Winter may be harder for weary quake survivors

COLD COMFORT: Reenen de Bruin, 17, and his long-term girlfriend Sydney Matheson, 17, will be living in the uninsulated garage of his mother’s quake-damaged house this winter.
COLD COMFORT: Reenen de Bruin, 17, and his long-term girlfriend Sydney Matheson, 17, will be living in the uninsulated garage of his mother’s quake-damaged house this winter.

Christchurch health and social agencies say they are bracing themselves for the worst post-quake winter yet, as the effects of influenza, bitter weather, stress and "shameful" living conditions compound.

Dr Rob Gordon, consultant psychologist for the Australian and New Zealand Red Cross, said international evidence had found the third year following a major disaster was usually the toughest.

Stress often compounded as people waiting for things to "come right" struggled to maintain their quality of life.

Gordon, who has 30 years experience in disaster and emergency psychology, had witnessed an increase in domestic violence and marital breakdowns following other disasters, such as the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

Alarm bells are already ringing for the city's health sector.

The Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) is rushing to insulate the city's coldest and dampest homes before the frost hits.

Red Cross is planning to distribute winter warmer packs to those in need and send volunteers door-knocking in the worst-affected suburbs.

Community and government agencies plan to meet on April 5 to come up with a response to the expected issues.

CDHB member Andrew Dickerson was concerned over the "growing sense of despair" in some areas.

Damaged, damp and overcrowded homes meant communicable diseases like influenza, whooping cough and measles could flourish this winter, putting added strain on a health system already under pressure.

"The conditions some people are now living in I never expected to see in New Zealand," he said.

CDHB member Anna Crighton believed there was "every indication this winter will be worst than the last".

"People are getting worn down and weary. Everybody has a breaking point and for the strong ones, that breaking point often comes later."

Social agencies are also preparing for the worst.

Pacific Island Evaluation social worker To'alepai Louella Thomsen-Inder said they were "holding our breath for what's coming through the door".

Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Ramon Pink said housing, employment and rental availability were "big issues" even before the usual winter illnesses and extreme weather conditions were added.

The CDHB has been involved in a scheme with Community Energy Action (CEA) and Partnership Health to pay for 242 Christchurch homes to be made warmer and drier over the last 10 months to prevent hospital admissions this winter, Pink said.

CDHB planning and funding team leader Dr Greg Hamilton said people suffering from health issues and living in cold, damp homes should contact CEA.

"We are very keen to get as many houses as possible sorted out before winter comes."


A Christchurch family of seven living in an earthquake-damaged house "as cold as a fridge" face a very grim and possibly critical winter.

Jean Nel, 47, lives in the Woolston home with her two eldest sons and one of their partners, who has an 11-month-old baby that suffers from a lung condition.

Nel's youngest son and his 17-year-old girlfriend live in the stand-alone garage.

The three-bedroom house lost both of its chimneys in the quake, there is a manhole exposed in one of the bedrooms and, with no insulation, the solo heat pump barely warms the living room.

"It's colder inside the house than out. You can already see your breath in the morning and during winter we don't even need to put the milk in the fridge," she said.

The family moved into the property in March 2011 and Nel, who is a full-time student and part-time cleaner, said it was "swamped" in liquefaction silt, which she believes is still piled up beneath the house.

The baby, Miniah, who was born with a hole in her diaphragm, moved into the house about six months ago and has already wound up in hospital twice.

Her youngest son, Reenen de Bruin, 17, and his long-term girlfriend Sydney Matheson, 17, live in the garage.

In the morning, Reenen pulls his clothes under the duvet to try and warm them before he gets dressed because it is so cold.

Sydney has had a chesty cough for over a week but cannot afford to go to the doctor.

The couple work full-time and said they were saving to try and insulate the garage before winter. Their only heat source is a fan heater.

Running heaters in the bedrooms and garage resulted in a $400 power bill last month, which the whole family has helped to pay.

"It's fair to say I am worried about winter. Not for me, more for the kids," Nel said.


Dr Rob Gordon's tips for coping with the ongoing effects of a disaster:

A fast recovery is not necessarily a good recovery. Pace yourself and focus on things that give your life value and meaning, such as family, recreational activities or your career. Take time to assess your energy levels. If you are feeling tired or stressed consider ways you can recharge your battery, including taking a weekend away or going for a walk.

Ensure you maintain control of your own recovery by identifying and focusing on the things you can control. Ask yourself: "What am I not doing that I used to do? How do I maintain the quality of my life during this long and, at times, difficult recovery period?"

Maintain your established routines or, if necessary, create temporary ones during the recovery period. Established routines protect us from uncertainty and constant change.

Deal with small problems before they become bigger and don't wait until it is all "back to normal". Recovery means finding a new normal and it needs to include what is valuable and important to you.

The Press