Christchurch, Feb 22 Quake – reactions from abroad

By | February 22, 2011

Wow. Just, wow.

For those who don’t know, my hometown of Christchurch just got hit by <i>another</i> large quake, this one “only” a 6.3, but right under the city, and extremely shallow (about 5km). Death toll’s at 75 so far, but there’s still 300 odd people missing, and many ruins yet to be searched. Buildings of all shapes and sizes in the central city have either collapsed already, or are on the verge of collapse. Christchurch Cathedral (often used as a symbol of the city) lost its tower and NW corner, while the big Baptist church on Oxford Tce has been flattened. The Hotel Grand Chancellor, tallest hotel in the city at 26 storeys, is on the verge of collapse, having apparently sunk on one side by about three metres during a ten minute period sometime this morning. If it goes, it may well take a block of neighbouring buildings with it, too.

Photos and videos of the quake and its aftermath abound online. Those showing tangled mounds of scaffolding and other signs of rebuilding from the last quake (September 4, last year, a 7.1 some 40km west of the city), confounded by yesterday’s, are particularly depressing, while others, showing collapsed buildings and great cracks in the road, are perversely fascinating. Those with people are generally uplifting – people celebrating their escape from the PGG building, people helping other people, and so forth. As always, people rise to the occasion of shared tragedy.

My reactions have have been multifaceted:

Shock came first, but passed quickly – after a brief feeling of “not-again”, I was resigned to the fact of it, and moved on. Of course, I’m in Japan, not NZ, so any shock I feel is trivial in comparison to that felt by people there, even those in the safer parts of town where liquefaction was largely non-existent. It was more the shock of seeing the places that make up one’s past turned upside down.

Urgent concern swiftly followed, and it too was blissfully short, with a few notable exceptions; modern communications made it easy to track down most of my friends and family, and despite a lot of worrying about the few who didn’t show up for several hours, I’m now fairly confident that everyone I know well in the city is fine, with most suffering only relatively minor damage to home and contents (chimneys off, shelves down, but no fires or collapses). Similarly, my parent’s house is apparently mostly OK (though I’ve yet to talk to them).

If I’d been there, I’m fairly confident that my next reaction would have been an urge to do something – to find something apparently useful to do and to do it, partly to help and partly to combat the crazy feeling of being useless. Being in Japan, though, I’ve got something akin to survivor’s guilt that I’m going to call avoider’s guilt – the feeling that those I know and love are suffering, and there’s nothing I can do about it. From here, all I can do is watch and sympathize with those I can contact through chat. There’s more to it than this, though, I think. Going back home over Christmas, I had a definite feeling of having not been a part of what had clearly been a defining experience for so many of my friends. It’s hard to place emotionally – it’s kind of like alienation (but not), kind of like jealousy (but not), and kind of like a missed opportunity for solidarity. Mostly, though, it’s just a mass of silly, misguided guilt; a nexus for stress to gather and fester.

Another ongoing reaction has been the sick fascination of reading news reports, watching videos, looking at photos, and talking about events, statistics, political and economic implications, and the underlying natural events. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know what’s going on, but there’s something perverse about the enthusiasm with which curiosity is pursued in the face of disaster. Yesterday was particularly bad – I just had to keep checking Facebook and the various news sites to see if anything had happened – today, I’m almost gleefully awaiting the collapse of the Hotel Grand Chancellor, an event sure to be spectacular.

To be sure, sorrow and empathy are present, too, but being so far removed, they’re mostly internally focused. There’s certainly sorrow over the places destroyed, but with most of my people safe, what sorrow there is is overcome with relief. I expect I’ll be struck by the angst of destruction and change much more strongly when I go back in December.

All in all, I’m in a very weird place, and though I know that being there would have been terrifying and mad, part of me wishes I was. There’s truth to the idea that life has to be experienced to be appreciated, and I wonder what I might have learned about myself had I been there. Is that wrong or weird? Foolish or silly? Probably. But it’s what’s in my head at the moment.

This last December, while it was strange and vaguely disorienting to return to Christchurch to see the cracks and damage from September’s quake, this next December I suspect it will be much worse. From the photos, it looks like vast numbers of buildings throughout the city will have to be demolished and replaced, and I doubt the cleanup will be complete, even then. It’ll be strange. I can only imagine how strange it is for those actually there.

For now, then, here’s hoping that this will be the last big quake to hit Christchurch for some time to come.