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On 22 February 2011, disaster response volunteer Trudy Taylor was in her home in Whanganui when she felt the ground shaking. She huddled around the radio with her husband as they listened anxiously to the announcement that a 6.3 magnitude earthquake had hit the Canterbury region.
A week later, she was on a flight with fellow members of the Disaster Welfare and Support Team (DWST) heading to Christchurch to assist with New Zealand Red Cross’ response efforts.
“I joined the second wave of responders. By the time I had arrived, there was infrastructure already in place. I took on the role of the Outreach Coordinator, which meant my role was to organise the teams to go into different areas to assist people,” explains Trudy.
Trudy was based in the Emergency Operations Centre, along with the other emergency organisations responding to the disaster. The space was shared with volunteers who were taking calls from affected members of the public. Trudy would receive lists of individuals who needed assistance and assist teams to help.
“It was like a maze trying to find anyone in that centre. You would get to know who your key people were,” says Trudy.
Sending teams to locations where people needed assistance can be challenging in the ever-changing landscape of the city.
“You could drive somewhere and 10 minutes later, you weren’t allowed to drive down that road anymore. Suddenly there was a big sinkhole. That’s why I tried to organise it so that teams could stay in the same area for most of the time, to reduce the travel time needed,” says Trudy.
New Zealand Red Cross disaster response teams went into neighbourhoods to conduct welfare checks and to listen to what people needed. Some tasks they performed included picking up prescriptions, taking individuals to the GP or even digging holes in people’s backyards who no longer had access to a toilet.
One of the stories that stuck with Trudy was when she got a call from one of the disaster response volunteers on the ground who told her about a woman they had assisted earlier on that day.
“They [disaster response volunteers] had taken her to the showers and the showers were cold. But she was so grateful because she hadn’t showered in a week and just stood there and cried and repeated ‘thank you so much’. It’s those stories that hit home and make you realise why we are there and why we are doing it,” recalls Trudy.
The emotional toll on people
With busy days that turned into weeks, the disaster response teams didn’t get many opportunities to reflect on the magnitude of the situation. They were focused on the task at hand until aftershocks would remind them of the reality they were in.
“You could hear everyone holding their breath when those big aftershocks come through and there were people who you could tell they were locals because they were the ones who would dive under the tables and just sit there trembling,” says Trudy.
One of the hardest things for Trudy, personally, was the drive to work each morning.
“Getting dropped off we would have to take a different route each day. We would pass people who were going back into their homes to retrieve items. It was heart-breaking enough seeing it from the car, imagine being in the middle of it,” explains Trudy.
When assigning groups, Trudy would try to pair a local Christchurch disaster response team member with a team member from another city. This was done to use the local’s knowledge of the roads and to make sure they had someone to speak to if they needed to.
“There was certainly a lot of stress. You could see that people were going through hard times. We get taught it so often in Psychological First Aid courses to look out for signs. Often, it’s the little signs. Not laughing, or the opposite where everything is hilarious. You just started seeing the small cracks. One of the hardest things for local people is not helping. You must be able to manage that,” says Trudy.
The frustration of not being able to help your people is one that resonates with Trudy, who has responded to her fair share of disasters over the years.
“One of the hardest things is when you’re on a local team and it’s your community affected is not doing anything. That’s what you’ve trained for, you want to help your community. I found that when working [responding to disasters] in Whanganui - going about your daily routine or going to work is hard because where you want to be is out there helping,” says Trudy.
From Whanganui to Christchurch with love
After an exhausting four days in Christchurch, Trudy was sitting at the airport when she, for the first time, started to realise the significance of Red Cross being in Christchurch.
“At the end of my deployment, I got dropped off at the airport. I was still in my uniform, thinking about how I hadn’t had a chance to shower for four days, while sitting waiting for my flight. I had numerous people come up to me and shake my hand and say thank you. One lady hugged me and said: ‘Red Cross has done such wonderful things for me in the last three days. I can’t thank you enough.’ It was so heart-warming and those are the things that stood out to me,” recalls Trudy.
Trudy returned to Whanganui and went straight back into work but her thoughts were still in Christchurch.
“You didn’t have time to process until you were away from the place. It was mentally and physically exhausting. When I came back home, it was hard for those first few days to think normally again, because all you’re thinking about is what else can I do for those people. We’re so lucky, we haven’t gone through that,” reflects Trudy.
The experience of being a part of Red Cross’ response in Canterbury, 10 years ago, is one that will stay with Trudy forever.
“It’s was that anchor point for me, why I volunteer for the Red Cross. For me, that’s what the Red Cross is all about, that humanitarian part is just amazing. That cemented in for me that I should keep going and continue with what I’m doing. It was meaningful and it stood for all our principles and that’s why we’re there,” says Trudy.
Ready when needed
Our disaster response volunteers train all year round to be ready to deploy, should a disaster happen. From providing first aid to emotional support and support with evacuation, our volunteers are multi-skilled and available to support people affected by a disaster at a moment’s notice.
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