This has been a really difficult entry to write. Stories and images from 22 February abound; I’ve been having a hard time deciding if there is anything that I could say that would be meaningful.
I was on Skype with my partner at ten minutes to one on the 22nd of February when a M6.3 earthquake occurred 6 miles southeast of my room in a Christchurch suburb. The room bounced around, and my chair would have rolled away with me on it had I not grasped the desk. I heard glass breaking (a lamp, I later discovered). I remember wondering if it was another aftershock. (On 4 September, a M7.1 earthquake occurred about 25 miles west of Christchurch. Since then, there have been over 5000 aftershocks. For an impressive view of the aftershock sequence, visit http://www.christchurchquakemap.co.nz/.) As I moved toward the doorway, the shaking stopped. Skype had disconnected, but the computer was happily still running on battery power. It didn’t occur to me that power had gone out until I noticed lights were off.
What followed were several hours of confusion and disorientation. I can’t, at this point, remember exactly what happened and in what order. For a time I was outside with many other residents in my complex. One had a phone that was able to receive broadcasts from a news network and was showing clips of what had happened just blocks away in the downtown central business district (CBD). Two curious residents wanted to know what had happened and headed off to the CBD, a 15 minute walk under normal circumstances. The two explorers came back hours later with stories which have since been broadcast world-wide. They evidently completed their trip before the area was completely cordoned off. In addition to knocking out power, the earthquake had completely ruptured water and sewer lines (to most of the city, I later learned). Caught between incessant aftershocks and cold rain and wind, I was inside and out all afternoon.
In the early evening, I met two men from my neighboring building, each with harrowing stories of escape from the CBD. One had been in the Central Library, the other narrowly escaped from a collapsing building which he and a group had been hired to repair after the September 4 earthquake. His legs were badly bruised and scratched, but he brought out an extra chair from his room and shared his blanket; we all sat outside under a small awning and talked about what had happened. Both thought the situation downtown was likely dire. I mostly listened, and felt extremely lucky. It slowly grew dark, and the conversation dwindled to a companionable silence. I remember staring at one of the buildings when the power and lights suddenly came back on. It seemed surreal.
I put the TV on back in my room, and left it on for the next 30 hours. The mayor of Christchurch maintained a really calm demeanor throughout though I doubt he slept. (I later learned he had a past career in radio.) He told residents of Christchurch to stay in undamaged residences if possible. He relayed information about the damage. I remember waiting for his briefings because he seemed to be the only one with useable information for residents those first chaotic days. I rationed out the <2 liters of water I’d had left in a bottle, and wondered what to do about the nonfunctioning toilet. I knitted, because I couldn’t think what else to do. I don’t think I slept, either. The aftershocks just kept coming.
I first heard from one of my new Christchurch friends around noon two days later. A text message finally made it through the wreckage. I did not at all anticipate how it would feel to reconnect with someone that I knew locally: I dropped to the floor and just sobbed against the bed. She had invited me up to her house for dinner with her and her husband. The walk to my friend’s house took two hours, past mountains of debris and surrounded by silt the shaking had liquefied and spewed up to the surface. Seeing this on television is sobering; I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe how it felt to see it in person. My friends had running water (boil 3 minutes to purify), and had dug themselves a pit toilet under a sheltering pine tree at the back of their yard. I have never been so grateful to squat over a hole in the ground. They invited me to stay the night. When I left the next day, they sent me home with three bottles of freshly boiled water.
The generosity and community spirit of the people of Christchurch are something to behold. Neighbors were out the day after the quake to help transfer congealing rivers of silt to the street for pickup. (To date, the city has cleared 218,000 tons from city streets; they estimate they’ll be clearing silt through April.) Within 24 hours, local university students had organized via facebook into a 2000-strong army of volunteers. They set up a hub for incoming texts and emails and mobilized groups of students to areas of need. This “Student Volunteer Army” is still at work. They’ve since been joined by a collaborating group from the region’s Federated Farmers, called the “Farmy Army”. Websites have been set up for the thousands of people across the country who volunteered beds where Christchurch refugees could stay for as long as was necessary. (It’s possible as many as 65,000 people, or 1/6 of the population, have left. Schools in neighboring towns opened their doors but are struggling with the influx of kids.) Outside of the city, in every shop, there are donation buckets at the counters. At tourist information centers, “We Care” posters are available with a donation to the Christchurch relief fund.
It’s not Haiti here. There’s no cholera, and food is in ready supply. Drinking water is available from distribution centers. Many are out of work, but most are making do even without basic services. People are helping each other out. Looting is minimal. The hospitals never actually closed. Still, it’s a heritage city that won’t ever be the same. It’s estimated as many as 2/3 of the downtown buildings are unsalvageable, many of them historical. Whole communities may need to move to a different area of town. Some residents may never return. Prior to the earthquake, Christchurch accounted for about 15% of the New Zealand economy. Now it will cost as much as $15 billion to reconstruct. It’s hard for anyone to know where to begin. However, if you would like to join the millions of Kiwis (New Zealanders) and others around the world who are trying to help, please visit: http://www.redcross.org.nz or http://christchurchearthquakeappeal.co.nz.