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Baptism of fire

When a National State of Emergency is declared, each region has one person who takes charge. David Wilson got that job as Tairawhiti’s Civil Defence Group controller two weeks before the pandemic was announced, and four weeks before a national lockdown happened. How did that baptism of fire go? Sophie Rishworth reports.

“It was a pretty short, sharp, start — let's put it that way. It was like, ‘OK here we go'.”

Sitting inside the headquarters of the Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) inside council, David Wilson reflects on the past eight weeks.

The huge thing was the uncertainty of the situation, he said.

“We had never dealt with something like this before. We have had floods and earthquakes, but a pandemic? We had a plan but we hadn't had to use it.”

Plus, this Covid-19 situation was different — the threat could not be seen, and the situation changed fast.

There were a lot of sleepless nights as the enormity of it unfolded, said David.

“It was an extremely stressful time for everyone. For the first couple of weeks we (New Zealand) were on the same trajectory as Italy. It was extremely sobering indeed, and full-on.”

As households and businesses around Tairāwhiti got ready for lockdown, the ECC prepared for the worst.

“We were prepping for an Italy situation to the extent that we were looking at large scale cold storage options in case it was needed for bodies.

Looking back, Tairawhiti had only four cases, and New Zealand, as a whole, counted 1154 cases, and 22 deaths from Covid-19.

But back in late March, there was no telling what the outcome would be.

David took over the role from former mayor John Clarke. It was an easy transition for David who has been an alternative controller for the last two years. In a “normal” week, David is usually the public servant in the background in his role as director of community lifelines. During an emergency, there is a bit of role-reshuffling. David steps out of his council role, into the Civil Defence (CD) as group controller for Tairawhiti.

David's council spot was filled by Neville West.

“The team who came together was amazing. Everyone stepped out of their comfort zone and excelled and shined. It was very humbling to be part of.”

There was daily communication with Mayor Rehette Stoltz and GDC chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann and the leadership team at the Council, “who have been an amazing support to me over the last eight weeks”.

The whole team did their bit to manage stress levels, and to make sure things happened, he said.

“Everyone knew they had a job to do and no one ‘got feelings' even though things got pretty stressful. Our team did it because they cared.”

His phone didn't stop, and rang well beyond the 7am to 7pm shift he worked seven days a week. During that time, David talked to Tairawhiti Police Area Commander Sam Aberahama more than his wife.

The long hours took a toll on everyone's families, he said.

If there was one person he would really like to thank, it's his wife Sara.

“She did an awesome job support-wise — she saw me at my most tired, waited for me to come home, and was OK with me taking phone calls in bed.”

Their son's 8th birthday also fell during lockdown, and David missed the whole day.

“It was probably my hardest day, and my wife and family never made me feel bad.”

But his children were scared. The couple have three children aged 10, 8 and 4.

Their 10-year-old described Covid as an “awful feeling”.

“She said it was like a monster under her bed. It was something you couldn't see, but you knew it was there. And her Dad was going out every day and getting close to it.

“My wife and I sat down and told the kids I would not do anything to bring harm to our family — not that they really understood what Dad does for a job.”

The ECC was staffed by Council staff and run with military precision, given his second- in-command Wiremu Tamati and his military background. About 25 Council staff came in every day during the lockdown to create their own bubble. A further 20 worked for the ECC from home.

They had Zoom meetings twice a day to make sure everyone was on the same page.

'A strange time but a heart-warming time too'

Week one of Alert Level 4 was getting an understanding of welfare requirements, which they knew was going to be a big issue, said David.

“Top of the list was making sure our homeless were cared for and had somewhere to spend the lockdown.”

Then they had to touch base with every tourist stuck here, plus the War Memorial Theatre had to be set up fast as a Covid-19 testing station.

Week two of Alert Level 4 brought road blocks as police stepped up their presence to make sure people were complying and only on the road for essential purposes.

The ECC was the go-to for food parcels, and the need had to be assessed as urgent (for same-day delivery) or whether the family could wait a couple of days.

All food parcels were hand-delivered to people's doorsteps so they could check on people at the same time, said David.

“People were really appreciative. It was a strange time but a heart-warming time too. Neighbours were checking up on people and calling up — it was pretty awesome how the community came together.”

“The team of Council staff in the ECC were awesome and we were well-supported by the CD co-coordinating executive group made up from the health sector, police, fire and iwi.

“We also had representatives from the New Zealand Army keeping an eye on developments. But we were also fortunate to be supported by the wider Council staff who took control of calling the vulnerable members of our community to check on them.”

People from other Government organisations also helped.

“We were so lucky having that communication across the district. We already had each other's phone numbers.”

Week three had more emphasis on people flouting the rules, with the clamp-down on surfing and mountain biking.

“I do both for my own mental health and it is what I normally would have done, so I knew how big it would be for people . . . and it weighed on my mind.”

Today the beaches and mountain bike tracks are open again, and Level 1 is on the horizon. The team are filtering back into their Council roles and last week the welfare work was officially passed back to the Ministry of Social Development.

The National State of Emergency has been over for almost four weeks.

FAMILY MAN IN EMERGENCY ROLE: David Wilson, 39, reflects on his time over the past eight weeks as Tairawhiti's Civil Defence Group controller during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture by Liam Clayton