Coping with Disaster and Supporting Those Coping with Disaster

This week, with the second anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake approaching, I’ll be blogging about several issues relevant to our situation here in Christchurch and natural disasters in general.

A couple looks at their ruined house – AP

Nearly every week, I talk to my Mom on the phone.  This has become a ritual since the 22 February 2011 quakes hit.  She listens patiently as I tell her how the city has changed, how I feel about it, the week’s earthquakes, and so on.  I’m not sure how I would react if the shoe was on the other foot because I always seem too quick to dispense advice.  She has always been a good listener.

This past weekend was the latest time I spoke to her.  We talked about the content of my blog late last week about post traumatic stress disorder and how I still have some problems dealing with the fallout.  I’m not sure if I mostly have moved on and feel in a better position to handle things or if  I am fooling myself and in reality, I’m still bottling most of the feelings inside.  Spurred on by friends and family, I did seek help and that sorted things out quite a bit.  I’m not really sure if I need to continue on that course of action, though.

In coping with an immediate disaster or emergency, humans respond in a variety of ways.  I’m a person who tries to create order in chaos and would most likely be the person telling everyone to protect themselves.  Others may react instinctively to get away or out, while others freeze in place.  Some panic.  The way we react immediately to a threat, disaster, or emergency is something wired deep within us.

The first moments of the 22 February 2011 quake caught on CCTV camera. Note the young man’s reaction and the building failing in the background. Christchurch Press.

If you would like to watch the video above, visit the CCTV footage video link on You Tube.  Warning: This content may be disturbing for some people.

After the 22 February 2011 quake stopped, I went into defender mode.  Organise the students, don’t put up with shit, treat the injured, understand people are in shock, think about the medium term plan, keep students and the staff out of harm’s way.  I wasn’t nearly as brave as Noel and Don and Suzie, going into the building I worried would collapse on us mid-quake, to retrieve vital student and staff belongings, and it wasn’t until the parking lot was devoid of our students and staff and Noel and I were in my car on the way home that I broke down crying.  Poor Lorna and Marg (both of who live outside Christchurch; we could ironically reach people on cell phones outside the city…) had to listen to me sob like a baby as I spoke to them for the few seconds I could.

We saw people walking home, dazed, like zombies.  All that could go through my mind was that this must’ve been what New York City was like after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, except, for us, the horror continued as the ground kept shaking.  We could see the telephone poles wobbling, the liquefaction and water slightly sloshing, the windows in houses bowing and flexing, stopping, then starting again, all with varying degrees of magnitude.  Except for the occassional strong shake, most people seemed unfazed.  Eyes forward, planting one foot in front of another, a mind racing on a million different things: Is so-and-so okay? What will I arrive home to?  Did that really just happen to me?

People self-evacuate from the Christchurch central business district after the 22 February 2011 quake – Logan McMillan / AP

If you would like to watch the video associated with this picture, visit Logan McMillan’s You Tube video documenting the minutes after the quake.  Interestingly enough, the photographer we see in Logan’s video also filmed the first large aftershock I mention in this blog.  Warning: This content may be disturbing to some people.

I personally kicked into survival mode once we got home.  Check the dogs and cats are okay.  Secure what we can.  Get important documents and clothes and food and water for us and the pets ready in case we need to evacuate.  Check on friends and neighbours.

It was the weeks and months after where I started to fall apart.  Some people who had far worse damage and situations than I experienced had already started to come unravelled, but our true sense of community emerged.  Some people jumped in, despite the danger and risks to them personally, to assist those in need (and a few unfortunately passed away as a result of their heroism).  Some people picked up a camera or a microphone or pen and paper and recorded what happened for history’s sake.  Some people picked up shovels and wheelbarrows and helped dig out people on the other side of town in the days after the quake.  Some people donated goods, clothes, anything they could to help others less fortunate out.  Some people fled from Christchurch, never to return.  I understand that, and I don’t judge people for that.  I have to admit, at first, I felt like those who had run away had betrayed those of us who stayed, but, in hindsight, I can understand their reasons and why they fled.  After the June and December 2011 quakes, and even on the night of 22 February 2011, when aftershock after relentless aftershock shook our house, and I was crying while Noel held me tight and told me everything would be okay, I have to admit that I questioned our decision to stay a few times.  But another part of me knew that things could only get better in time, and this was just a bad blip in my life.

One of the recurring themes emerging in my blogs about the earthquakes and in my discussions with friends and family is that some people don’t really understand what I or anyone else here in Christchurch went through if they didn’t go through it (or something similar) themselves.  It’s not to say that they can’t be sympathetic or try to help, but the trauma of dealing with something like this first hand is a lot different than dealing with it second- or third-hand.

There’s no “right way” to cope with a disaster except to be safe, look after yourself, look after your friends and family, and seek help if you (or they) need it.  There’s no shame in asking for help or just needing someone to listen to you.  You can cry; grief is natural.  You can get angry; it’s a very natural reaction.  You might feel lost or displaced; things may change (even suddenly) but don’t resist the change if it is out of your control.  Try to look forward to brighter days or back on good memories, because the disaster here and now will pass soon enough.  It’s only a rainy day in your sun-filled life.

If you are having nightmares or feel emotionally like you cannot cope, turn to your doctor or a mental health professional like a counselor for assistance.  They can give you a myriad of things to try to help you cope.  It doesn’t have to be medication, but it could be things like Cognative Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or counselling or coping strategies.  They may even refer you on to a specialist.  Don’t be afraid or think you are weak if you try these.  Talk to others about your experiences because a) it may help them cope and b) it helps you recover.  Even writing a blog like this or a journal can help too.

Bulldozing Unit 7, our old work home. The concrete panel on the ground on the left fell off in the June 2011 quake.

I did not handle the June 2011 quakes well.  We nearly lost our school.  I put in a lot of hard work and sweat and tears and personal money into that school (not investing but buying things when money was tight, etc) over the then 16-years I’d been with the place, with everything we own somehow tied in with it, and we’d only come out of the darkness of the February 2011 quake to be hit again, this time harder.  To be honest, I was displaying all the signs of depression, but I fought it as best as I could.  (So much for taking my own advice!)

With the spring approaching and a sense of cautious optimism emerging, Noel and Jacqui and James and all our friends and work colleagues helped me move on.  Our house was okay.  We were (for the most part) okay.  We were going to have new premises.  I could design what we had always wanted!  We could create our own hours, our own workspaces.  It all worked better than the place we had been in.  Why should I be sad or upset about an opportunity like this?

Before and after shots of our new work campus, mostly designed by yours truly.

(As an aside, I just want to say this: without Noel, Don, Jacqui, Catherine, Suzie, Shelley, Kerryn, Amanda, and Soni at work, circling the wagons like settlers under attack, we would not be where we are today.  As a team, we worked extremely well, and it’s a testament to our school that we stayed so strong and worked so hard to recover so quickly.  Without Jacqui, James, Emma, Phil, Dave, Shaun, Garth, Renee, and Adam, I don’t think I would have coped personally as well.  Without friends from out of town, like Marg and Lorna, Anne and Steve, Yves, John and Mindy, and family from around the world, most importantly my Mom and Dad, Brian, Darcie, and Jeremy, this would have been more of a struggle.  And, of course, Noel was my rock throughout the entire ordeal.  Despite significant personal injuries and his own personal demons, he has stood strong beside me and supported me throughout the whole ordeal.  Support is so important to help you cope!)

In the days after the 22 February 2011 quake, some of our students left Christchurch, to be at home with family, to get away from the city and the destruction, to be at peace: there were a myriad of reasons.  But two different events stick out like a sore thumb to me, and being the stronger person I am now, I think I would have handled them differently.  (Don’t worry; there’s a nice event or two after this.)

One student who was on her second attempt of studying at the school fled town, going up north to spend time recovering with her family and friends.  She somehow got in touch with me to say she no longer wished to continue on the course and didn’t want to live in Christchurch anymore.  I explained to her, on more than one occasion, that we didn’t know how things were panning out with NZQA and the Government, but once we did know, we could take things from there.  I also told her that she should follow the Withdrawal Procedure and withdraw as per the established Government-issued guidelines in the meantime.  (I both posted and emailed this to her.)

One of her friends who did not live in Christchurch or even the South Island called me up as her “advocate” to lecture me I didn’t understand the trauma she had been through with the quakes and thought I was being unfair.  He went on, and on, and on about it.

I really felt like saying, “Who the hell are you to tell me I don’t understand her trauma?  You don’t live here.  You didn’t go through it.  I fucking went through it, I live here, and, unlike her, I stayed and have been dealing with the continual aftershocks.  On top of that, I’ve been dealing with all the BS from NZQA and students who can’t follow instructions like your friend!”

In actuality, I tried to be as nice about it as possible.  But it was true that at that point in time, the Government and NZQA hadn’t really set anything in concrete on how to proceed.  There was a lot of confusion and mismatched advice coming down the different pipelines.  I really could not advise someone on a concrete procedure or outcome if I didn’t know.

Another student’s mother called me about the same topic, although she and her daughter were from south of here (outside of Christchurch), and her daughter had moved back home.  The mother claimed she worked in mental health, and I know she was calling me as a cheerleader for her daughter, but there’s a nice way to deal with things and then there’s being an absolute bitch about it.  And she took the latter approach (without cause to).

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Her daughter was traumatised (that’s fine; I understand that, because I saw how she reacted, and we did go through some scary events), but, contrary to me asking her and her fellow students several times if they had a ride home or a place to stay, this student supposedly wandered the streets until the late hours after the 22 February 2011 quake.  Not only that, but we instructed students to stay away from the Central Business District (because if the damage was heavy where we were with moderately newer buildings, we could imagine the city, with older buildings in many areas, would be worse); this student supposedly went into the city (somehow) and was traumatised by what she saw.

I really wanted to say, “Wait, hold on.  When a strong aftershock hit, strong enough not to be able to stand, I held your daughter and another student against Jacqui’s car so we had something somewhat steady to hold onto and so she didn’t fall.  This is despite me having no feeling in the lower two fingers on either hand and being in extreme pain (due to rotator cuff injuries).  I protected your daughter, calmed her down, and you want to be a bitch to me?  On top of that, I told your daughter not to go into the city and specifically asked her if she had a place to go, and she understood this, but now it’s my fault she disobeyed / misinformed me?”

But I didn’t.  After the woman insulted me for the final time, I repeated my answers to the questions she had asked (for the umpteenth time), said thank you, and hung up on her.

These two examples are not how people should try to support people coping with disaster, and if that student’s mother was a mental health worker, she’s in the wrong field.

I spoke to my Mom, brother Jeremy, and Aunt Joan on the day of the quake and in the days after.  They were extremely supportive; Jeremy even wanted to fly out to Christchurch to see if he could help, which was a very kind gesture but a) it would have only put strain on an already strained city and b) I didn’t want him to experience the aftershocks we were having.  They were all patient and all listened and all supported us as much as they could.  Despite it being hard to relay in words, and listen to my voice crack and strain, my family were very patient with me.

But it’s when Noel and I went to the school to let the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team into the building that two good things happened.  One, we ran into an Aussie cop named L. Royal (although Noel says his name was Loyal) who was assigned to our area.  Despite him being pretty much fresh off the plane the day before, and dealing with university students partying and aftershocks all night, he was very cheerful and assured Noel and me quite a deal.  He was a shining example of a professional police officer.  He listened to our stories, spoke with us at length about what happened, and he explained how the Police, Armed Forces, and USAR were handling the search and rescue operations.  It felt like a relief that we had these people, some from overseas, looking after us and supporting us in our time of need.

Some of the members of the North Shore USAR team heading in to Unit 7. True heroes!

The most supportive story I have is of dealing with the USAR team.  These people were true professionals and compassionate as well.  The team exploring our building and area was from the North Shore.  I felt awful because in the rush to get to work to help them, I didn’t remember to bring any food or bottled water with me (or even fresh tea or coffee), and I told Noel about how upset I was about this.  No sooner had the words left my mouth, and one of the ladies on the USAR team approached with an apple from her lunch and tried to hand it to me.  She had mistaken me saying I should have brought food and drink for them into I hadn’t had any food of my own.  And it was that simple and kind gesture that touched me deeply.  Only a small act like that, full of love and compassion, certainly made me think, “Hey, we’ll get through this.  We have to have faith.”

Maybe one day you’ll read back on this blog after a disaster strikes (and I hope it doesn’t) to find little pearls of wisdom and experience to help you cope, or to help you help others cope: maybe not.  If you are in the situation of supporting a friend or family member who has experienced a disaster, it may be hard hearing the same stories and dealing with the same mood swings from your affected friends and family, but please be patient.  You don’t know how much just listening and hugging and being supportive helps those affected cope.

Thank you to everyone who has listened to me and help me cope!