The 2011 Earthquake Experience

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Below is the text of an article that was published in ‘RANZCO News’ in June 2011 about Dr McKellar’s experiences following the February earthquake in Christchurch.

Drop and cover

Malcolm McKellar, two staff members and several patients were in Harley Chambers in central Christchurch when the February earthquake struck. The shaking was very violent, throwing them, furniture and equipment everywhere. For the first time in his life it seemed like ‘drop and take cover’ was a really, really good idea.

Malcolm closed the rooms, dropped a patient home and planned to return to tidy up that evening. Only as the day wore on did the magnitude of the disaster become apparent. In fact it was five weeks before he got back into the building, having to wait for removal of the lift shaft and clearance for the surrounding buildings before Harley was deemed ‘safe’.

For the first few days after the quake Malcolm did what everyone did. Shovel silt and shit. Boil water. Teach his sons how to shovel silt and shit. Take his wheelbarrow across town and join others shovelling silt and shit. Dig a long drop. Boil water. Collect water off the roof and… boil it. Attend funerals.

Then it was time to set up office from home and find some temporary rooms to work from. He brought back equipment from his branch practice in Hokitika and took over the family dining room.

He couldn’t actually practice from home. Home was already a very crowded place. The Fitting Room, the lingerie shop he and his wife Anna own, had had to move into their house after the September quake and Anna, a public health physician is also working from home having lost her central city office. Up to 10 staff work from the lounge, dining room, study and the garage is full of bras!

When Malcolm did get back in to the Harley it was ‘Four helpers, hard hats, fluoro’s and you have an hour’. Time to hire some very strong lads to run up and down two flights of stairs. Inside things were worse that everyone remembered. Bent, broken, scattered, dust covered and rain damaged. USAR had smashed open all the doors and the lunch Malcolm had made and taken to work on the 22nd was inedible. There was no time for niceties. ‘It’s a laser, be as careful as you can and chuck it in my mates trailer with the OCT machine.’

Some equipment needed replacement and repairs are ongoing but surprisingly most of Malcolm’s Art Deco collection survived, probably because it was the best secured.

Currently Malcolm is consulting from three different locations around Christchurch, lugging suitcases from place to place. Set up, pack up, set up…. Very tiring and you have to think about all the little things you take for granted. Where will I see an acute tomorrow? Have I got enough Alcaine left in suitcase A? Even getting to and from peripheral clinics was interesting at first. Commuting by bicycle as usual isn’t possible at present. Routes change daily and having a four wheel drive really did help get to work at the beginning.

Everyday consulting remains a challenge. There’s been massive disruption to people’s lives. Some patient’s lives have been devastated – son’s killed, houses and businesses lost. Folk are often tearful and they need to talk about what has happened. Every consultation takes more time. Cancelled appointments, DNAs, loss of medications, reluctance to have surgery, loss of social support etc are very common.

After a fortnight it became apparent there would be a long wait before the Harley building and indeed the central city would reopen. Malcolm remembers wondering a week or so before the earthquake whether he would work in his consulting room for the remainder of his life. Clearly the answer now was no. It was a sad moment when he notified the landlord he would not be returning. Working in the inner city had been great and the view over the river was wonderful. And like a home, your consulting room is full of many rich memories.

Malcolm walked and drove the streets of Christchurch and finally bought two adjacent houses in Riccarton to convert to consulting rooms and car parking. In about three weeks he hopes to move in. It’s been a stressful time, not just organising everything but doing so within a regulatory vacuum. Need a valuer, engineer, council planner or insurance? Yeah right! He has no resource or building consent. These will have to be sorted retrospectively so everything has to be over specified and carefully recorded.

In the meantime Malcolm decided that he would not let the quake wreck his year entirely. He had already enrolled to study Art History at Canterbury University and is revelling in the ‘Picasso Who?’ course. You need something to cheer you up. Even if lectures are in a tent.

So what has Malcolm learned from the experience?

Everything must be secured. BECA, one of the local engineering companies say that even filing cabinets were deadly, falling over and blocking doors. If you can move an object, so can mother nature. Secure it NOW.

The Medical Assurance Society is the best insurance company in NZ. Absolutely fantastic to work with. Business interruption insurance is helpful but continuing to trade is vital. Remember, ‘loss of attraction’ of patients is not insurable. Many businesses have suffered a huge decrease in customer numbers. You get no compensation if you are able to trade but no one comes.

Think carefully about the buildings you own or rent. They could be the death of you. Should you strengthen or move?

Don’t rely on ‘the trade’ as your warehouse. Many of our suppliers work on a ‘just in time’ model. Think you can get replacement equipment quickly? Think again. It’s 6 -8 weeks for most things.

Everyone is stressed. You, your staff, your patients. You need to keep short accounts with each other. Everyone has some good ideas. Keep talking. Do some social stuff. Take time out. Admit you’re tired. Ask for advice.

Have an emergency plan. You can’t control everything but thinking ahead helps. In many ways the lessons learned from the September earthquake were very valuable. Draw up an ABCD list of what you would do in an emergency and get on to things within minutes rather than days. One of Malcolm’s business friends rented 4 empty office blocks the afternoon of the earthquake, knowing she would be able to sublet them out the next day. Big corporations move very fast, buying up stocks of everything. One law firm ordered 50 new Dictaphones. You need to act fast too.

Cell phones are useless in an emergency. Get an old plug in phone. Get your emergency plan and supplies ready NOW.

Back up is good but what if you can’t get a computer to reinstall the data on? It took 10 working days to have Malcolm’s electronic patient management system up and running. He can talk VPN and remote access with the best of them but the reality is these systems are slower and less reliable. Have a spare computer.

Make sure you have copies of ALL essential info. It’s great to have electronic records backed up but what about those ‘little black books’ where all the essential contacts, passwords etc are kept. At least keep a photocopy off site.

Decide what you would need as a minimum to trade and put it in the back room. Not the back room at work of course.

You need to think laterally. Can’t get a computer in Christchurch? Get a relative to bring one down from Auckland. Rent one from a student. Share. Loot. OK, don’t loot. There are police and army everywhere. It’s just not worth it.

Adopt a positive approach and swim against the tide. Sometimes trying circumstances present surprising opportunities. Malcolm’s new rooms are only 700m from home.

Even when your life is busy you can fit more in. Malcolm thought having newborn twins was tiring. This was worse. But when he thought his lot was rough listening to the stories of his patients and friends left him marvelling at how many coped with much greater suffering. We are really a very soft generation. As Dave Dobbyn chided Christchurch after the September quake – ‘Hey, no one’s shooting at you!’

Earthquake Digging

Malcolm’s two 10 year old sons shovelling liquifaction at someones house. People went door to door, clearing up, even if no one was home.

It’s difficult times like these that let you find out who your friends really are. Malcolm and Anna and their staff are very grateful to all those who have sent messages and helped in many practical ways.

Disasters force us to think about the big questions. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What would I do if I lost everything or everyone? What and who are the things that are important to me? What should I be doing differently?

Have a good water diversion system built into your downpipes and keep a shovel handy in case shit happens, because it just might, perhaps next time in Wellington, or Auckland or… your town.

Other earthquake experiences

These two articles appeared in the New Zealand Optics magazine. Read about the ‘Red Bus Tour’ that Dr McKellar and optometrist Trudy McLean organised and Trudy’s rebuild experience.