By Andy McElroy
SUVA, 3 June 2014 – Not one child died at a school or kindergarten during the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. It was one of the few bright spots from the major disaster that hit New Zealand’s principal city of its South Island.
That remarkable statistic was also a resounding endorsement of the country’s efforts to teach its children to ‘Drop, Cover & Hold’ during earthquake.
New Zealand’s Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Management H.E. Ambassador Philip Gibson was there on that tragic day in Christchurch and as a father knows from personal experience the terror of not knowing whether your children are safe in a time of disaster.
Amb. Gibson recounted his memory of that day at the 6th Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management, in Fiji, to encourage other countries to step up their efforts to keep their schoolchildren safe.
“That day I was on my way to lunch with my wife and 55 minutes later our lives changed forever. As a career diplomat for 40 or so years I thought I had seen it all but it is different when it happens in your own backyard. Running back to find out what had happened to our kids is an experience that never leaves me,” Amb. Gibson said.
“Looking back now and remembering that not one child died at a school or kindergarten premises in Christchurch on that day is pretty amazing and that is in large part because New Zealand kids and teachers know what to do in an earthquake.”
Amb. Gibson said the lesson of safe schools in Christchurch had wider implication and application. “It reinforced a very simple but vital message in my mind and that is: ‘Be Prepared’. It means being pragmatic, practical … frankly it means keeping things simple and doing the simple things well.
“In the final analysis it all boils down to the child in the classroom, person in the street, the person in the paddy field and the person in the boat. They are the ones who have to understand any information designed to help them stay safe.”
Amb. Gibson said ‘international connectivity’ is crucial so that lessons are shared to save lives, livelihoods and critical infrastructure such as schools.
“We’re all in this together; we all suffer from natural hazards of one type or another and so international connectivity is crucial. For instance, we have all learnt from the Thai floods experience, the various disasters in the Pacific, and last year’s Typhoon Haiyan in Philippines. And indeed, the lessons from Christchurch have some relevance here in the rest of the Pacific.”
One vibrant example of Amb Gibson’s call for ‘international connectivity’ is UNISDR’s efforts to promote a Safe Schools campaign ahead of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, in Japan, in 2015. The campaign promotes: disaster risk reduction on school curriculums; hazard-resistant school structures; and prioritizing school disaster preparedness and response.