Christchurch: We Are Blessed.

Some will possibly find this thought offensive.. and that is not my intention. Instead, I want to dialogue the context of international aid and disaster response. I have sat quietly on some of these thoughts since the quake.. they have whispered in the back of my mind. And not because this is a subject for debate, in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.. there is no wrong or right in this context. In the context of disaster, that is.

The floodgate moment for me, was hearing the former PM, Helen Clark being paraphrased in her comments on Christchurch’s quake and how it relates to Haiti, the disaster that took international attention last year.

What she actually said was:

“The building damage I’ve seen compared with Haiti,” Clark, who now heads the United Nations Development Programme, told Radio New Zealand on Monday, referring to the massive quake which killed at least 220,000 in the Caribbean island in January last year. “Let there be no mistake, New Zealand has suffered a tragedy of monumental proportions and it’s going to require every ounce of recovery in this country to push through from this,” she added.” (Source: AFP)

But throughout the newspapers and radio stations of our country she was paraphrased to say, “The scale of devastation in quake-hit Christchurch is comparable with the destruction wreaked in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Some of the building damage is yes, horrific and reminiscent of Port-au-Prince when I was there. However, whilst I can totally accept the comparison of how the buildings crumbled – I find it far more difficult to accept a comparison between the number of buildings that will have to be demolished in Christchurch (some 900 at current estimate) and the complete devastation of a city in Haiti. Most New Zealanders, being generous, get on with it types, are not into self-pity. Hence, I don’t like the insinuation, that seems closer to sensationalism, that the two events are equally catastrophic. And that’s not what Helen meant either.

DISCLAIMER: This is actually a positive post. No one could be prouder of my country at this point in time. The history lesson here is that we are facing our first declared national emergency. Whilst other disasters (earthquakes, train accidents, mining incidents) have attracted national and public attention, none have had the intense media coverage, revolving news, social media infrastructure, loss of life or scale of destruction as this Christchurch earthquake. Hence, we are all in a state of shock. Traumatized a little and having to learn new ways of responding to large-scale tragedy in our own backyard.

But, this is an opportunity to choose our disaster mindset. We are less than one week on from the quake and this morning local suppliers reported that 85% of the city now has power service resumed.

Just released today by PM John Key: the cost of the Christchurch quake will be some 7-8% of NZ’s GDP, hence his call for an international appeal. Our population is 4.4 million.

There are several things that will happen as a result of the international appeal, including

  • economic stimulus for the recovery and rebuilding effort, mostly funded by insurance policies of which a large number are held by offshore entities.
  • employment may go down in some sectors but will rise in others, something acknowledged for the Sept. 4 quake that will eventuate in coming months
  • international appeal funds will bring speed and haste to the recovery process, enabling more rebuilding to happen faster, lessening overall economic downtime & long range impact

In the US, Hurricane Katrina topped out with a damage bill of (approximated) of $US30o billion, but this remained just about 1% of the United States’ GDP in that year.

In Haiti, the estimated cost of recovery is $US14 billion and their GDP is $US6.69 billion (estimate 2009), with a population of approximately 10 million to provide aid and recovery for.

We are blessed. That’s what it boils down to. There is no right or wrong when it comes to who is worse off, but we have to choose as media professionals and as New Zealanders, where to focus our stories, our time and our energy.

It’s in our character that we will pick ourselves up in the midst of this tragedy. It’s the first time we are dealing with something on this scale so it’s fresh, new and frightening. Things we considered to be unthinkable have become the living, breathing subject matter of our news and day-to-day lives. We are a small nation, we live in one-degree of separation so we all know someone affected by this disaster. But similarly we all have a common responsibility to the recovery & survival process.

We are blessed. We have strong, capable leadership at the forefront of the system that will aid our recovery. We have suffered loss of life but we have the opportunity to celebrate and remember what we have lost. We have the opportunity to mourn and to stand together. We have stories of survival and hope amidst our pain and chaos.

We are blessed. We have infrastructure, equipment and the support of the nations to come to our aid. And more than in Haiti.. here they can help us. We can be helped, we can recover. When international aid dollars are given, they will be delivered in ways that are meaningful and hasten our recovery & rebuild. There will be no question over the delivery of services, as we are already planning our recovery strategy.

We are blessed. We have opportunity to fly loved ones around the country at a fraction of the cost. We have food, fuel, water, gas and basic services to give away.

  • In Haiti tonight and for 1 year, 1 month and 21 days more than 1 million people will sleep under tents, tarpaulins and makeshift accommodation. Most that I spoke to have accepted this is their rebuild. There is little expectation that they will ever be ‘relocated’ from the temporary relocation camps they have been placed in. The earthquake in Haiti killed more than 220,000 people, injured 300,000, displaced more than 1.3 million and left 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in Port-au-Prince and much of southern Haiti.
  • The lack of sewage collection and treatment set the stage for a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 3500 people (so far) and infected over 130,000 others. (BBC News)
  • 17 percent of the federal workforce was killed and all but one government building destroyed, most hospitals damaged or ruined and the economic losses were close to $7-$8 billion in 2010.

But where did the money go? The hundreds of millions that were raised and donated around the world? By the 1 year anniversary, 63% percent of funding had been distributed to rebuilding projects, a massive leap from the 19% that had been distributed in July of last year.

Perhaps more telling thought, the IHRC (Interim Haiti Recovery Commission) has approved more than $1 billion in projects that remain unfunded.

Why? Because now that there are slow but slightly progressing systems in place to make the most of the international aid and funding available, there is no longer enough. The longterm process of rebuilding a nation has been left to the Haitian government and elite classes, responsible for the many layers of corrupt & complex bureaucracy that made the efforts of international aid agencies so tough in the beginning. One wonders, without the input and investment of the United States and ongoing, controversial UN delegates, what hope there would be.

We are blessed. We are blessed because whilst we are going to ask for money from our international friends.. (we can, because we are a nation for the natio, we are the taonga of the western world), we will lead our own recovery. We have the capacity, strength and skill to stand together and stand back up.

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