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.
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.