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Investigating communications after the Canterbury earthquakes – fieldwork

SerenaTagliacozzo10 September 2015

Serena Tagliacozzo is a PhD student in the IRDR who is investigating the requirements for a web-based platform to allow effective communication between authorities and citizens in the disaster recovery phase. The platform would allow citizens to effectively share their knowledge and experiences with planners and developers, and for authorities to communicate plans to interested parties. Serena has recently visited Christchurch, NZ, to discuss with citizens and authorities the effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that destroyed parts of the city. She shares her experiences in this post.

me

When I arrived in Christchurch, on the evening of the 8th August, it was dark and cold. The morning after, the city welcomed me with some snow, which fortunately stopped after few hours. Walking across the city centre, my impression was of a big construction site, with repair works in progress everywhere. The red cones dispersed throughout the city remains the symbol of the Christchurch’s struggle to recover from the devastating earthquakes that hit the Canterbury region in September 2010 and February 2011.

works

Following these two large events, the whole area experienced moderate to severe aftershocks for almost two years, making it more difficult for the repair companies to start the demolition/rebuilding of the damaged infrastructure and dwellings and for the population to return to normality. After almost five years from the earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch has now entered into the reconstruction phase. Many aspects of this reconstruction process remain controversial. For example the future of the Christchurch Cathedral (which dates back to the 19th century) is uncertain, with some people wanting to demolish it and rebuild a brand new one while others advocate preserving the historical building.

Christchurch Cathedral

The controversies do not exist solely on the rebuilding of the physical environment. The city is split socially, between those who experienced less damage and had their houses repaired in relatively short time, and those living in the most damaged areas whose property has not yet been repaired. For these people, most of who were living in the east part of the city where the liquefaction caused a drop in the ground level (which resulted in an increase of the flood risk), the recovery is far from being complete.

future

The scope of my fieldwork was to gather data on the communication practices that take place between government agencies and residents during the reconstruction phase from the Canterbury earthquakes. During the course of my fieldwork, I had the chance to interview and speak with many people from community based groups and associations born in the wake of the earthquake. All of them shared with me their stories of hope and the struggle to recover and to be listened to about their concerns for the future of their city. They also voiced a general distrust toward some of the authorities in charge with the management of the recovery process and concerns about the centralisation in the decision-making.

I also had the chance to interview and meet with government officers working in the main recovery agencies, including Christchurch City Council, Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuilding Team (SCIRT), Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), Earthquake Commission (EQC), New Zealand Police, Red Cross, District Health Board. They told me about the challenges of leading a huge recovery effort and communicating effectively with increasingly frustrated residents. They also confirmed the importance of communicating timely and accurately recovery information through a multitude of channels so that to reach out to the different social groups. Within this communication landscape, social media platforms are being embraced by government agencies to reach a broader audience.

What I will take from this fieldwork is the incredible struggle of Christchurch and the Canterbury region to bounce back (or bounce forward). Whilst some choices made regarding the management of the recovery process are debatable, it should never be forgotten that recover from a disaster is a long-lasting, complex, challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking process. This is true for the residents that live through it, as well as for the government agencies that lead it. Good communication practices between recovery agencies and residents can make this process smoother and more participative.

Disaster Risk Reduction Communication: challenges and chances

JacopoSpatafora18 August 2015

Audience5Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a rising field, growing in scientific production and relevance. DRR aims to identify causes and trends of hazards impacting human lives, in order to reduce their intensity, reduce the possibility of occurrence and tackle the resulting effects.
A key action of DRR is to share knowledge, so that the people can take adequate measures to prevent the consequences. Part of this field involves communicating with the exposed communities at risk of damages and losses, to understand their expertise and requirements. Effectively communicating DRR research to affected communities is one of the biggest challenges faced by researchers. Ineffective or missing communication leads DRR to fail one of its goals, condemning a fundamental body of knowledge to be underutilised or simply ignored. It is necessary to improve communication and fill this critical gap, in order to reduce disaster risk.

This topic shaped the debates at the Third Academic Summit and the 5th IRDR conference, held at UCL on 24th and 25th June 2015. Institutions’ representatives, DRR researchers, lecturers and practitioners had the chance to share their experience and compare their points of view at the two events, discussing current examples and future developments of DRR.
Specifically, the debates tried to answer the following questions:
– What are the most effective methods of communication for DRR?
– Which are the current trends of disaster prevention, management and recovery?
– Is academic work becoming more relevant for practitioners?
– How can students contribute to apply and improve DRR?

Throughout the two days, sharing information about natural hazards, conflicts and epidemics was repeatedly marked as a priority, in order to make the exposed communities aware of the related impacts that disasters can cause.
At the Annual Conference, Ben Lishman’s session about the Arctic Risks and Michael von Bertele’s management of the Ebola Crisis widely proved the importance of good communication, arousing high interest and participation from the attendees.
The visual communication
of data is an emerging area of interest for DRR researcher. At the Annual Conference, Ben Stuart showed the visual impact given by the combination of assembled data and graphic design, while Vanessa Banks (BGS), Richard Wall (UCL Hazard Centre) and Richard Teeuw (University of Portsmouth) offered a wide range of GIS tools and relative applications to cope with natural disasters and improve financial and business services. Digital mapping and graphic design are paving the way for a stronger and deeper intervention in the field, where the exposure to risk occurs. The latest softwares can highlight the most dangerous areas and assemble data towards an effective visual impact.

However, the use of updated tools does not mean that DRR is always appropriately explained. The shared experience from the speakers showed that there is a great comprehension of the disaster cycle in all its phases. However, it remarked also a static approach, only able to produce results within the academic environment. This contrast between research and action emerged through the debate “Training, teaching and exercising challenges” at the Academic Summit led by Gordon Macdonald (ICPEM), Dr Fredrik Bynander (CRISMART) and David Jones (Rescue Global). Mr Macdonald spoke about the need of ‘translating’ the academic language into the practitioners’ one, Dr Bynander stressed the relevant applications of scientific production for the National Defence’s activities, while Mr Jones clearly stated the necessity of the scientific research to start considering real-life issues and the practitioners’ activities.
The main points that emerged from these conferences are:
– The complexity and fertility of the most different scenarios, threatened by hazards but also studied more and more in depth.
– A strong necessity to reconsider how DRR communicates itself, for a better and common goal pursued by all those involved.
– A persistent communication gap between academics and practitioners. Both groups need to work together to bridge this gap.

The conclusion of the IRDR Conference saw the presentation of research projects by the MSc and PhD students of IRDR and other attendees. The posters’ topics spanned from physical science and engineering to the social sciences, combining detailed explanations and comprehensible graphics. However, their common trait was a strong application to risk-related issues, improving the performance of the tools and the quality of future researches.
The students’ point of view and interventions are gaining more and more relevance within the contemporary debate around the theory and practice of DRR. Part of this successful trend is given by their ability to build cross-cutting competences, to take the scientific production in the ‘real world’, and to report their field-based experiences into the universities.
Overall, productive discussions and clashing views were appreciated by the attendees, which generated the sensation of an informal discussion environment. UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction has been able to collect expertise from different fields, offering an arena for a multifaceted comparison.