Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011

The destruction of my home town

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Whenever a stranger has asked where I’m from, the answer has usually been ‘Christchurch, New Zealand’.  That’s as good an answer as any, spending my childhood in a small town an hour away and then living in the city for eight years as an adult.  It’s the first place I think of when the question of ‘home’ comes up.

If that stranger has happened to have spent any time there, they’ll usually tell me what a pretty little place it is.  The cathedral in the main square will usually get a mention, along with the graceful old buildings found throughout the central business district.  Eating and drinking beside the river on a summer night might be discussed, or the friendly people and slow pace of life.  In general, though, most people haven’t known anything about Christchurch at all.

That changed forever last Tuesday lunchtime as a massive earthquake tore thousands of buildings from their foundations and the heart out of my home town.  With round the clock television, radio and internet coverage of the horrific scenes unfolding there, there can’t be many people in the western world who haven’t heard of the city now for all the wrong reasons.

The first I heard of the disaster was when my phone rang as I was sitting at my desk contemplating what to have for lunch.  My sister, her voice breaking, said “Are you watching the news?  There’s been a massive earthquake in Christchurch.  It’s really bad.”

Subsequent hours and days have proven that assessment correct, far beyond anything I could have imagined in those first minutes.  Buildings have collapsed and caught fire with tens, hundreds of people trapped inside them.  As I write this the official death toll stands at 147, but everybody knows the real number will be much higher than that.

Hundreds of people are missing, thousands injured – many seriously.  Property damage is almost impossible to conceptualise, with the repair bill already being estimated at 12 billion dollars or more.  Close to a week later many of the houses that are still standing lack power and most don’t have working water or sewerage systems.  Human waste floats in the rivers and human remains are being pulled from the wreckage.

Inside the four avenues that form the borders of the central business district, a full third of the buildings have been declared structurally unsound and will need to be demolished.  The places I ate, drank and laughed with friends at are now little more than piles of twisted metal and fallen brick.  Even the ones that will remain upright in the months to come face an enormous repair bill.

While little is known right now about the future, one thing is for certain – the heart of the city will never look the same again.  Those ‘graceful old buildings’ will remain only in photos and memories.

Those first 48 hours after the quake struck were horrible for hundreds of thousands of people, both those in the middle of the chaos and many more around the world.  With phone networks jammed or down, power out to most of the city and internet inaccessible, there was no way of knowing what had happened to loved ones.

I tried to call friends and family, knowing it would be futile but continuing to do it anyway.  It took hours before the first text messages got through and days before emails and Facebook updates confirmed that – at least so far – no close friends or family have died.  I count myself incredibly lucky in that regard.

Sadly I suspect that as more names emerge in the coming weeks, I will recognise some of them – the city is too small and the death toll too high to reasonably believe anything else.  As with the first few uncertain hours, all I can do is wait and hope beyond hope.

Chch earthquake Feb 2011

After the first earthquake in Christchurch last September, when many buildings were damaged but nobody died, the mood amongst my friends was frightened but upbeat.  Houses can be repaired, they said.  Many of those houses were still being repaired when Tuesday’s quake hit.

When I talk to people now, that spirit of defiance has gone.  There has been too much death and destruction this time.  Far too much.  People are talking of leaving the city permanently, of taking their insurance payout and starting a new life somewhere else.  Who can blame them, as the aftershocks continue and the wrecking balls move in?

As for me, I sit here in a foreign country, glued to the news reports and checking email and social media with a continual sense of trepidation.  My emotions are all over the place.  I feel strongly affected by what has happened to my home town, yet strangely detached at the same time.

I don’t really know what to say, or even who to say it to.  All I want to do is jump on a plane and head home to help in any way I can – and yet I know that the best thing I can do is the exact opposite.  There’s no place for me in a devastated city that has no ability to support even the quake survivors and the influx of emergency workers from around the world.

And so I donate money to the Red Cross and feel hopelessly inadequate instead.  It’s a shitty compromise, yet of course I am one of the incredibly lucky ones.  I am alive.  My friends and family are alive.  Houses can be rebuilt.  Hundreds of people who went to work last Tuesday, or took the bus into town to do some shopping, or stopped for a moment of reflection in a cathedral, have no ability to rebuild their houses.  They never will.

Instead, their families grieve.

Kia kaha, Christchurch.  My heart is with you today.

If you would like to help the people of Christchurch rebuild their shattered lives by giving a donation, you can do so here.

[First earthquake image courtesy of nevrar, second courtesy of martinluff]

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  1. Hi David – That was heartfelt to the max. Although in Ashburton now Christchurch was my home town for many years in the 1950’s and 60’s. The cathedral was a beacon – iconic even – and there were no high rises to hide it. To see it destroyed is devastating. The loss of life more so. As you say we are bound to know people – even now one person I know well won’t be going home. I hope Christchurch can rise, Phoenix like, from the ashes but it will take a mighty effort to do so.

  2. Thanks for sharing this post! I just spent a week in Christchurch at the end of January, and you’re right – it’s such a lovely place. I can’t imagine what everyone is going through. Will keep your family and friends in my prayers and keep hoping for the best.

  3. Nice piece, Dave.

    It’s been heartbreaking watching it all unfold from across the Ditch.

    Plenty of love and prayers drifting across from Oz.

    Amazing seeing the search and rescue teams, and various police forces from all over the world descend on Christchurch to help out.


  4. I think the word to sum up Christchurch at the moment is sad…. Everyone knows someone who hasn’t survived or is missing, the heart of our wee city has been torn out and it it going to take a lot of repair that heart.
    I think that we were so smug after the September quake – yes, people lost possessions, and some unlucky ones, homes, but no one lost their life. The sentiments then were that ‘we can get through this’. Now, I am not so sure. So many people have said that they are heartbroken and I understand where they are coming from. I am sure that the Cantabrian sprit will rise again, but it could take a while.
    Stay safe.

  5. Dave, I can’t imagine the feelings. I’m so sorry for the people of Christchurch. I know that when something goes wrong in an area to which I have a connection, I feel helpless and frustrated. I’ve found that, for me, one of the best things I can do is… anything to help, like you’ve been giving money to the Red Cross.

    I found a post last week by another New Zealander from Christchurch:

    He had a link to the Pet Emergency Earthquake Fund up: Maybe addressing one of the aspects often overlooked during disasters will help you feel like you’re doing that “something” that helps ameliorate the feelings of helplessness.

    Blessings to you, your family, and friends.

  6. It is always much harder to bear disaster that happens in parts of the world with which we are familiar and, as travelers, we are familiar with much of the world. I wish your hometown well and quick healing.

  7. Dave, I feel so sorry about the situation, wish your hometown would recover soon….

    As a Chinese famous quote, “As long as survive in the forest, never worry about you can’t find a wood.” Which means, stay positive about live since you still have it.

    Things will be better! Christchurch will always be your hometown, for sure!

  8. I can only imagine how you must feel with this happening to your home town. I can’t even imagine so much destruction in my home. Sadly natural disasters are just a part of history and life. Keep us updated on your friends and family in Christchurch.

  9. This is so beautiful and sad. I’m sorry about what has happened to your hometown, and know that I am constantly thinking of the kiwi’s in this most horrible time of need.

  10. Dave, the thought of so many of the people of Christchurch losing their lives or their homes or their livelihood is just devastating. We are some of the lucky ones who have visited Christchurch and loved every bit of it, and will always remember how often people went out of their way to be kind and helpful to 2 aussies dragging a 1 year old around the place. All we can do is pray and send money, and we are doing both, as hopefully is everyone else . We are thinking of you and your friends and family, stay well.

  11. Well said Dave, for me even living in elsewhere in NZ (Auckland) your sentiments about observing Christchurch from a foreign place/country still ring true. The experience is so surreal.

    In this case I don’t think the distance matters, for those that grew up in and around Christchurch but weren’t/aren’t there, we are now separated from it by another factor, the horrific experience.

    When next we visit Christchurch I expect it’ll be a different, a foreign place, bearing only a portion of the fabric that we recognise. The people and the place now bear a scar that has changed them both forever.

    All we can do now is provide assistance with the means that we have.

  12. Thanks Dave for your kind words. All though I have only been in CHCH for 13 years I consider it my home town.
    I have been blessed with family all ok. No damage to my flat. Power, water has been restored and my work virtualy unaffected.
    As I look on our what was once our beautifull city, I just know it will never be the same, but it can once again be a city beauty.
    take care Dave…

  13. I can only imagine how helpless and frustrated you must feel being so far from family and friends. I hope they remain healthy and safe.

  14. Our thoughts are with you and your family Dave! I have been so incredibly heartbroken for the people of NZ this past week. As Suzy said, please keep us updated.

  15. Glad to hear that all of your loved ones are ok.
    Thanks for sharing its nice to hear about it from someone from there rather than just someone who passed through once.
    I actually spent a few days there in November 2007 and it was really nice, reminded me of my hometown. Hopefully they are able to pull the pieces back together quickly. 🙂

  16. Thanks for writing this Dave. I know exactly how you feel. Im also from Chch but moved away four years ago. It will always be my home town and I love the city and it’s people. I was planning to move back later in the year so I could be closer to family and friends and now this has happened.
    It’s comforting to know other people out there are feeling as helpless and useless as I am. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do or say to make the situation any better. I’m avidly reading the missing lists for the names of people I know, old collegues, school friends, team mates. It is such a small place so I know there will be someone.
    I’ve decided I just have to be upbeat for all those loved ones down there so I’m just trying to be supportive and positive. Not much more I can do.
    I’m still intending to return to Chch to live, it’s just going to take a bit longer than I anticipated.
    The city might have a different fascade but it’s the people that make the place and I know the spirits of those people will rise up and rebuild. You can’t keep a one eyed Cantabrian down!

    1. All i can say is so so so sorry that you have had to go through all of this and we hope it will all get better for you all.

  17. Dave,

    My most ardent and heartfelt condolences to all the Cantabrians and ex-pats affected by this quake.

    I’ve been singing Chch’s praises for years. As a young American with a sense of adventure, I found myself living there in love with a Kiwi bloke. Both of our children were born there at Christchurch Women’s.. and we moved back here to the States. We recently divorced and he moved back to Chch. The sorrow I feel for him and his family is so immense. The sorrow felt for the city itself – so much incredible beauty gone – is stifling.

    And this place was only my home for a couple of years..

    Christchurch has an affect on everyone who finds their way there. Kiwis, foreign tourists, ex-pats – everyone. It’s a truly amazing and beautiful place.

    For all the lives lost and lights extinguished in this horrible tragic disaster, the world sends its deepest condolences and support.

  18. Dave, I’m also from christchurch and I’m living overseas all my family and friends are there and I feel exactly the same way, its a strange hopeless feeling not being able to help the ones we love. I’m grieving for my home town and it’s good to know i’m not alone.

  19. you summed up my feelings and emotions perfectly.

    8 days on, my heart is still heavy and the feeling of hoplessness grows stronger for the city i spent my first 18 years in.

  20. What an encapturing blog, you described how I feel also in a foreign city and it’s comforting to hear from you.
    Kia Kaha

  21. Thank you everyone for your kind, caring and compassionate comments. It has been a horrible week for me and a far, far worse one for everyone on the ground in Christchurch. With the support of people like you and the thousands of others who are contributing in any way they can to the emergency and repair efforts, life will continue in some shape or form. The contributions and concern of strangers is one of the few positive things to take out of this horrific experience, I guess…

  22. Incredibly moving post, Dave, I had goose bumps the last few paragraphs. Happy to hear that your immediate family and friends are alright. I have family on the north island, which is already too close for comfort for me! Thinking of you and the people of Christchurch during this difficult time.

  23. So sorry to hear this heartbreaking news Dave, but I am glad your family is all well. My heart and prayers go out to you and all the people in Christchurch.

    I understand because my town was also destroyed by a huge earthquake ( 7.1) and I was at the epicenter when it hit and it looked like the end of the world every where I looked….fires, collapsed buildings, downed electrical lines, roads missing, people dying and screams so loud I can still hear them in my mind.

    I think earthquakes are the hardest natural disaster to recover from because the constant aftershocks that go on regularly for weeks,months, years…make it difficult to heal. It took me YEARS not to jump when I would hear a loud sound like a truck going by. If I am ever in a big one again, I will leave immediately just to get a chance to heal away from the aftershocks.

    You might look up what they came up with at Heartmath to help with that emotional trauma and pass it on to friends and family there.

    Have faith, this too shall pass and your community will rebuild and grow stronger, but it takes MUCH longer than most realize. It took over a decade for my town of Santa Cruz, California to rebuild and we miss some of those classic buildings, but life does indeed go on.

    We’re keeping Christchurch and it’s people in our prayers! Big hugs to you and yours.

  24. Nearly one year on and although structurally the heart of the city centre is being rebuilt slowly, the real heart of Christchurch City lies with the people in it and that beats strongly. Seeing the photos of the rebuilding is even hard to take in when on the other side of the world but it will be done and Christchurch is rising again.