The 4WD club I belong to has had an emergency relief team since the early ‘ 70s. I’ve been in it for 40 years. We’ve been involved with every major local disaster in that time. Floods, forest fires, SAR, earthquakes, storms, snow- raking, forest and beach searches, vehicle recovery – anytime we can be of help with serious 4WD experience, capable vehicles and a vast knowledge of local roads, rivers, bridges, alternative routes and DOC and farm tracks. Many of our drivers are also skilled tradies. We have much disaster experience.
We’ve had excellent rapport with agencies through much of that time and had many plaudits from them and citizens we’ve helped. During the Christchurch ‘quakes our teams transported USAR and others workers about the city and CBD and did recce and delivery runs. The USAR team I looked after were so appreciative they donated me a team shirt in appreciation. It’s a prized possession. We’ve always, though, had problems with the disaster bureaucracy. Civil Defence in particular. CD consists of a small number of full-time staff and a large number of volunteers that get together only for practices or actual emergencies. In general they do a fine job of looking after many people when required. Their basic procedures work much of the time, but not well enough for all of it and their communication is crap.
This may seem like harsh criticism for a bunch of willing vollies but I can tell you, the vollie fire brigades are far more efficient than CD. Fire crews practise weekly, research their territories, maintain their equipment and do real training such as pumping flood waters, putting tarps to tornadoed roofs, rescuing cats from trees, or burning down derelict house for training. They are onto it.
CD exercises seem to mostly consist of a whole lot of people in a hall shuffling bits of paper with hand- written notes simulating a hypothetical disaster and manning the phones, which may not actually be working in a real one. Some of this is essential procedural training. But there’s not enough real stuff.
We used to attend every CD exercise so they’d know us and our capabilities and we theirs. Every event was a waste of time. It didn’t matter how often we’d advise them of our capabilities they’d never get the message. We stopped attending. And they seem to have no historic records. When we’d ring and offer help at an emergency they wouldn’t know who we were, yet we’ve worked in every one of them since about 1970. After each time they’d gush over how useful we were and thank us very much and promise to call us next time. But there’s no record...
Last year’s November quakes came along so we activated the team and offered assistance. It was a ‘perfect’ 4WD disaster with damaged roads and buildings, liquefaction, slips, flooding, etc. Much of it was away from the city with broken communications, cellphone blackouts and significant uncertainties about damage and its location, especially outside townships.
As one would expect, council, power and roading crews were out scouting the above but their numbers are limited and inevitably concentrated on the major routes. Neighbours helped each other, especially in farming communities. Many public and private bridges, tracks and minor roads were impassable in isolated areas. We could have been out checking them and delivering supplies to take pressure from the main crews and adding intel to the mix. A pair of skilled operators in 4WDs can often bypass a busted bridge or a slip.
Kaikoura was isolated via land from north or south. It has a tiny port, which was hampered by the uplift, the airfield is grass and too small
for a C-130. The only other road access is via the narrow and tortuous Inland Rd, it too was badly damaged. It was cleared sufficiently in about four days for the Army to get a 28 ( large) vehicle convoy through albeit slowly.
We knew standard utes had been through without problem. So our better equipped 4WDs would be OK and far less likely to add damage to slumped and broken roads than heavy vehicles. The road was announced to be open to 4WDs on the Friday by permit only. We arranged to take the entire contents of the Salvation Army food warehouse to Kaikoura on the Saturday and proceeded to seek a permit for that. We had more people and food loaded than the Army took for Kaikoura in their previous 28 vehicle convoy!
Our co- ordinator, backed by the Waiau and Kaikoura Fire Services, Mayors and others – all desperate for the goodies – tried for many hours to get the permit. He was shunted around CD, Hurunui District Council, NZ Army, Police, road contractors and NZTA, each of whom seemed to think they were in charge. None of them seemed to be able to issue permits. He drew a blank. No explanation was offered. By then we had about fif teen vehicles loaded up with six to eight tonnes of food and supplies, loo rolls, tampons, acres of tinned tucker and food parcels, three pallets of fresh bread and much more.
Saturday morning we gathered on SH1 ready to go. But there was still no permit or explanation. We had to turn back to town, return it all to a most disappointed Sally Army and unload the whole lot back into their warehouse. By hand, as we’d loaded it. Our co- ordinator eventually found that NZTA had taken control of the road – as it was ‘ theirs’ – from the other agencies ( since when is NZTA a disaster relief organiser?) When he got through to them on Saturday morning the receptionist’s reply was “I’m sorry, we can’t issue permits, the boss is on leave until Monday morning.” This is in the middle of a Civil Emergency! About a shipment of essential supplies! It’s his weekend off! Slack bastard. How F***- ing ridiculous. He should have been dragged out of bed by the scruff of the neck to help us unload!
This confusion is endemic in the civil emergency response area. We see and hear continuing evidence of power games among them. They don’t communicate well with each other, or anyone else for that matter. It’s almost impossible to get any real information from any of them. They either don’t know, because they don’t talk to each other, or say ‘ No’ because its easiest and gets them off the hook, absolves them of any responsibility or comeback. Most of their organisation have never been at the coalface.
They sit at desks in an airconditioned office with electric lights that work, wearing casual clothes with hierarchical badges of office pinned to their lapels, wearing clean shoes and dry socks, eating catered food, while those out there in the disaster struggle heroically in storm wear and mud, up swaying power poles in a snowstorm on a ladder jammed into holes in the ice, operating a digger beneath a rock fall pushing about rocks bigger than an SUV, and get a cold pie for lunch.
Gerry Brownlee, bless his well- paid lit tle heart, has promised to do something about it. About bloody time. Disaster relief, and CD particularly, is a veneered shambles. Inefficient, slow to react, stifles initiative, wastes resource, thinks it ’s God, which can’t be right as the NZ Army knows it is themselves. Oh, BTW, the NZ Army will not liaise with anyone not in a uniform or hierarchy – without those you have no known value to mankind.
I’d turned up earlier at CD HQ to check on the damage situation and location and let them know we were available to help. There were a dozen or more people standing around in a room with sheets of paper pinned to the windows. There was no urgency, a few muted conversations, some family chat going on. I was told there ‘was no-one available’ I’d have to wait. I stood around trying to keep out of the way of the nonbustle. About fifteen minutes later someone came reluctantly for me. Didn’t seem interested, was too busy with their important task I’d interrupted.
I learned much more about the current situation and where our team could help by reading the notices pinned about than I got from this officious minion.
So Gerry, don’t back down on this one. I know it will slip from people’s minds after the holidays and fuss is over so would be easy for you to let slide sideways. Jus’ do it! Pick it up by its badges and shake the shit out of it!
A sorry tale!
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