Helping communities after natural disasters – Nancy Jean Whitehead

Nancy Jean is the minister in the Kowai-Cheviot Church and the Waikari Church

I can see two related issues at work in post-disaster scenarios: the power structure is wrong, and we need a sound theology that equips us to help others.

Between 2010 and 2017 I have been between two major natural disasters.  The first – the Christchurch earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011 and more recently the Kaikoura/Hurunui earthquakes in November 2016.  What has fascinated me is the huge difference between urban and rural communities post-disaster.  What has angered me is the complete disempowering of local people by national institutions.

The Christchurch earthquakes were centred in a densely populated urban area.  There was tremendous need for external help because of the magnitude of the disaster and the massive disruptions to services such as basic communications, electricity, water supply, sewerage and the damage to so many roads.  Hundreds of people had to leave their homes, some just for a night or two and some for much longer.  Their whole lives were completely disrupted and would be for a very long time.    Hot meals and baking sent in from the outlying areas were very much appreciated as was the visiting done by churches in the Christchurch area and the gifts they took to people.    However, most of the immediate recovery work was undertaken by “professionals” including rescue teams from overseas, the NZ Army and Air Force, Urban Search and Rescue, the Fire Service, the Police and St. John Ambulance.  The City Council staff were also heavily involved.

Six years on the Kaikoura/Hurunui earthquakes hit and the scenario was very different.  There was major damage in Kaikoura and in the Hurunui with the epicentre being at Waiau – one of the small inland rural towns.   The local Civil Defence organisation, based in Amberley, was up and running within 20 minutes of the shaking stopping.    Within another 20 minutes or so a helicopter had arrived at the Amberley Medical Centre to pick up a Doctor to go through to Kaikoura.   The Police and the Fire Service evacuated the beach communities in case of a tsunami.   It was all working as well as could be expected in the early hours of the morning, but that didn’t last.

The first thing was the tsunami alert.  Two hours later, in spite of local expert opinion that any danger had passed, someone in Wellington decided that the tsunami warning sirens had to be activated.  The amount of confusion and panic this caused was unbelievable.

Over the next few days people from well outside the affected area were making decisions that made no sense and that completely disempowered and undermined the work of the locals. Roads were closed for no apparent reason and the opinion of the local community was ignored.  The rules were to be applied regardless of the situation. For example, a large skip was brought into Waiau so there was somewhere for all the damaged household stuff to be disposed of.  Imagine the distress when people were turned away because some of their rubbish had food in it.  It took intervention from the local Mayor to over-ride the “rules” and explain that all the rubbish was going to landfill and everything was to be accepted.  As one person said “when you have just spent hours scraping a mixture of broken glass and crockery, tomato sauce, bottled fruit and powdered goods off the floor with almost no water to help, the last thing you need is a petty bureaucrat telling you that it can’t be dumped here.

And then there was the well-meaning help.  A number of communities sent in carloads of baking and other foodstuffs but most of it was not needed.   There was nowhere to store it and who was going to be free to distribute it?   The intention of the donors was to do something to help a damaged community – a very good intention – but it was not what they needed.  Large quantities of groceries were also donated but again this was not helpful.  The local stores in each small town were up and running very quickly and all the donated goods did was to undermine their business.

Those of us who live in urban areas tend to live from payday to payday.  Not many of us have several weeks’ supply of basic foodstuffs because if we need something we can just go down the road to the local supermarket.  For rural people the nearest shop may be a 20-50km round trip.   Farming communities keep well stocked cupboards and freezers so running out of food was not a problem.  They know that in a hard winter they may be snowed in for weeks.  Most of them also have generators so they can keep their freezers running even if one generator is shared between 2 or 3 neighbours.

The other major difference between the rural and urban communities is that rural people know their neighbours.  They know who is living where.  They know who has specialised skills and who has what heavy equipment.  They know who has particular needs.  They know the roads in the area and they are used to working together and helping one another.   They are resilient and immensely practical. The one thing they did not need was someone from a distance overriding local decision making.

One of the heart-warming stories came from Cheviot where the local Four Square had changed hands at Labour Weekend.  The owners were new to the town and were away for the night when the earthquakes hit.  They returned early in the morning expecting to find chaos in their shop but instead found people from the village were already there beginning to clean up the mess for them.  This was repeated in each of the small towns.

Our first instinct when we hear about a major disaster is to want to do something to help, and this applies both nationally and internationally.  We rarely stop to think about what it is that people need.   A great example of misplaced help was when tonnes of soft toys were sent to Asia after the Boxing Day Tsunami.  It is lovely for a child to have something to cuddle, but in the tropical climate most of the toys went mouldy in a very short space of time.  Far better to ask what do your children need?   What does your community need, rather than making assumptions.

One of the nicest things that happened for our Hurunui and Kaikoura churches was when a parish in Auckland took up an extra offering and sent each parish a significant sum of money to provide a special morning tea for their people.  For our small Cheviot congregation there was enough for us all to go to a local café for lunch.  We had a lovely meal together and the café owner benefitted from the increased custom.   The Cheviot cafés are very dependent on passing traffic and with SH1 closed north of the town for many weeks they were suffering badly.  The gift from Auckland enabled us to support them.   It is great too that two different church groups from Christchurch have come through to Cheviot to share worship with the local people and spend money in the town.

There are two related issues at work in post-disaster scenarios.  The first is the power structure is wrong.   The small group at the top of the structure are controlling from a distance everything that is done by the people at the bottom, and yet it is the people at the bottom who have the local knowledge and the skills to accomplish what needs to be done.  Local District Councils and Civil Defence have been almost completely disempowered and things that could have been dealt with simply and quickly became bogged down in bureaucratic red tape.  The power brokers are so “risk-adverse” that local initiative is ignored or stifled. The power structure needs to be reversed so that in the first instance it is the locals who respond with the knowledge that they can then ask for help regionally and nationally if required.  In other words they can just get on and do it.

The also impacts on the second issue, we need a sound theology that equip us to help others. Do we believe in a top down model or do we work at encouraging and empowering others?  When we look at the Gospels it is rare to see Jesus using the top down approach to meeting the needs of people.  He meets people where they are.

Living the gospel life means being focused on people on a one to one basis.   We have great networks that we can use to reach out to those who are struggling and who need support.   From the Presbytery down, this personal contact is essential.   Within hours of the earthquakes all the ministers in the affected area where I live were contacted by the Presbytery Executive Officer who was checking not only the state of the parishes but also on the people.  A call from the Assembly Executive Secretary a few days later was very much appreciated. This level of personal care we can and do provide to the people on our areas.  We have a ministry of caring for one another and for those we don’t know so well. When face to face contact is not possible – for example when roads are closed and communities are isolated – phone calls, texts, emails and Facebook can be effectively used (once the power is back on!!)

Our ministry of hospitality really comes to the fore in times of disaster.  Opening up our churches and halls, if they are safe, provides spaces for people to gather to just be together and to share their experiences.  Traumatised people need the warmth of human companionship and this is something we can provide.  For those who are not able to do the practical things or who are at a distance, pray. Pray for the local churches; pray for all those physically involved in the disaster recovery; pray for our Mayors and District Councils; for our teachers and the children in their classes; pray for those facing the loss of their homes and their livelihoods.  Just pray!

And above all, remember these communities are facing years of recovery and will need your support and encouragement for a long time.

4 thoughts on “Helping communities after natural disasters – Nancy Jean Whitehead

  1. I hope that this article is being sent to those who are at the top of the Civil Defense organization so that they learn not to over-ride, or ignore, the advice of those who are working at the scene of a disaster.


  2. Thanks for the comment Neville. I am working closely with the Mayor of the Hurunui, who is one of my elders, and he is certainly making our feelings known with Gerry Brownlee and co. I will talk to him about sending the article on.


  3. Thanks Nancy Jean for raising an important discussion on the Kaikoura earthquake. The functioning of emergency management and the role of the church in disasters is of growing national importance not least because of the regularity of local and regional emergencies.

    The Alpine Fault earthquake is on its way – it could happen tomorrow afternoon at 2.30 – and will likely severely impact church functioning if not devastate our building infrastructure; as a result it is timely that a national discussion with church leaders begins. It may not be widely known but the Alpine Fault will likely be at least 10 times the power of the Kaikoura earthquake and impact on a 400 – 500 km line up the spine of the South Island and rolling into the lower North Island. So the issues of community involvement visa vis national leadership are important.

    I agree with your thoughts around theological reflection and I would say we need to do a bit more work on the theology of suffering and on the providence and presence of God amidst catastrophe.

    I think it is fair to say that not everyone will agree with some of your comments especially “What has angered me most is the complete disempowering of local people by national institutions”; many might feel the opposite – gratitude that national institutions came to the rescue and if they had not turned up in force then the local community would have been totally overwhelmed and remain so for some considerable time.

    A good discussion needs to be had. I hope there will be engagement of the church with emergency management and ongoing theological reflection.

    I am and ordained minister of the PCANZ and presently the Group Welfare Manager in Otago for Civil Defence Emergency Management. I spent over 3 weeks in Kaikoura serving in the welfare team during the emergency.


    • Thanks Tony for your comments. When I wrote “What has angered me most is the complete disempowering of local people by national institutions” I was referring to some of the things that happened on the Hurunui side of the earthquakes. In our very rural area there were a number of times when decisions were made in Christchurch or Wellington that over-rode local decision making. For example, there were road closures imposed on the District that were unnecessary and that caused increased hardship to those living on those roads. A particular example of this was the closure of the Mt. Lyford road.

      The point I was trying to make is that the power structure is upside down. The initial response is and should be with the local Civil Defence and other emergency services who can then ask for assistance regionally and nationally as required. The local group needs to be trusted to make decisions that are right for their area and not have that right taken away from them. One size fits all does not work. What was needed in Kaikoura was very different from what was needed in the Hurunui – same earthquakes, very different communities.

      Like you, I hope this discussion continues on the engagement of the church in emergency management and in theological reflection.

      Nancy Jean Whitehead


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