Christchurch Earthquake: Teams in Motion

Posted by David Huebner
March 8, 2011
Rescue Teams in Christchurch, New Zealand

It has been quite awhile since I last posted to the blog. I very much regret the extended silence, but I assure you it wasn't a result of inattention or lack of motivation.

Since 12:51 p.m. on Tuesday, February 22, we at the embassy have laser-focused our attention and efforts on responding to the Christchurch earthquake. As I will describe below, when a natural disaster or other crisis strikes, an embassy has a wide range of critical functions to perform, and those activities necessarily push everything else off the table for awhile.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, about a dozen of my colleagues and I were in Christchurch February 20-22 for the U.S.-New Zealand Partnership Forum at the AMI Stadium, along with almost 200 other attendees. The forum convenes every 18 months, alternating between Washington and New Zealand, to discuss bilateral and business topics. There are usually 50 official delegates from each country, plus spouses and a variety of presenters and observers.

This year's event drew the largest and most impressive American delegation to visit New Zealand in decades, and perhaps ever. We had attendees who currently serve or have previously served as Senator, Congressman, Governor, Ambassador, U.S. Trade Representative, Deputy Secretary of State, Assistant Secretary of State, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, Admiral, miliary service chief, and presidents and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

In addition, we had the first-ever Future Partners Forum, a parallel conference that brought together 11 Kiwi students (mostly members of our university-based American Ambassador Advisors groups) and 11 American students (Fulbright Scholars posted in New Zealand) to discuss the same topics as the official delegates. The Future Partners met at AMI Stadium in a room adjacent to the main forum and participated in certain plenary sessions with everyone else.

I had the great honor of joining Prime Minister Key in making opening keynote addresses to the main Partnership Forum, and then the great pleasure of greeting the students and opening the Future Partners Forum.

Because of the tightness of their schedule, our eight Congressmen could not stay for the entire conference. Thus, I left Christchurch with them the morning of Tuesday, February 22, a couple hours before the quake to get to meetings in Wellington. I was sitting at lunch at the Beehive with the Congressmen and a group of parliamentarians when I received at 12:53 p.m. a text message alerting me that a major seismic event was occurring on the Mainland. I stepped out of the lunch, called the embassy, emailed my colleagues still in the earthquake zone, and spent the next 10 minutes assessing the situation.

We quickly established a chain of command among the embassy team on the ground in Christchurch. Because it sounded bad in the city, we made the decision to establish a muster and shelter site at the U.S. Antarctic program facilities near the airport. We tasked specific colleagues to remain at AMI Stadium to handle evacuations, and others to make their way across the city as best they could to set up the muster site and operational base.

AMI Stadium sustained damage, and there were minor injuries among the forum participants. Fortunately, despite dramatic liquefaction on the pitch and around the facility, folks were able to evacuate safely. Unfortunately, not everyone was at the stadium at the time, and there were attendees scattered across the Christchurch area. We later learned that there were several very close calls for several of our delegates, colleagues, and spouses who were at the Cathedral or at lunch when the quake struck.

One of my embassy colleagues was near the Christchurch Art Gallery at the time. Thinking quickly, she approached a bus driver, Simon McKenzie of Leopard Coachlines, whose route had been disrupted, and asked him if he would drive her back to AMI Stadium. He immediately agreed, despite concern for his own family. It took hours because of road damage and street blockages, but Simon, my embassy colleagues, our good friends from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and the extraordinary folks from the Department of Internal Affair's Visits and Ceremonial Office managed to locate and evacuate all of the forum participants to the U.S. Antarctic Center.

Back on the North Island, we divided into teams focused on our two main imperatives when crisis hits: locate and assist American citizens (AmCits) in distress, and mobilize U.S. Government resources to assist local authorities in preserving life and addressing urgent humanitarian needs.

Our team at the Consulate General in Auckland took the lead on AmCits issues. They immediately established telephone and email hotlines, so that anyone seeking or offering information about Americans believed to be in Canterbury could reach us. The team went to 24-hour service, called in additional assistance, and set up AmCits service counters at the commercial and military air terminals in Auckland and Wellington.

My friend Jeff Bleich, U.S. Ambassador to Australia, emailed to offer assistance. We took him up on his offer, and four consular officers and staff arrived from our sister Mission in Australia within 18 hours of the quake. Nathan Austen, the American Vice Consul at Embassy Dhaka, Bangladesh, happened to be in Christchurch on holiday. Once we safely evacuated his wife and infant child to Wellington, he jumped in to assist as well.

Consular services are a priority when a natural disaster strikes. Families are desperate to reach loved ones. Visitors are left without their passports, luggage, phones, computers, and even their wallets when they flee collapsing structures or are stranded far from their hotels. People are left without food, water, shelter, transportation, or communications. They are often injured and end up in hospitals, separated from loved ones. People die. It is the consular team at the embassy that immediately mobilizes to provide assistance to Americans facing such distress and tragedy.

In Wellington, I issued a formal declaration of disaster, cabled my findings to Washington, and submitted a list of requests to the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). OFDA immediately granted the embassy $100,000 in emergency relief funding, which we in turn wired to the New Zealand Red Cross to support their humanitarian relief work. OFDA also put specialized search and rescue teams on standby in the United States so that we could react quickly to any request for assistance from the Government of New Zealand.

Within 90 minutes of the quake, our visiting Congressmen and I met with Foreign Minister Murray McCully to express our condolences and solidarity, and to convey the U.S. Government's readiness to provide whatever assistance might be helpful. The Congressmen and I then walked from the Beehive to St. Paul's Cathedral to offer prayers for those impacted by the quake.

We lowered to half staff the flags at the Embassy Chancery, the Consulate General, and the Chief of Mission Residence after the quake struck. And we will keep the flags lowered until we are advised that everyone has been recovered from the rubble of February 22.

To avoid voice telecom overloads and disruptions, we began pushing out information and conducting conversations via Twitter and SMS. The tweets proved effective in directing to the muster site those separated from the Partnership Forum, helping us locate other stragglers, and disseminating emergency contact numbers and alerts. We were able to determine the whereabouts of one of our senior delegates, for example, because of the multiple responses to a tweeted call for information.

Our political team immediately began the process of collecting and cabling information back to Washington so that our interagency colleagues were kept abreast of developments, issues, and needs in real time. Because of that cabling, critical emergency aid was approved and deployed to Christchurch quickly and efficiently.

Back on the ground in Christchurch, my embassy colleagues divided into teams and began regular sweeps of hospitals, triage centers, shelters, public parks, and the morgue looking for American citizens. For four days they staged from our Antarctic Program offices -- sleeping for a couple hours now and then on the floor and foraying into the suburbs and surrounding towns. We were greatly assisted by an extraordinary New Zealand Police Officer named Blue Young, who adopted our team, provided food and transportation, and facilitated our movements into cordon zones.

We were also very fortunate that our colleague Tim Manning, the number two guy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was in town for the Partnership Forum. Tim has extensive experience -- not only as an emergency manager but also as an actual first responder in disaster situations. Tim immediately separated from the Partnership Forum group, linked up with New Zealand Civil Defence friends, and deployed with a Kiwi team doing building-to-building searches for survivors. Tim continued on in Christchurch for four days, working around the clock from our base at the Antarctic Center.

I hesitate to name names, because the entire U.S. Mission in New Zealand performed superbly under great pressure. Everyone employed in the consulate, at the embassy, and on the ground in Christchurch had a role to play, and each person gave 110 percent.

As my colleagues will tell you, I don't believe in idle praise, gratuitous compliments, or lax standards. Life is too short, and sincerity is too precious for that. So, I mean it when I say that I couldn't be more proud of my team, and I cannot imagine anyone doing a better job. When all hell broke loose around them, they stayed focused, worked efficiently and effectively, and helped many hundreds of people in distress.

Over the course of the first week after the quake, the multi-city team accounted for all but six of the 2,000 Americans thought to be in Christchurch at the time, issued almost 200 emergency replacement passports, fielded more than 1,500 American citizen inquiriesm managed air, ground, and sea evacuations of several hundred people, and arranged accommodations, food, and loans for those in need.

I have special praise, though, for my colleagues who stayed in Christchurch when the rest of the Partnership Forum evacuated -- Mike Layne (Economic Officer / Mission Disaster Relief Officer), Dana Deree (Consular Officer), Josh Greene (Security Officer), Mary-Lou Forrest (Management Specialist), Janine Burns (Media Specialist), Laura Scandurra (Agricultural Attache), Shauna Mendez (Librarian), Adrian Pratt (Public Affairs Officer), Tracey Zemanek (Finance Specialist), and Michele Petersen (our Department of State Desk Officer visiting from Washington).

Whatever their normal job descriptions, they came together as a team and did what was necessary -- with only the clothes on their backs and the tools they had with them when the quake struck. As I told them when I returned to Christchurch on February 24, it was a blessing that they were in Christchurch. We had exactly the right people in the right place at the right time to do the job we had to do.

That night (the 24th) -- in perhaps the emotional high point of the week -- much of the team and I stood on the tarmac at Christchurch airport and watched a chartered United Airlines 747 land with a six-person U.S. Government Disaster Assistance and Rescue (DART) team, an 84-person Los Angeles County Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team, and 40 tons of supplies and high-tech equipment. We drove with the team to Latimer Square where they built their encampment and began to deploy to collapsed buildings in the city.

As I write this, we continue our efforts.

Our search and rescue team is currently deployed in the 18-story Forsyth Barr Building, working to recover victims believed to be in the collapsed stairwell. The majority of the 90 American rescuers who flew in will remain at least another week, until the Government of New Zealand runs out of tasks to assign them.

We have made our U.S. Army Corps of Engineers available to New Zealand authorities to discuss the upcoming demolition work required to bring down and remove irremediably damaged structures.

We are fielding multiple other requests and offers from government, philanthropic, and private sources, and attempting to add value by screening and matching offers to needs.

We will be sending an embassy/consulate team back to Christchurch this week to do another round of AmCits activities, including the most difficult task a Consular Officer can face.

And we'll keep at it as long as needed. Because that's why we're here.

Editor's Note: Ambassador Huebner's entry first appeared on his blog here. You can find more information about the U.S. response to the Christchurch earthquake here.

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