Lessons from People in Disasters

By Lucy-Jane Walsh

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the People in Disasters Conference at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch. The conference is held annually by the Christchurch District Health Board (CDHB) and RHISE (Researching the Health Implications of Seismic Events group) and aims to showcase the ‘real life’ stories of people who have lived through disasters, or have worked in health and emergency services.  This year the speakers ranged from international diplomats to medical researchers, poets, clown doctors, and lawyers. It focussed on the policies in place to take care of responders living and working in disasters, and explored the post-disaster phases of recovery, such as the infrastructure rebuild, the healthcare response, community resilience and recovery, and the recovery of mental health. 

CEISMIC was invited to the conference to film the proceedings for the archive. We recorded the presentations by the keynote and guest speakers, the panel discussions, and the many sessions that occurred in the main hall. Around 30 of these presentations have been added to the archive this week and can be downloaded and viewed in UC QuakeStudies. 

What struck me about this conference is the sheer amount of knowledge that has been generated by the health sector as a result of the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes and other natural disasters. A notable example of this is Alexander McFarlane’s presentation on mental health lessons, in which he discussed several studies on post-traumatic stress disorders. McFarlane revealed that the bulk of people who suffer from post-traumatic stress after a disaster actually show no signs of stress in the short-term. The problem with this is that many of the mental health support systems that are set up after natural disasters are based around the thinking that people will get progressively better if you leave them alone. In reality, there is a delayed onset of post-traumatic stress that we need to plan for.

Another example of interesting learnings arising from the Canterbury earthquakes is from Professor David Johnson’s presentation about injury prevention and risk communication. As Johnson points out, public education around how to act during a natural disaster does not have a strong evidence base – that is, there is no concrete proof that the advice giving to the public is the best advice. Johnson used injury data after the Canterbury earthquakes from ACC to analyse the context, cause, and types of injuries that occurred. He also used earthquake video footage to analyse human behaviour to strong earthquake shaking. Through these two methods, he found that a high rate of injuries occurred due to people undertaking inappropriate actions during the earthquakes and aftershocks (e.g. moving around), and that stopping to assess the situation before ‘dropping’ is often a better response to a quake. 

What is stressed in both these presentations, and many of the other fantastic talks from this conference, is the importance of recording the lessons that health professionals learn from natural disasters, so that they can aid other communities in the future. To quote Alexander McFarlane, “One of the major challenges is to think about why do people forget and why don’t people learn, and what can we do to change that?” It is my hope that by archiving these videos, CEISMIC is pushing against this phenomenon, providing a space where health workers and researchers can discover and revisit the lessons that were shared at this conference.