Red Cross offers lifeline for New Zealanders still cut off after quake

Published: 28 November 2016 22:05 CET

By Susan Cullinan*

Biddy and Bill Getz have been sleeping in a car ever since the 7.8 magnitude quake struck New Zealand in the early hours of 14 November.

And there’s no prospect of them returning to their house in the foreseeable future, after it was badly damaged and “yellow stickered” or declared uninhabitable by local authorities.

The quake – the second largest since European settlement - killed two people, destroyed 41 houses and buildings, and massively disrupted road, rail, water and sewerage networks. More than 140 Red Cross personnel have been in the worst affected areas since the quake, running community centres, going door to door, and distributing food, water and other essential supplies.

Despite losing their home, Biddy and Bill offer a warm country welcome. Red Cross Disaster Welfare support team member Kerstin Hanshke has dropped in with food, water and vital information. We sit in their garden, chat and assess their needs. Nearby is the rubble of their fallen chimney, broken glass and timber. Danger tape is tied around the house but it’s not stopping the chickens enjoying free range of the garden.

The night of the earthquake, Biddy says she heard a great bang. The power went out and she joked to her husband that it was the end of the world.

“And bloody hell it nearly was,” she says, wiping away tears.

Bill continues: “We stood in the doorway hanging on. It was all you could do.”

When the colossal shaking stopped Bill says he discovered their water tank – the house water supply - had smashed to the ground, pipes and plumbing were broken, the house was cracked from the foundations up, and the chimney was dangerously loose and had to be knocked down.

Nearly a fortnight after the disaster, the couple still has no toilet and no water, and they’re sleeping in a bed they’ve made up in the back of their closed ute.

Kertstin tells them she’s tracked down a campervan they can use, which has a chemical toilet. Money is tight, as with the closure of local businesses, the couples’ adult children have lost their seasonal jobs. Bill runs an engineering business from the back shed. It’ll be out of action for a fortnight.

Kerstin has information about employment opportunities for the children and income support for them all, bringing hope. 

Biddy says the Red Cross support has been invaluable.

“We can take care of ourselves, being rural people. But it’s nice to know there’s somebody else that can do that. Just making sure we are doing OK. It’s good to have an official organisation like Red Cross which is throughout New Zealand and throughout the world. It’s an assurance. You just know they’re well sorted with good professionals there.

“It gets us back on our feet so we can look after ourselves.”

She looks at Kerstin. “You’re kind. You’re thoughtful. You’re not patronising. That’s productive.”

With water unpotable and sewerage and septic systems massively damaged, the risk of disease is high. At a local primary school, Red Cross has set up a mobile hand washing station which uses minimal water, and doesn’t rely on putting water down the drains. International WASH delegate Yee Chen has been teaching local school children hand washing techniques.

She’s also overseen the distribution of chlorine to hundreds of rural people whose dam water has become unsafe after the quake stirred up sediment .

Red Cross has set up a November 2016 earthquake appeal, which has so far raised more than NZD $1.5 million. Donations can be made at:

*Susan is an Australian Red Cross media and communications adviser who has been deployed to New Zealand Red Cross to support disaster communications.