When is a disaster not ‘a disaster’?


Police, fire and ambulance services rushed to the scene. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were there too. And, at the call of Auckland Civil Defence ADRA staff began planning a response.

Following a 9.3 magnitude earthquake a deadly tsunami had swept through the Whangateau, Leigh and Point Wells communities north of Auckland. If assistance didn’t reach those affected soon the death toll was set to climb rapidly.

The situation may not have been real—but our response was. It’s important that we are ready to respond to disasters quickly and effectively. These exercises ensure we are prepared.

All of this occurred in early November, but the disaster never made the national news. Why?

It was just an exercise.

Exercise Wharenga

“Exercise Wharenga was a two-day operation that tested the systems and practices of the local community and organisations like ADRA following a large-scale, natural disaster,” said Robert Patton, Emergency Management director for ADRA New Zealand. Robert, who instigated the exercise, plans numerous simulations across the globe each year.

“The situation may not have been real—but our response was. It’s important that we are ready to respond to disasters quickly and effectively. These exercises ensure we are prepared.”

ADRA staff and volunteers from New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were brought together as part of ADRA’s South Pacific Emergency Response Team. Members of this team are on stand-by year-round to respond to disasters that occur in the pacific, most frequently severe flooding and cyclones.

All hands on deck!

After two days of training the ADRA team entered the simulation, quickly moving to the affected area and liaising with Auckland Council, emergency services and community organisations to plan a response. A “rapid needs assessment” was carried out—a surveying process that allowed the team to quickly identify the most pressing needs of the community and begin planning their response.

In this case, water tanks had been inundated with salt water and other water infrastructure destroyed. Not only was dehydration a risk, but so too the spread of disease.

Across the Pacific ADRA holds significant expertise in improving people’s access to water and improving the health and sanitation of communities affected by disasters and experiencing long-term poverty.

In the space of 36 hours the ADRA team had planned and budgeted a response that would assist close to 800 people.

Providing clean water in the aftermath of a disaster can be the difference between life and death.

It’s far from easy work. Robert and his team of exercise monitors carefully orchestrate “injects”—scenarios designed to test participant’s response to a range of crisis—throughout the simulation. From ongoing tsunami warnings to pushy reporters the team were forced to stay on their toes around the clock.

“Responding to a disaster is a stressful experience,” said Robert. “There are time pressures, demands on a multitude of fronts and the constant thought that people’s lives may be reliant on your personal performance.”

“It’s pleasing to see the team operate so smoothly under trying situations,” said Robert.

Ready to respond

Exercise Wharenga highlighted a number of areas in the local communities’ response plans that could be strengthened—from communication contingencies to evacuation points.

“The community is always the first responder in an actual emergency,” said Robert. “It happens everywhere in the world. It’s good for them to be prepared—and a privilege to be part of their continual journey of improvement.”

United response: Red Cross, Salvation Army and ADRA personnel took part in the simulation.

The simulation, which is an annual event for the emergency response team, is an important part of ensuring ADRA can respond to disasters quickly and effectively. Testing the team’s skills, and the systems that support them will ensure lives can be saved, and the road to recovery can be made just a little bit smoother for families who may have lost it all.