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Stuart and Tiffany Whelan’s family was still recovering from the September 2010 magnitude 7.1 quake when the February 2011 earthquake struck Christchurch. They had just spent the past few months moving from one temporary accommodation to another, and they were only in their rental home at New Brighton two weeks when it hit. At the time, both their kids were at school, Stuart was at the office, while Tiffany was at home sick.
Recalling the experience, Tiffany says, “I was sitting on the couch when it happened. Everything started to shake. I could see the TV moving back and forth, and lots of things fell out of the cupboard. My first thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s happening again.’”
When the shaking subsided, Tiffany immediately went to pick up their kids from school.
“I was thankful I was at home that day because I was only five minutes away from our kids’ school. If I was at work then, I would have been trapped like my co-teachers,” says Tiffany, referring to her fellow educators at Van Asch Deaf Education Centre at Sumner who had to stay there overnight due to the damaged roads.
Along the way, she could see liquefaction on the road caused by the ground’s intense movements. When she arrived at the school, Tiffany found all the kids gathered on the lawn.
“A number of kids were crying, and when I saw them crying, it was hard for me not to cry. We all knew it would take months to get things sorted. It was quite upsetting, but even though it was upsetting, I knew that we’d got through it before, so I believed that we would be able to get through it again,” she said.
The Whelan were among the families who lost their homes to the September 2010 earthquake. Their house sustained severe structural damage and it was later deemed unsafe to enter by the authorities. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough time to collect their possessions from what was left of their home.
“Initially, we thought we’d still be able to come back, so we left some of our stuff. We only got summer things, and we left all our winter stuff there… And when we started to realise that we wouldn’t be able to go back, it was already too late. The house had become unsafe for us to collect our things, so we just took a video of all the items we had left ,” explains Tiffany.
Fortunately, the rental property they were staying in during the February 2011 earthquake remained intact, so finding a place to stay was the least of their worries. However, it did not necessarily mean that challenges would not come their way.
“We lost access to basic services like power and water for weeks due to severe structural damages in the area. We were living in East Christchurch, which was heavily impacted. We had no water, no working toilet, and we had to figure everything out for ourselves. It made everyday life harder,” says Stuart.
According to Tiffany, their situation somehow paved the way to a drastic change in the daily lives of people in their community.
She elaborates: “A lot of things happened, which created a ‘new normal’ for us, and emptying the toilet every day in the tanks down the street became part of it.”
“I remember at one point, I would stop on the way home from work to get water in one suburb, and then we would go and have a shower in someone’s house at another suburb, and then we lived in a different suburb, and I had to go to someone else’s house to wash our clothes in a washing machine. We had to go to different places to get the basics. That stuff became normal.”
At such a challenging time, the couple noted that what helped them to cope and heal was the strong spirit of community that they had witnessed amid the crisis.
“It was inspiring to see how people were looking after each other. In the immediate aftermath, we saw a lot of people who came out and drove around to look for ways to help. I was volunteering for Civil Defence then, and then there were people like Tiffany and our boys who went out offering to help people shovel. I even remember one elderly person driving around offering cups of tea and scones to people. I think that kind of sense of community is what helped the people in Christchurch cope in such ordeal,” says Stuart.
Nine years on
Now, nine years after, a lot has already changed, but the valuable lessons left by the memorable experience have stuck with them. With the intent of connecting with their new community —and fulfilling their commitment to be of service to others— they both joined Red Cross’ Disaster Welfare and Support Team when they moved to Auckland in 2018.
According to Stuart, “Joining the team is a good way for us to be connected with our community, to get new skills, and even challenge ourselves in a way. It helps us become the best responders we can be for our own family and community in case of an emergency.”
"At the moment, we [the disaster response team] play an active role in preparedness. We connect and speak with our neighbours, encouraging them to prepare themselves for potential emergencies, sharing our experience in Christchurch, and directing people to the right resources.”
“As someone who has been at the receiving end, we want to be able to help our community in times when it needs help, and we want to be empowered to do that."
A long road to recovery
New Zealand Red Cross immediately kicked into action following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Thanks to the generosity of Kiwis and people from all over the world, we were able to offer grants programme, emotional support, winter warmer packs, support to youth and so much more. New Zealand Red Cross has been here for good, supporting affected communities for the past nine years in their recovery journey.