from the community. These people offered and provided support, encouragement, guidance, laughter, leadership and values. They all started as strangers to me, and now, through a disaster, have become lifelong friends. Evan Smith developed our focus, and allowed me to have dark days without judgement. Leanne Curtis taught me community values, the need for listening and the ability to close a debate. Brian Parker’s skills in developing systems and forms gave us respect. His caring and sensitive way added value to us all. Finally my wife Yvonne and my family allowed me to commit energy and time, and they had the skills to make my feet stay on the ground. Pillow talk was more like pillow listening as I freely downloaded to Yvonne at 2am many mornings. Mahatma Ghandi said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” These people helped me to deliver on some of my wishes. Thank you.
About the author
Tom McBrearty was a Christchurch-based business consultant, currently Enterprise North Canterbury Economic Development Manager, formerly CEO of Salcom Technology and former New Zealand Institute of Management Chair. A founder member of NZ Business Mentors and Advisor for Young Enterprise. Until mid 2012, he was Chairman of CanCERN.
John Goddard – substandard repairs presentation (videos)
Got concerns about the quality of your earthquake repairs? Have you bought a property where the repairs are substandard? Want to know what you can do?
Last Tuesday, lawyer John Goddard spoke at a community meeting at Burwood Christian Centre about substandard earthquake repairs. Below are the videos from his presentation which have been roughly organised into topics.
Please spread this page far and wide!/************ get tags and categories ****************/ ?>
Support is available – spread the word
Even after five years there are still many people who need to know about and be engaged with earthquake support services. Please, please, please share this information with anyone who is still in the insurance settlement process. Word of mouth from trusted sources is a best promotional tool.
It can be a bit confusing trying to figure out which is the most appropriate for the situation so we have summarised them here. If you’re still confused after reading this, please call us or any of the organisations and just ask. Alternatively, head down the In The Know Hub at Eastgate Mall and talk to one of the great community hosts who will be able to help you get the support you need.
- Allows people to have their independence while a supporter walks beside them.
- Has links to other social support services.
- Connects residents with the right people, at the right level, at the right place.
- Can address multiple and complex issues.
- The homeowner closes the file with ESCS – they can use it for as long as they need.
- ESCS doesn’t give advice. Attendance at a meeting would be solely to ensure people understand what is being said to them.
- Free and confidential.
0800 777 846, (9am–11pm, 7 days)
The Earthquake Support Coordinator Service is part of a bundle of earthquake supports. Other services include:
Canterbury Support Line
If you, your family or friends need to talk to someone about anything other than the details of your earthquake claim. For free and confidential information, support, counselling and connection to emergency services you can call 0800 777 846 between 9am and 11pm, 7 days.
Canterbury Earthquake Temporary Accommodation Service (CETAS)
CETAS provide a free matching service for people who need temporary accommodation while their home is rebuilt/repaired as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes. For homeowners, financial assistance may be available to help with temporary accommodation costs while their home is being rebuilt or repaired. The financial assistance is not income or asset tested. For assistance call 0800 673 227, (Monday to Friday, 8am–5pm) or visit www.quakeaccommodation.govt.nz.
Residential Advisory Service – RAS
- Independent advice through solicitors contracted from Community Law.
- Client has a conversation with RAS, then RAS goes to EQC/Insurer to find out what is or isn’t happening with the claim.
- Multi-party meetings available with insurers – independently facilitated meetings to try and reach an agreement – not arbitration or mediation. If the parties all agree, it’s an outcome that becomes semi-binding.
- Not case management – people dip in, dip out.
- Technical panel – peer review, consideration of technical issues (give assurance to property owners, identify inconsistencies to be given back to PMOs/insurers).
0800 777 299 or 03 379 7027
Canterbury Insurance Assistance Service
- Non-legal advocacy/assistance service
- Target demographic: elderly, unwell, disability, in long-term care
- Work with the client on where their insurance claim has not progressed. Develop an action plan, facilitate the plan.
- Advocacy – anywhere from working with the client to working on behalf of the client.
- Homeowner decides when to close their case.
- Don’t give opinions.
Breakthrough is a project between CanCERN and Southern Response which aims to speed up residents’ claims by clearly identifying the things the homeowner is stuck on and looking for outcomes they can be confident about. This is done via a facilitated meeting with a Southern Response decision maker.
We will facilitate the space for you to:
- talk to Southern Response about your experience and progress to date
- clearly explain where you are currently stuck
- explore pragmatic solutions for progress
- advocate for a specific claim outcome
- give policy, legal, or technical advice
If you are interested or want to talk to us about whether the pilot is for you, contact Marcus Irvine at email@example.com or on 027 304 8092./************ get tags and categories ****************/ ?>