Seismic soothsayer causes folk to quake in their boots


EVERY seismologist on the planet might disagree with Ken Ring, but he’s got the people of Christchurch talking — and he has some of them worrying.
Mr Ring, a long-range weather forecaster in Auckland, New Zealand, believes he can predict when there is an increased likelihood of earthquakes. On February 13, he tweeted: “Potential earthquake time for the planet between 15th-25th, especially 18th for Christchurch, +/- about 3 days.”
The quake that has devastated the city occurred on February 22, one day after the period he named.
Mr Ring believes the moon’s magnetic pull can help trigger quakes when the moon is in particular phases and is close to the Earth.
Christchurch residents call him “the moon man”, and some are concerned that he now appears to have had at least two accurate predictions.
Last September, he warned on radio to expect increased earthquake activity in the South Island over the following week. The next day, Christchurch had a 7.1 quake. The day after that, he predicted another one in six months.
He has now tipped the potential for another big one on or near March 20. “The wild card is how deep these things might be,” he told The Age.
Mr Ring is neither a geologist nor seismologist but says he has decades of practical experience connecting patterns with weather from writing almanacs for farmers in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s not voodoo or anything. It’s solid science. It’s astronomy.”
He said earthquakes were associated with king tides and “perigee” — the point each month when the moon is closest to Earth. This is because the moon’s gravitational pull affects not just the movement of oceans but of land. Solar influences such as sunspots could be a factor, too, he said.
He predicts that the jolts on the South Island will ease from April, “because the moon will be moving away from the Earth”.
Bill Fry, a seismologist with GNS Science New Zealand, dismissed the claims: “I believe his so-called predictions have no scientific credibility. In New Zealand, if I predict every single day of the year that there will be an earthquake, I will be correct. If I predict a magnitude-5 event every day of the year, I will be correct about 40 times a year. If you predict every day that it’s going to be Sunday, you’ll be right one day out of seven.”
Mr Fry said many claims to earthquake prediction had been investigated and proven false in recent decades, including theories that they were linked to atmospheric discharges, or that they could be detected early by animals including cows and dogs. “We can’t predict earthquakes,” he said. “I can tell you unequivocally that no one can systematically predict them.”
If seismologists could, they would. “We certainly don’t want to see 150 people die,” he said.

Wild weather poses fresh risk to Christchurch


Quake-devastated Christchurch is bracing for a bout of wild weather which could send clouds of silt through the air, potentially affecting people with respiratory problems.Mayor Bill Parker warned blustery winds were forecast for this afternoon, which could be harmful to some people.Loose debris and unsound structures also posed a risk, he said.Meanwhile, rescuers have abandoned work around Christchurch’s Hotel Grand Chancellor site because the building is so unstable and may collapse.There were two arrests overnight. One person has been charged with breaching the cordon and another charged over impersonating an urban search and rescue officer and with carrying a knife, a police baton and an axe. The incident management team was replaced today and Mr Parker said that teams in the field were also beginning to experience fatigue.About 55,000 households, or 35 per cent of the city, continues to struggle without water, while 10,000 people are in need of temporary housing. Mr Parker also said “there will inevitably be an inquiry at some level. Personally, I believe there should be an inquiry.” He said that the government needed to decide what form the inquiry should take. Mr Parker said it was going to be important for the future of the city to examine the perception about the safety of the city, and they can’t achieve that without a very open process where we analyse what has happened.

World’s disasters bring a new degree of trauma to victims

WHEN someone recalls a trauma, their eyes take on a faraway look as they find themselves back in the moment. Some talk in torrents, with words and images and feelings tumbling over each other in an urgent rush to escape. Others, especially those still in shock, seem unnaturally calm because they have not yet felt the full force of their emotions.
Jacqueline Kennedy was like this the week after her husband was shot and she held together the pieces of his skull as their limousine raced to hospital. During an interview she gave days later to writer Theodore White for Life magazine, she was utterly composed. He found she had vivid recall of every grisly detail, as well as an obsessive need to ensure history would cast her husband’s time in office as a “Camelot”. She even gave White the line.
It was separately reported that in the months that followed, her young daughter Caroline told teachers at school that mummy spent day after day in bed, crying. She had, after all, lost her husband, her home, and a whole order of life in a sudden, shocking blow.
Disaster is so public. In Victoria after the fires, in Queensland after the floods, in New Zealand after the earthquake, we can see the ruination of homes and farms and businesses, the natural landscape obliterated by fire or water or earth, the tracks of tears on dirtied and bloodied faces, the blanketing of bodies. In the immediate aftermath, the anguish is felt and seen by the world.
And then the cameras rush on to the next big event, and those who have been traumatised are left to deal with it — or not — behind closed doors.
They can expect sleeplessness and flashbacks and heightened fears about their own safety and the safety of those they love. Some will blame themselves for what they did or didn’t do at the moment of crisis. They will struggle for years with the magnitude of the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives.
Some will get sick as prolonged stress undermines previously healthy bodies. In Victoria, there have been anecdotal reports of Black Saturday survivors suffering from illnesses, including pneumonia and heart attacks, in unusually high numbers in the two years since the fires.
Trauma has always been part of the human condition. It used to be easy to divide its causes into two categories. The first was “acts of God”, such as plague, flood and earthquake. The second was the suffering humans inflict on each other: rape, torture, killing and war.
The Christchurch earthquake falls into the first category. But many disasters that would once have been written off as sheer bad luck — the Queensland cyclone, the Victorian bushfires, the Biblical floods that swept through Pakistan and parts of south-east Asia last year — no longer fit neatly into the shoulder-shrugging category.
Millions are predicted to be traumatised by climate change. The United Nations estimates that by 2020, the world will have 50 million environmental refugees, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was told this week. Like Jackie Kennedy, they will lose their homes and a whole order of life, but unlike her, they will not be cushioned by wealth. They will lose loved ones not to the drama of the assassin’s bullet but to the slow, evil wasting of starvation.
Cristina Tirado, a professor at the University of California, and other speakers told the conference that climate change was already affecting the security of the world’s food supply, and that “when people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate”.
And they riot. Food shortages have been a trigger in many political uprisings from the French Revolution to the present turmoil in the Arab world. This week John Ashton, the British Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change, gave a speech in London at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in which he warned: “Tunisians first came on to the streets in protest at high food prices, driven up by climatically intensified supply shocks. Climate change is a stress multiplier. It is hard to imagine a more effective engine than our interconnected insecurities over climate, food, water and energy for driving angry young people onto the streets of crowded cities. That engine cannot be switched off in a high-carbon economy.”
Our own part of the world will suffer the most, according to a 2009 report by the Asian Development Bank, The Economics of Climate Change in South-east Asia: A Regional Review. Neighbours, including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, could lose up to 6.7 per cent of gross domestic product each year by 2100, more than twice the predicted global average loss, due to floods, droughts and cyclones. The report warned that up to 94 million people in the region could be flooded by rising sea levels.
The four countries are tipped to suffer a fall in potential rice yield of about 50 per cent by 2100, compared with 1990, unless there is action to prevent it.
You don’t have to be a greenie to care about climate change. You just have to be sensitive to human suffering, and to the likelihood that there might soon be a whole new meaning to the expression “a world of pain”.

Nixon video: teen arrested

LIKE most other chapters in the tawdry saga of the teenager and the football world, the news broke on Twitter.

The teenager announced her arrest to her 15,000 followers: ”Fabulous, have just been arrested – off to the police station . Thanks. DUUUHH, VIDEOS.”

Police had taken her to City West police station, where she was questioned about possible offences including drug possession and secretly filming AFL player manager Ricky Nixon.

About the same time, commercial news bulletins were showing footage the teenager says is of Nixon – in his underpants – in her hotel room.

After she was released by police without charge, she told The Age she had had not known covert filming was illegal until the police told her so: ”Ricky wasn’t aware that I filmed him,” she said. ”Ya, well, oh well, my mistake.”

Regardless of how the film was obtained, the teenager was last night sticking to her story that she and Nixon had had sex, and that he had taken drugs in her presence.

Nixon had emerged yesterday morning to vigorously deny the claims on Melbourne radio.

He painted himself as an innocent, fatherly figure trying to help a troubled young girl – in her hotel room. Yes, he admitted, he’d been a duffer to have seen her in private, most recently last week. But no, he insisted, there had been no alcohol, no drugs and no sex involved.

”I did not use drugs in her presence. I have not seen drugs when she’s been there. She has a video she’s put together which conveniently shows drugs in the video with her, not with me. She also shows a video that purports to show me in a hotel room with here. Yes, I was, [but] it doesn’t show me having sex with her. I’ve never had sex with her,” he told 3AW.

Nixon’s self-admitted error in visiting the teenager in her hotel room was all the more remarkable given her role in publishing on the internet naked photographs of two of his clients – St Kilda players Nick Riewoldt and Nick Dal Santo. She has since admitted that she lied about the origins of the photographs.

As 3AW’s Neil Mitchell asked him: ”You knew this girl was unreliable and dangerous. You’ve been telling people that for some time. Yet you went to her hotel room. Why?”

Nixon: ”I totally agree with you. I shouldn’t have gone there. I want to make that really clear. I apologise to everybody who thinks I’ve done the wrong thing.”

He hinted that the girl had said on the phone things ”that didn’t sound good to me” and that he had thought she needed help. But he refused to be drawn on whether he had been concerned that she might self-harm. He said the episode meant he might be reluctant to help people out in the future.

Commentators have quickly homed in on questions about the media ethics of the organisation that broke the story of the alleged relationship, the Herald Sun. The paper just happened to have a photographer outside the girl’s hotel as Nixon left it one morning last week.

Had the paper set up an under-aged girl to do a ”sting” on Mr Nixon?

Editor Simon Pristel yesterday strongly denied this, and he denied that the paper had paid her money. Asked whether he or anyone on his staff had urged the girl to provide photographic evidence of an inappropriate relationship with Mr Nixon, Pristel said, ”No, not at all.” No money had exchanged hands for the story either: ”We haven’t given her one cent.”

He did say the Herald Sun last week paid for the girl to have two nights in a city hotel. It was during one of these nights that the girl allegedly texted a Herald Sun reporter saying Nixon was in her hotel room. A reporter and photographer later saw Nixon leaving the hotel in the early morning.

Nixon yesterday said he had only arrived at the hotel 20 minutes earlier and merely spoke briefly to the girl about having stolen his credit card from him.

Pristel told The Age his paper paid for the girl’s stay in a hotel last Thursday and Friday nights out of concern for her welfare because she had nowhere to go, as her time in a different hotel at the AFL’s expense had run out. ”We didn’t feel it was appropriate that she should be on the street,” he said.

Pristel said he was concerned about how this might look, so he asked the girl’s lawyers to provide a statement confirming that the offer was made out of concern and not as an inducement to provide information.

He said Victoria’s Surveillance Devices Act made it illegal for him to publish the girl’s videos, or to report on their contents. If Nixon gave permission, however, they could be released: ”If he says he’s got nothing to hide, then I’m sure we might find a way around that.”

Nixon yesterday accused the Herald Sun of having reneged on an agreement: ”They did a deal with me which they seem very keen to break.” He refused to elaborate further.

Asked if there was a deal with Nixon, Pristel responded: ”On Friday when I met Ricky Nixon ? I put certain allegations to him. He denied some, admitted other things, and on legal advice I decided to publish his admissions and denials and to exclude from the next day’s paper certain other material. He was aware of the general nature of what we were publishing.”

Nixon, who is managing director of Flying Start, is now staring down a major threat to his career.

The AFL Players Association will investigate the scandal. Its accreditation board will on Thursday consider a preliminary inquiry on the matter.

Embers of pain stir in young hearts

BLACK SATURDAY – ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ —Graham Greene

MATTHEW is an outdoors boy. He likes fishing, his scooter, his motorbike. Aged 10, he swims and plays basketball and has a dry sense of humour. On Black Saturday, he was eight. That afternoon, he and his mother left their house to take refuge with family. While others fought the firestorm roaring outside, Matthew was told to shelter inside. “What do you want me to do, Mum?” he demanded.
“Once he got past his initial terror, he was right into it,” says his mother, Tania*. “He was still frightened but he kept himself busy.” He put towels under doors and fetched wet face-washers for other distressed children as they all choked on the smoke.
When the fire passed, the house they had been protecting was safe, as were they. But a bewildered Matthew still found himself encircled by loss. His home and everything in it had been burned to the ground. His grandparents had lost their home, which had been the much-loved hub of the family for decades. His school was gone. His neighbours and two schoolfriends had been killed. The landscape of his life — the bushland around Kinglake — was a blackened ruin.
The door to the future had opened.
For Matthew, it was a future strewn with panic attacks. With choking fits that made it hard for him to eat. With nightmares about fire, in the early days, which were followed by dreams of being chased, or of being trapped, or of losing his mother. Even during the day he was often tense. He rarely laughed. He shrank away when anyone mentioned Black Saturday. Young as he was, he understood enough to know he was struggling. He told his mother: “I think I’m going crazy.”
That’s a scary thing for any parent to hear. It’s even scarier for parents who are struggling themselves.
Two years after the Black Saturday fires — the anniversary is on Monday — the physical world is beginning to heal. Trees are leafy and paddocks are lush and neat new houses have sprung up; not enough for everyone to be back under their own roofs, but enough to be a heartening sign of progress.
Emotional wounds can take longer. In bushfire areas, there are still young children wetting the bed, and having nightmares and insomnia. Some have even talked of killing themselves, at an age when kindergarten is only just behind them and the very concept should be foreign. Older children have been caught nicking antidepressants from their mother’s supply in the hope that a single “happy pill” will stop them feeling so sad.
There are children who become hysterical at the sight of a red sunset because it reminds them of flames in the sky. When mist swirled across a wintry road one morning, students on a school bus screamed because they feared it was smoke.
Bushfire-affected teenagers are showing strain too. Lesley Bebbington is a local mother who began a teen youth group in Kinglake after realising that many were coming home from school and locking themselves alone in their rooms night after night.
She says: “We are really concerned at the moment because there are a lot of kids who have just now started to experience their trauma. There are high levels of truancy and more kids accessing welfare officers now than at any time since the fire. That gels with the trauma model, which says that for some people, years two to four are the worst.
“We also noticed last year there was an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity — definitely an increase in that risky behaviour. Kids are talking about suicide, and ‘What’s the point?’ — both face-to-face and online with each other. They just feel there’s not any future so you may as well go the full max and not think about the consequences.”
At the heart of all these problems lies a force with which modern psychology is starting to come to grips: disaster trauma in children.
Children touched by the fires had their first encounter with mortality long before they were ready to make sense of it. Perhaps they nearly died themselves; perhaps friends or family actually did. To that mourning, and fear of sudden death, add the loss of a home and a whole order of life, as well as parents who are themselves distraught and distracted by having to rebuild, and you have a potent mix of pathogens. Survivors of the recent floods and the Queensland cyclone will face similar problems. The good news is that much is now known about how to help children heal.
Dr Paul Valent is a Holocaust survivor and a retired psychiatrist who specialised in trauma. He says it works this way: “Something major has happened that’s implanted in the brain. It’s like a big, dark, gravitational force. Everything has imploded in there. It’s invisible but it’s got enormous energy. You can’t think about it, you can’t talk about it, and you don’t have words for it. It’s overwhelming.”
He says that within weeks of suffering the trauma, the person begins to cut off from feelings about it that are too painful. Those feelings might be expressed instead in physical symptoms. In children, that might be bedwetting, stomach ache or headache, or through behaviour such as screaming or clinging to a parent. Very young children will
re-enact trauma through drawings and play. Valent says a survey in South Australia after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 found 23 per cent of children in a bushfire community had psychiatric problems, and that in one kindergarten, fire games were still the most popular games 10 months afterwards.
There is likely to be misplaced guilt over what the person did or did not do during the crisis, Valent says, with children particularly prone to blaming themselves. After Ash Wednesday, one girl believed she had caused the whole disaster: “Magical thinking is more prominent in children. She had wished harm to someone, and harm had come.”
He says adults and children “don’t join the dots [over emotional problems causing the physical symptoms] because behind that lies thoughts like, ‘Life has no meaning because I didn’t save so-and-so’ or ‘because I killed so-and-so’. So they disconnect parts of their minds: emotions, thoughts. But when you kill off parts of yourself, you can’t negotiate what you will kill off. If you kill off guilt, you also kill off love. If you cut off from fear, you experience psychic numbing. You can’t be loving and creative and whole any more.”
Young Matthew blamed himself later for not having been brave enough during the fire, his mother, Tania, says. “He felt a lot of guilt. He felt like he wasn’t being brave because he had cried at one point. He was, in fact, amazingly brave but he didn’t want to hear that. He was being very hard on himself.”
Hardest for both of them was Matthew’s loss of faith in her ability to protect him. In the early days, he would ask what if they had done this or that during the fire, and the outcome had been different. She told him she would never have let him be hurt. He retorted that the parents of dead children had probably said that too.
Principal Jane Hayward is looking after a school full of children who have trouble feeling safe, even though the new Strathewen primary, cut into a hillside overlooking the once-devastated valley, is built to withstand near-apocalypse conditions: huge water tanks, a sprinkler system, metal shutters on all windows and doors, GPS positioning in case helicopter water-bombing is needed. “We can go into complete lockdown,” says Hayward.
Half the students here lost their homes — some were convinced they were moments from death as houses burned down around them — and four parents and several grandparents were killed. Many others were displaced because their homes were too damaged to live in, and the school itself was incinerated. “The children have experienced so much trauma, and their individual stories are so extreme, that it’s going to be a long haul,” Hayward says.
She went to bushfire workshops and was discouraged to hear that families “would be fine after three months”: that’s not what she was seeing. It was more than a year later, when she met a psychotherapist experienced in child trauma, that Hayward learned more.
“The kids have developed ‘hyper-vigilance’ because they know that in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and changed forever.” This means that when they are told a parent has phoned, their first reaction is fear: “Is everything all right?”
While the school still has high expectations of academic performance, that has had to be tempered with understanding of new problems. “What we found with learning is that children seemed to be chugging along and learning normally. And then you would do a test, or score a piece of work, and wonder, ‘What have I done wrong?’ because there were obvious learning gaps.” The psychotherapist explained to Hayward that after trauma there are often Swiss cheese-type holes in concentration, exacerbated by tiredness from lack of sleep — a phenomenon locals call “bushfire brain”.
Sleep is a precious commodity right across bushfire communities. Says Hayward, “On a windy night when the wind roars through [sounding like a bushfire], no one sleeps. The sound is enough to trigger the fear.”
And then comes the occasional crisis when it becomes clear what is at the heart of an individual child’s distress. Bebbington tells of a boy who had a flashback to when his family was fleeing the fire: “He suddenly remembered that when his dad stopped the car, to tell the mother and the rest of the family in the car behind that the road was blocked by a fallen tree, he had felt his dad had left him to die. He had a complete meltdown, out of the blue.”
She says: “I defy anybody to match the resilience of my community and the kids in it, but just because they are resilient and keep going every day doesn’t mean they’re not extremely sad and traumatised.”
At Whittlesea Secondary College, 19 members of the school community died in the fires, including four students and two whole families, as well as parents, staff and school councillors. Sixty families and seven staff lost their homes. A survey found that 392 of the students had been directly affected in some way.
Principal Terry Twomey says: “If you come into the school, you wouldn’t notice anything. There’s plenty of routine and lots of terrific things going on. But there is a lot happening under the surface too. Many are missing friends they lost in the fires and many are missing not living where they used to live. There’s a whole lot of frustration over the rebuild, and there’s all of the financial and relationship issues that have emerged . . . You can never listen too much.”
He says staff are working hard to try to keep students connected to school, because they know they are at risk. “Ash Wednesday data found a lot of young people became disengaged from learning and didn’t go on to tertiary education at all, and there were some significant mental health issues for that cohort down the track . . . They need to see purpose and a future for themselves.”
It sounds like a discouraging cocktail of troubles. But Ruth Wraith, a former head of the department of child psychotherapy at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the trauma specialist who helped the Strathewen teachers, is neither surprised nor alarmed to hear such stories.
Parents should not fear that children are irreparably damaged when they scream at red sunsets, she says, or even when a very young child talks of suicide. “These are symptoms, or reactions, that are messages from the child about what the meaning of the traumatic experience is to that individual child. To understand, we need to know what need the symptom is fulfilling.”
Of talk of suicide, she says: “What does the child mean when he says those words? It might have a very different meaning for a child than it does for adults. It might mean they want to get further away from trigger reminders, or from fighting in the family. They might want to ensure they will never face bushfire again. It may be that somebody has died and they have overheard an adult conversation that this person is at peace now, so perhaps they have concluded: ‘If I die, I will be at peace.’ ”
The same principle applies to understanding troubled teenagers who are relying too much on sex, drugs or alcohol. “In adolescence, it’s normal to feel immortal and invulnerable. That’s why they take the risks they do. Part of adolescence is learning you’re not Superman; learning what the limits are, in a way that allows you to understand the realities of life, without losing your curiosity and your sense of adventure. These teenagers had all that stripped away in an instant, without the chance to develop a gradual understanding of their mortality.”
She says sex for some might be like an addictive drug, an instant good feeling; or a chance to be close to someone without getting involved; or quasi-medicinal — something to numb the pain. US research suggests teenagers who have experienced trauma are more likely to marry and have children young, she says, either because they think they “may as well get on with life and live it in a hell of a hurry because there could be no tomorrow, or else because of a desperate need to be close to someone, to be held and understood”.
If parents are worried about their children or their families, they should act on that awareness and seek advice, she says.
For Matthew, counselling was the key to recovery. Tania says: “He hated counselling. He used to sit with his arms folded, looking out the window. Then one day she said: ‘Tell me about the friends that you lost.’ ”
Matthew began with his schoolfriends, but the dam really burst when he started talking about one of his neighbours — “The shape of his arms when he used to lift Matthew over the fence, and how strong he was, and how funny he was.
“Then he turned to me and said: ‘And I should have gone to his funeral!’ It had been one of the first funerals, and we were struggling, and I had thought: ‘We won’t do this.’
“And quick as a flash, the counsellor said: ‘You need to have your own funeral for him. You plan it and you conduct it the way you want to.’
“So Matthew invited me and my mum and dad. We all had a balloon. We all wrote a message that we kept private and we tied them to the bottom of the strings.
“Then we let them go at the gravesite of the man and his wife. Then Matthew asked my parents lots of questions about the funeral. His main question was: ‘Were they in the same coffin together?’ They said: ‘Yes, they were.’
“Then he just picked up overnight. I noticed he started to laugh more and enjoy things more. The biggest change was when he was faced with information about the fire, or people were talking about what happened to them. He is now able to hear it without it affecting him.”
Her boy is different to how he might have been had there been no fire. He is more perceptive, more compassionate; a little wise beyond his years, she feels.
Jane Hayward says the same of her charges at Strathewen, who are almost painfully attuned to suffering they see on television, such as the Christmas Island boat disaster, or the New Zealand mine catastrophe. “They’ve got an incredible insight into death and loss. It’s a very adult understanding. They have such insight, and empathy . . . They have a real social conscience, a strong need to do good in the world, to fund-raise for our sponsor child. They haven’t got that childhood innocence, where you can just fluff around and have a good time. They are going to be amazing adults. I think they will change the world.”
* The names of Matthew and Tania have been changed to protect Matthew’s privacy.
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