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Acts of God

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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