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From the Inside: Things we learnt in the fire

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

The disaster management and relief effort in the aftermath of the Garden Route fire gave a rare glimpse of how South Africans can confront challenges together, a reminder of what we could be.

While the community of Knysna worked together around the clock last week to deal with the devastating aftermath of its “Great Fire”, the race-mongers around the country did not miss the opportunity to try to divide South Africans. Andile Mngxitama of Black First, Land First (BLF), blamed “white monopoly capital” for the blaze, while the ANC-linked chatterati ascribed the extent of the relief effort to the fact that whites were among the dead, and had also lost property, possessions and businesses.

In the context of this racial madness, the best place to be was Knysna itself, a cocoon of sanity, under a pall of smoke. It was a hive of activity, in which barriers of the past were forgotten and people worked shoulder-to-shoulder, first to stop South Africa’s most widespread urban fire disaster in living memory, and then to house, feed and clothe those left homeless by the gutting of about 450 formal homes (including 38 RDP houses) and 150 informal homes. Meanwhile the fires continued their race to Plettenberg Bay, to the north-east, and Buffels Bay to the south-west, fanned by a 97km/hour gusting wind.

The disaster management and relief effort gave a rare glimpse of how South Africans can confront challenges together, a reminder of what we could be.

Fire-fighters came from every province of South Africa, eventually swelling the power to 1,106 men and women and eight helicopters, to create the biggest fire-fighting team in South Africa’s history. This required the creation of a base camp with sleeping, ablution and catering facilities, set up in record time.

Yellow DHL trucks rolled into town carrying (at no cost) food, water, clothing, hygiene products and household requirements donated by businesses and well-wishers around the country. Finding sufficient storage space was just one of the management effort’s greatest challenges. Over the course of the next 36 hours, 10 fire-fighting helicopters had been deployed, and two fixed-winged water-bombers arrived later. The co-operation between all three spheres of government went smoothly.

But there are always lessons to learn. That is why the provincial cabinet held a special meeting in Knysna last week to analyse the situation and prepare a technical report for submission to the national Disaster Centre, and the national Cabinet. The key question we faced was: Where were the weaknesses in our disaster management network? What can we learn from them? How can we fix them?

MEC Alan Winde, whose constituency includes Knysna, had been there all week with Knysna’s Mayor Eleanor Bouw-Spies, assisting the relief effort and identifying gaps in our systems. This analysis is based on his insights.

By definition, disasters of this magnitude are usually unanticipated, but in this case doubly so. Following severe weather warnings, we were preparing for floods across the Western Cape. The Knysna region, from Karatara to Bitou, got fire instead.

The first 24 hours of this type of crisis are the most difficult. In the panic that inevitably grips a town, as walls of flame descend from all sides, it is hard to drive a co-ordinated response. It is almost impossible to do so when communication systems are among the first casualties. As the fire decimated cellphone masts and electricity pylons, mobile communication ceased. This exposed how reliant disaster management strategies are on the ability to communicate instantly by cellphone. We will have to fill this gap, either by including old-fashioned equipment (such as two-way radios) or move onto “next generation” technology, for use in the absence of radio or fixed-line contact.

Amazingly, fake news seems to be able to spread without technology, which it did, exacerbating the panic and sense of crisis.

Within 24 hours the joint operations command centre (JOC) had been set up at the municipal offices, and the experts took control. A cellphone operator moved in and set up a temporary emergency signal transmission station. Other operators did the same in various parts of the town. David Prosser, the developer of the “Knysna app” (which enables communication between the municipality and citizens on service deliver issues), was brought into the JOC where he re-purposed his system to deal with crisis management. He became the centre-point of reliable news dissemination, through social media networks, to his subscribers, and to the persons officially designated to speak to the media. His subscribers’ list leapt by 3,500 – creating a base to convene meetings in every suburb, attended by thousands. Here, those responsible for managing the disaster and charting the way forward could brief citizens directly. As the source of real news became trusted, and its frequency increased, fake news was smothered like the flames doused by water from above.

Another general assumption that underlies our disaster management system is that it will be possible for reinforcement teams to reach the affected areas. In Knysna’s case, the fire started from both sides of town, cutting off the N2 highway in both directions, as the inferno closed in. It was therefore impossible (for several precious hours) to bring in the outside relief required to contain a fire of this magnitude, which was soon raging in 26 different places in and around the town. The small local fire-fighting force, bolstered by volunteers, had to make life-and-death decisions of where to concentrate their efforts, often in the absence of any communications capability. Tragically, two volunteer fire-fighters lost their lives.

And when orders came to evacuate one suburb after another, the “Go George” buses, attempting to reach Knysna to assist, were blocked by the closure on the N2 until the “all clear” was given.

Trying to evacuate thousands of people in these conditions is extremely trying. It involved police running from door to door to warn people to get out. One of the problems, graphically described by a man who lost his house, was the difficulty of determining the fire’s proximity. Thick billowing smoke, driven by high winds, moved ahead of the blaze, masking the imminent risk. “I thought the fire was burning in the valley. It was only when I saw the tongues of flame breaking through the smoke about 20 metres from my house that I realised how critical the situation was. Fortunately, my car was parked on the other side of the house, so I packed in my family just in time to drive out. By then burning debris was flying everywhere,” said a resident of Knysna Heights as he surveyed the devastation as far as the eye could see across the valley below.

Residents helped the evacuation efforts in the most threatened areas, especially to support patients in institutions – including the local hospital and frail care centres. Providing the necessary back-up systems, such as medical drips and other services, proved a major challenge, as people were evacuated up to four times in 24 hours, as the blaze burst through every barrier in its path. The local private hospital accommodated the state patients and took emergency measures for pregnant women requiring caesarean sections.

What we learnt was the necessity of developing protocols for managing a disaster of this magnitude, during the first 24 hours, focusing particularly on the need for back-up communication systems. Suggestions ranged from the possibility of a “satellite overlay” for towns to a whole-of-town alarm system that warns specific areas of the need to evacuate.

There were various secondary challenges that arose from the unprecedented scale of the voluntary relief effort. The relief poured in, without a proper management system in place. Before long, people unaffected by the fires were seeking to help themselves, giving the already over-stretched police the additional challenge of controlling threatened riots, squabbles and looting that began to erupt at various distribution centres. We need to develop a rapidly deployable identification system for qualifying beneficiaries. The Independent Electoral Commission was unable to deliver its finger-printing system at short notice, so the municipality opted for identification bracelets instead.

We have also learnt the importance of being able to set up a system for this type of support, with enough credibility to win public trust through strong management controls. Working with voluntary organisations, who did a magnificent job, also posed the challenge of lack of continuity. Some people were able to come and help on certain days but not on others, requiring re-training on a daily basis. And when civilians are involved, there is no chain of command as there is in government systems, which is crucially needed, especially in disaster management systems.

There was also the challenge of identifying secondary beneficiaries, families housing the homeless who were not adequately equipped for the challenge and required extra resources. This involved building reliable data bases, at considerable speed.

As the money came in, sometimes in international currency, it created a major challenge. Several scammers set up fake crowd-sourcing fund-raising schemes. Many other organisations called for donations, with no systems in place to account for disbursements. Private donors did not want the money channelled through a municipal account, until a separate, ring-fenced account had been opened, to raise funds that would be disbursed to efforts only. It is independently managed by a high-level team drawn from the public and private sector, including lawyers, accountants, and the town’s chief financial officer.  We learnt that it is extremely important to have a central, consolidated, well-managed fund in a disaster of this nature.

Still ahead lies the challenge of rebuilding. We will begin by preparing a strategic plan, with the brief of turning this disaster into a series of opportunities, as we reconstruct infrastructure, and public buildings (like the school hostel). This offers opportunities for skills-development, job creation, and bridging old apartheid spatial divides that still haunt this town (as they do most other South African towns). We will seek to make a transition to green technologies and open new opportunities for the tourism industry, to ensure that the Oyster Festival starts promptly and in true style on July 7. The best way to help Knysna recover is to support the revival of their economy.

The mayor repeatedly emphasised that while 2,500 tourist “beds” were lost in the inferno, there are still 4,500 that survived. And we will seek to replace informal homes with prefabricated fire-resistant material that can be plastered on the outside.

Reconstruction will be an extreme challenge for government’s ponderous systems. The disaster declaration may help us cut through some of them. But setting up a skills development centre, as a public/private partnership to facilitate the reskilling of the 2,500 people who lost their jobs in the fire, requires going through processes wrapped in miles of red tape. It will be a major challenge to get this done before the billions in insurance money lands in town – which could give employment a huge boost if the right skills are available on the ground.

The spirit to rise above this disaster reverberates through the town. May it continue through the reconstruction effort, when the adrenalin has died down and when the inevitable conflicts over access to jobs and resources begin. We have learnt a lot about the management of disasters. A great deal of learning still lies ahead. DM


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