Peter Hyde: Shattered city's forgotten victims

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Redcliffs resident Peter Hyde says many people in the worst-hit areas of Christchurch have had scant help in the struggle to get back on their feet

Strong winds are throwing up dust and silt caused by liquefaction. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Strong winds are throwing up dust and silt caused by liquefaction. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's 2am and, like many people in Christchurch, I am not sleeping well. But at least we now have power in Redcliffs, so I can use the time productively.

What happened to me in the quake is not important. What is not happening in the post-quake period is important, because the official response is dwarfed by the size of the problem.

I don't have all-seeing eyes, or a helicopter. I certainly don't have any kind of special view of officialdom - though not for want of trying to make contact in the past five days.

So this is based on my perspective.

Christchurch is three cities right now, not one.

RESCUE CITY

This is the cordoned off area.

That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from the news media. It's given us tales of injury, tragedy, loss, broken buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It's extremely television-friendly. My quake experience started there, but almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured in are not addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the people of Christchurch.

SHOWER CITY

This is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity, water and sewerage. By latest estimates, that's about 65 per cent of the city - much of it out west. The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.

REFUGEE CITY

This is the rest of Christchurch - mainly the eastern suburbs, perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, only half of whom have power and almost none have running water. Batteries have run down, gas has run out and other supplies are low or gone.

Houses may or may not be intact. Streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt or sewage. There are no showers, ways to wash clothes or heat the "must boil" water. No refrigeration, no working toilets, and precious few Port-a-loos.

No internet and no phones. The papers - if you can get one - are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn't help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher & Paykel is providing free laundries in Kaiapoi.

As a consequence, locals have few resources, little information, and no "voice". It's remarkably hard to call emergency services when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Maybe you have just enough charge to call the sole Government helpline - but to stay 20 minutes on hold?

We saw Opposition Leader Phil Goff the other day - he stopped for a photo op with the army group which had paused briefly at the cordon. He did not talk to any of the locals waiting amid the dust they'd stirred up, hoping for a nugget of information.

The official response in this part of the city sounds reassuring, but is not; relief centres and a field hospital - if you can get to them. The army - two drivebys in the past week.

Operation Suburbs teams - this whole area is not even listed with them. Increased police presence thanks to 300 Australians - we haven't seen them as much as they are needed. And some worthy and welcome images of food and other supplies being distributed at marae and other central points.

In these powerless suburbs, the official response is far from enough.

I come from a relatively well-off area and most of its folk were better prepared than average for something like this. But even here, by the weekend, many people were bailing - mainly because of lack of information about how to survive.

Their only contact with officialdom was often-unnecessary and temporary evacuations, conducted by police who were doing their best, but who were overworked and under-informed.

Such actions considerably eroded local confidence, especially when there was also no clear information about when power or water would return.

My family's response to that situation can be seen at webcentre.co.nz/quake.htm - a noticeboard, a relay for newsletters and volunteers and a forum for extensive human contact and moral support.

But all that was only possible because our family had the personal security, communication equipment, stationery , chutzpah and, above all, electricity - "borrowed" from a cellsite generator - to make it happen.

You might think that there are civil defence or Red Cross or army people who are doing all this as part of their role - helping people to stay in their homes by providing the essential information and supplies they need to do it safely.

My direct observations over the past week suggests otherwise - especially away from officialdom's chosen central points. They are simply overwhelmed by the nature and extent of the crisis, and tired and understaffed. So this is a call to action.

IF YOU ARE LOCAL

* Find out where there is still no water and (especially) no power.

These are places where the acute post-earthquake phase is still happening, right now, and will go on happening until they have those services. Where people are under the most stress, where the risk of illness is inevitably going to be the highest.

* Take them batteries, clean drinking water, bulk washing water, bottled drinks, milk, camp-stove gas cartridges, face masks, transistor radios, alcohol hand cleaners, wet wipes, fresh fruit, dry and canned food.

* Ignore the few main distribution centres - people who can get there easily will get help, as will those with good transport of their own - provided they have cash to spare. Instead, look for smaller water points or obvious drop-off/drop-in sites. I can't help you find these, and nor can "officialdom" - just drive to an affected area with a carload, and ask some locals. If there's one happening already, they will know. And even if you end up putting it on an obvious street corner with a "please take one" sign, it would do good.

IF YOU LIVE FURTHER AFIELD

I have met people who drove from Timaru, Oamaru, Akaroa and the West Coast with supplies, and boy were they welcome. But in my view, the best thing to do is to find someone local who you know and trust, and who is willing to act, and send them money so they can do the above.

If you are thinking along normal lines, you'll feel that the best thing to do is to donate to a government appeal, or the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army. Know that they are focused on the most needy cases, but they are far from omniscient. And their efforts are noticeably understaffed, and their staff are getting weary too - they often live in the same suburbs that most need help.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU LIVE

Please do something to help the media to change their script. Lost lives and broken buildings do matter, and so does our nation's economic future.

But there is potential for much more stress and suffering in the hidden Refugee City if we fail to help where help is needed, right now. So call talkback, post on Facebook and Twitter, email radio stations, hassle the press, TV and any politicos you know until the focus shifts away from Rescue City a little.

Put the message out. The acute phase will pass for these suburbs once power, adequate transport and running water (or access to drinkable water) are commonplace in each of them. But that's not today and - for some - it will be weeks away. That's it. There is a real, immediate problem, and the solution is not an easy one. But there are things that you can do, if you are willing.

* This article has been edited and abridged.

- NZ Herald

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