Prior to the earthquakes I was practising as a psychotherapist.
Within the first couple of weeks after the devastating February 22 earthquake (2011) a tremendous initiative quickly sprung into operation. It was decided that the Christchurch population’s welfare should be assessed in order to get a more complete understanding of the impact of this event on its citizens. In order to achieve this, a large team of volunteers were called upon from around the city and around the country. The group was to make an assessment of the emotional and physical well-being of the residents of Christchurch City. It was an amazing initiative and I was really impressed by the level of organization.It brought together a group of some 4000 volunteers every morning who worked all day to canvas the entire City population. This group consisted of builders, engineers, counsellors, and psychotherapists – all of whom volunteered their time and energy, and many of whom had gone through the same experience themselves only days earlier. Every day for 10 days this group met at the Westpac Stadium at 7.00am for an early morning briefing. Part of this group of volunteers consisted of a small group known as the ‘flying squad’. I was in one of the flying squads.
The flying squads were specialist teams of three (two therapists/counsellors and a support person, usually a member of the police) who were assigned a vehicle and responsible for responding to call-outs from the many teams who were going door to door making initial assessments of the status of residents. Some days these teams visited 11,000 households. What a tremendous effort! When they came across a resident about who they were concerned or whose emotional status they were unsure about or a family that clearly required more specialist assistance, one of the flying quads would be contacted. We would be given the address of the household concerned and some basic background information regarding the personal circumstances and would then immediately make a follow-up visit to the individual or family. At this point a detailed emotional assessment of the individuals and their circumstances was made.
These visits might last from one to three hours dependent upon requirements. Often these were people with already existing mental health issues or families with severely handicapped members or the aged with severe mobility issues etc. If further action was required, the details of the recommended action was then phoned into a central contact point and further mental health or social service support arranged as well as additional follow up calls made.
Travelling to these various locations provided me with tremendous insight into the degree of devastation and chaos the City faces. It was also clear that different parts of the City had fared very differently, some with relatively minor damage whereas other parts absolutely devastated. The physical damaged was also mirrored in the emotional impact of the City’s citizens. People were finding ways to cope as best they could.
In some parts of the city I was touched by the tremendous support the communities showed toward each other, in other parts of the city I was struck by the ghost like nature of the place – thousands of people had simply just left, houses locked, empty, seemingly abandoned. It was eerie driving around the empty streets and suburbs.
At times I did feel as though I was driving through a war zone, especially on the periphery of the cordoned off areas of the Central City. Seeing the barricades and the army uniforms everywhere is a sight I shall never forget. It sent shivers up my spine. Christchurch has been through so much in the last 2 years, we have all been through so much and life has changed forever.
For those of you interested in more detail, my husband wrote the article below published in Bereavement Care:
Herman H. van der Kloot Meijburg, “Kia Kaha: A personal Account of the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes”, Bereavement Care, Nov 2011.
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