Read all about it

by Rebecca Macfie / 18 April, 2011
In the weeks after the earthquake, the people of Redcliffs rediscovered the true meaning of social media.

Two days after February’s earthquake Vicki Hyde’s mother, Kathleen O’Reilly, disappeared. O’Reilly lives just around the corner from Hyde, her husband, Peter, and their three children in the suburb of Redcliffs.

Late on the Thursday night two days after the quake, the police turned up at the Hydes’ house to order their evacuation because of fears of rockfall from the cliffs behind the suburb. They were told 79-year-old O’Reilly had been evacuated, too, but no one knew where she’d been taken. They assumed she was in safe hands, and gathered up a few possessions and headed to a friend’s house, unsure if or when they would be allowed home.

Next morning, the cordon had been moved behind both their house and O’Reilly’s, and there seemed to be nothing to stop them going home. They asked the lone policeman manning the barrier where evacuees had been taken. He didn’t know, but suggested they try one of the temporary welfare centres.

So they headed off to a chaotic Cowles Stadium in the eastern suburb of Aranui and hunted for O’Reilly there. No luck. They tried Pioneer Stadium, in the southern suburb of Spreydon. Nothing. No one seemed to have a list of evacuees.

They got home to find a note from O’Reilly. It turned out she had been taken around the block to the local bowling club, and had spent the night worrying about their whereabouts.

The Hydes figured their experience of the information vacuum was probably typical of many. The authorities were telling people to check for information on websites, but that was no use to households without power; 0800 numbers had been set up, but cellphone batteries were dead or dying.

Decisions made by one agency were sometimes obviated by the actions of another (for instance, a water tank was delivered to Redcliffs School, but it was sealed off behind a cordon).

The two-way flow of information between neighbourhoods and authorities the Hydes expected to be channelled through Civil Defence sector posts wasn’t happening. So on day three they carted a noticeboard, paper and pens, table and gazebo from their home to the main road through Redcliffs.

They parked their nascent “Redcliffs InfoPoint” on the footpath next to a generator powering a Telecom cellphone tower, from which it was discovered cellphones could be charged. Soon, locals were stopping to pin information to the noticeboard and plug their phones into the generator.

On day four the Hydes lugged a printer down to their pop-up communications enterprise and plugged it into the generator; the following day they published the first Redcliffs news-sheet. It was full of useful information: warnings about the sewage leak near the terminally damaged local New World; where to go for food and petrol; whether it was okay to flush the toilet; lost and found pets.

Workers from lines company Orion set up alongside the InfoPoint and passed on street-by-street updates on when power was likely to be restored – information that helped stressed families decide whether to stay put or bail. A security worker employed to guard the New World became an integral part of the operation, with locals passing him information, which he passed on to the Hydes.

When their power came back on (day eight) they tapped into more traditional forms of social media: the news-sheet was posted online (see; Peter blogged; and they put the word out through their networks for goods to help the hard-hit and under-serviced eastern suburbs. By March 27 they had published eight editions of the news-sheet.

Nearly eight weeks on, the Hydes are refocusing on their website and software business and other locals have taken over the InfoPoint. But the need for reliable information to help people achieve a semblance of order in a disordered city hasn’t gone away. And the lesson from the information vacuum is clear: to help communities through future disasters, says Peter Hyde, emergency services need to focus much more on local information flows.

“If you do that, communities will support themselves, but they’ll be able to do it more effectively, and in turn the emergency services will be much more efficient.”
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