Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 26, 2011

Acts of God

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on February 26, 2011

On Saturday, Eric Holdeman posted a commentary on the Christchurch earthquake in which he summarized his mood as, “Mad as hell!” He suggested that righteous indignation was the only proper response from emergency managers to this and other recent disasters. He predicated this advice on an assessment that people do not take preparedness seriously until a disaster strikes. Somehow he thinks turning up the volume or the vitriol will change their behavior.

I’m afraid it will, but for the worse. People all across the U.S. are now questioning whether public officials are little more than overpaid nannies who see their primary role as nagging and annoying us for years then collecting big pensions. This is not the case in Christchurch, where praise for the efforts of responders (domestic and international) has been universally high. New Zealand’s emergency services are nowhere near as well-staffed as those in most U.S. cities. Their capacity to deal with a catastrophe of this sort is no better than what we would see here either. But they have managed to engage the public as partners in the response, and the results speak for themselves.

In the aftermath of the M6.3 Christchurch earthquake that destroyed the iconic Anglican cathedral in the city’s center on Monday evening (USA time), the church’s dean, the Very Reverend Peter Beck was quoted as saying the earthquake was “not an act of God” – it was just “the Earth doing what it does.” He added, “For me as a Christian, the act of God is in the love and compassion that people are sharing among each other. You know… they call it the Canterbury spirit. The Canterbury spirit in a sense is the human spirit at its very best. You often see that in the worst of times the human spirit is at its very best.”

Here are just a few of the acts of God witnessed in Christchurch since that horrible event …

  • University of Canterbury Student Volunteer Army mobilized hundreds of young people to perform manual labor in support of disaster victims.
  • New Zealanders outside the quake-damaged area made 3,300 offers of temporary accommodation through http://www.quakeescape.co.nz.
  • National airline Air NZ offered $50 domestic  flights to and from the quake-ravaged city to allow people to get away for awhile or to come back and look after their property or families.
  • TelecomNZ, Vodafone  and other carriers offered free landline phone forwarding to cellphones and free payphone and outbound calling services.
  • A citizen in a badly affected neighborhood supplied free drinking water to fellow citizen from an artesian well.
  • Federated Farmers mobilized a small volunteer of  rural residents and equipment to help clear debris and secure infrastructure.
  • Energy companies Rockgas and Contact Energy supplied free LPG for heating and cooking.
  • Electric power utilities Contact Energy and Meridian waived power rates for those in quake-damaged homes.

These examples do not include the countless act of selflessness and heroism performed by ordinary people in the immediate aftermath of the event.

Given a choice between Dean Beck’s prescription and that of Mr. Holdeman, I think the evidence suggests empathy not anger is the proper emotion in these circumstances. The people of Christchurch knew this could happen. They took steps to minimize the impacts within the limitations of their knowledge and resources. And they stepped up to help one another when the worst happened.

Now they have difficult decisions to make about the future of their city. They do not need self-appointed experts pontificating about what they should have done or scolding them to do better before the next time comes.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

Terrific post and agree with the DEAN! Much hard work ahead and tough decisions as some suggestion 2/3rds of all Christchurch buildings damaged. 145 confirmed dead.

Comment by The Spirited New Zealander; Amended Building Codes

February 27, 2011 @ 3:57 am

Anglican, Buddist and many as Hindu often referred to as a very spirited people, God’s Blessings to the wonderful people of New Zealand during these challenging times and a planned rebuild of such overwhelming destruction by the wrath of Mother Nature!

Prime Minister John Key and Mayor Bob Parker were first on hand to assure their fellow citizens that while the church steeple had fallen and ice east of the city was reportedly affected as well and such widespread devastation as such had never been so experienced, with the demographics of New Zealand portraying a relatively youthful populace, the neighborly compassion for one another and livlihood of the city will be restored and architects are already on scene planning a rebuild where structures will withstand such earthquakes certainly not unfamiliar to New Zealand and the region.

With much patience and persistence and all of humanity lending assistance in every way possible, Christchurch will rise from such phenomenal ruin and once again become a center of commerce, arts and a diverse populace complimenting one another.

The reported leaky home crisis as a result of the liberalisation of building standards may have a play in this devastation, however I personally do not know much as to the building requirements and specifically in Christchurch, however one can bet that any and all new reconstruction over the next many, many months will result in a city which will not shake so easily!

An agrarian economy and with ties to the EU and even China, I expect that emergency funding will be available to enable New Zealand to continue to offer a modest annual income to its industry noted for its export without much disruption and hopefully its tourism numbers will not be too negatively affected as it is a beautiful and memorable destination for travel.

From here in Boston, we extend our sincere condolences to the families who lost Loved ones and we are confident that with God’s Blessings, witness to such unfortunate loss of precious Life and devastation will demand far more stringent buildings code and lend to a even more closeness and understanding from neighbor to neighbor respectful of one another’s differences and many more similarities as God’s children reminded that we too are suspended here among the planets and this our universe and that natural phenomena are very much part of our Life no matter where and we should demand accountability and transparency among those we “entrust” in their pledge to serve the public!

God Bless all!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645

Comment by John G. Comiskey

February 27, 2011 @ 7:08 am

The preparedness paradigm is a mystery or sorts and not, necessarily [deliberate hedging], a puzzle.

George F. Treverton distinguished puzzles and mysteries in an intelligence context. In the case of the former, the investigator presumes that all the pieces exists and the investigator need only put the pieces together. In the case of the latter, there is no definitive answer because the answer is contingent . The answer depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown.

see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/presence_puzzle.html

Preparedness policy makers too often purport to create a state/culture of preparedness as though it were a puzzle and not a mystery.

In the same vein, preparedness policy makers, purport to an illusory state of preparedness perfection. Vincent Lombardi, of Greenbay Packer fame, encouraged his team to strive for perfection knowing all along that they will not attain perfection. But, somewhere along the line they might attain excellence.

New Zealand’s many praiseworthy acts are laudable and should serve as a model of preparedness excellence.

KISS (keep it simple stupid) preparedness is in order: selfless and proactive behavior by the community

Comment by Mark Chubb

February 27, 2011 @ 10:50 am

Chris, the “leaky building” issue notwithstanding, New Zealand’s building codes for new construction are comparable to those of the United States, especially when it comes to seismic safety. We share a common problem though in the reluctance of people (politicians and interest groups alike) to apply these requirements or something approaching them to existing buildings. That said, Christchurch invested heavily in protecting its key heritage structures and critical facilities. And despite the evident damage, these buildings fared better than they would have otherwise.

Obviously, I share your optimism about the spirit of Cantabrians and the contribution of their diversity to their ultimate success. You are quite right to note the contribution New Zealand’s openness to trade may have on its economic capacity to rebuild as well.

John, I could not agree more with your assessment. Perhaps this explains why I am drawn to resilience over preparedness as a way of describing our goals: its about degrees not differences. Focusing on the damage rather than how people cope with it can lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about the decisions and actions people took both before and after the event.

Thanks to both of you for sharing these insights!

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