Focus on the essential following White Island eruption

A few days after the White Island eruption, the blame games, the speculation and the conversations that need to wait a bit longer yet, are getting underway. I have seen people commenting on matters such as whether tourists will be allowed back on the island; what this means for activities with an element of risk attached. I am seeing people – the ones commonly known as “armchair critics” – passing judgements that are in many ways, premature, ill informed and most probably detracting from the more immediate conversations.

New Zealand, the media and the public need to focus on the essential aspects:

  • The families of the dead, injured and missing
  • The dead and the injured
  • Retrieval of the missing from the island
  • The fact that White Island is still at an elevated alert, still capable of having another explosion

The families of the dead – what a horrible situation this must be for them. Irrespective of whether they are locals or not, knowing that their loved one/s are dead and that some of them might be still stuck on an unstable, venting volcano really is the stuff of nightmares. For them this will be a conflicting mass of emotions. Fear and anger, an insatiable appetite for answers, grief and pain all potentially happening in a horribly chaotic and random emotional spectacle.

How could this have happened in New Zealand? What were their loved ones doing in such a dangerous location? Why are the authorities not trying to get them out? Which hospital do I contact and how?

The dead will have suffered horrible injuries – a mixture of impact injuries from being struck by ballistics (rocks ranging from fist size up to small cars)and burns from being caught in what appears to have been a surge cloud generated by the explosion, and most likely a couple hundred degrees celsius. Identifying them will be a pain staking process and involve a different set of observations to those taken of the 15 March 2019 terror attack victims in Christchurch or victims of the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011.

The Disaster Victim Identification team, who have the difficult, horrible and painstaking task of trying to identify the victims have assembled in Whakatane. This will be a brand new problem never to have happened in New Zealand before. With no prior experience of D.V.I. on victims of volcanic activity this is all potentially uncharted territory in terms how to go about the work. I wish them luck.

Right now White Island is still at an elevated level of unrest – at Alert Level 3 it is still experiencing minor unrest, and conditions exist which are considered favourable for another explosion.

Whilst this is the case there is no prospect for getting the remaining bodies off the island without putting those involved in undue danger. No doubt this will upset and possibly anger a few people, but safety is absolutely paramount – given the lack of warning in the minutes immediately prior to the eruption that one was imminent, were one to happen whilst the rescue team were on the island, they themselves could easily become casualties.

Later on the time will come for a bunch of conversations, which will need to include:

  • How we communicate natural hazard risk in New Zealand
  • Reform how we teach natural hazards in New Zealand schools – earthquakes aside New Zealanders are poorly informed about tsunami, volcanoes and a range of other hazards
  • How ready we are for a major volcanic eruption
  • At what point do activities become too risky and who takes responsibility for the risk

The time for these conversations is coming. They are important ones to have and when the time comes it needs to be an honest conversation. But that time is not now.


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