The Context in Which We Examine Disasters in New Zealand: An Editorial

By O'Connor, Frank; Johnston, David et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Context in Which We Examine Disasters in New Zealand: An Editorial


O'Connor, Frank, Johnston, David, Evans, Ian M., New Zealand Journal of Psychology


This is a tale of two earthquakes (you could say many more on account of persistent aftershocks) that were, in a Dickensian way, the best of times and the worst of times. It is a tale of two cities as well. There are a lot of contrasts between the east and the west of the city, and between the two events, as well as lots of comparisons.

In September 2010 we had good luck. We had a night-time earthquake, and it happened in a rural area so the shaking intensity decreased the closer you were to town. We thought we had seen it all in September, but tragically, this was not the only major event. We had good luck in September. We had extremely bad luck in February, 2011. The central business district was built on soft soils. An unknown fault axis was directed straight at it. No other known geological configuration could have delivered Christchurch a worse event. Our luck ran out that lunchtime--the geological gun barrel pointing straight at the centre of the city was loaded by years of gradual pressure, primed by the events of and since September and delivered an earthquake like no other to the Christchurch central business district and southern and eastern suburbs. This was, indeed, bad luck.

The fault could have been orientated a different way, but it was orientated in the way it was. We might have known about it, but we didn't. We might have had another jolt like September, but we got some of the greatest ground accelerations ever recorded anywhere on this planet--right in the heart of Christchurch. It was actually the greatest vertical acceleration ever instrumentally recorded at almost 2g. We can still see and feel the consequences of that release of energy.

Of all the many physical, social, environmental, and economic aspects of natural disasters, the psychological dimension is arguably the most important to humans. Whether in terms of preparing adequately for a disaster, functioning effectively in the midst of catastrophe, or coping with and surviving emotionally the aftermath, psychological understanding provides a critical domain of both theory and practice that determines the crucial outcome: the effects on people's lives and well-being. This flows into how we change our physical world, and our relationship with the land and our history.

The New Zealand Psychological Society Supports Learning

The New Zealand Psychological Society promotes the valuable role of the science and practice of psychology. In 2011, its President, Frank O'Connor, organised an extensive three-day programme of research presentations, discussion, and information sharing at the annual conference of the Society in Queenstown. This was just a few months after the second and most devastating earthquake to disrupt the security and lives of thousands of people living and working in the Christchurch region. Aftershocks continue still, and were felt during the Conference.

The New Zealand Psychological Society is the major professional organisation representing all areas and branches of culturally responsive psychological practice and research in Aotearoa New Zealand: clinical practitioners, educational ones working with schools and children, social, community and developmental psychologists involved with families and societal groups, and organisational specialists, working with other personnel to manage, lead, plan and evaluate organisational achievement.

By bringing together such diverse interests, knowledge, and skills, Frank's goal was to facilitate communication and to enhance the potential role of psychologists in making a difference to current and future disaster responsiveness in New Zealand. So successful was this exchange that we decided to capture as much of the presentations as possible and to publish them in a special issue of the Society's flagship journal. The current issue represents this effort, both in reproducing some of the more formal papers presented as well as capturing the informal presentations and discussion. …

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