Just over a week ago, I was writing about the latest big aftershock to hit Christchurch. As I mentioned then, today is the 5th anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the city and killed 185 people. It’s understandable if nobody down there likes February all that much.
The day has got me thinking about the passage of time, and how we made sense of it when it happened. Feb 2011 was the second big quake to hit that beleaguered city, but while the first damaged a lot of buildings it carried no loss of life. It took that second violent shock to bring Christchurch low. As with most of these disasters, in the first days there was a lot of raw footage and speculation, but reality of the situation took time to settle in.
This was the blog I posted a few days after the 2011 earthquake (most photos are courtesy of the Christchurch Press newspaper):
A few months ago I was writing about how lucky New Zealand had been. Last September, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck a previously unknown fault line near the South Island city of Christchurch. Several buildings in Christchurch were severely damaged. There were a lot of near-misses for the citizens of this picturesque, English-style city. No one was killed.
Mother Nature will remind us all not to get too smug.
One week ago today, another earthquake shook this poor city. The statistics would say that it should have been less significant than the first. It was a moderate 6.3 quake, making September’s quake officially 8 times stronger. But the fates were not smiling so widely this time. Last week’s quake was both very shallow (just 5km deep compared to 10km last time) and very close to the central city (10km away as opposed to 40km). It centered on the port town of Lyttelton, just across the ridge from central Christchurch. It also hit in the middle of the day, instead of the wee hours of the morning. Streets were full of shoppers, tourists and office-workers on their lunchbreak. The results were catastrophic.
Witnesses described the first earthquake as like rolling on a rough sea. They described the second as though someone had just grabbed the whole city and shook it violently like a can of spray paint. Hundreds of buildings simply shook to pieces. 755 have already been “red-stickered” by engineers as unsafe to enter and fit only for demolition, with thousands more seriously damaged. The death toll has been climbing all week. To date, 148 fatalities have been confirmed, and around 200 people are still officially listed as missing. Rescue and recovery crews from around the globe are working 24-hrs to try and locate people in the rubble. They haven’t recovered a survivor since last Wednesday.
I stated last year that Christchurch was always a very “bricky” city, and so poorly prepared for a large earthquake. The brick facades of all those pretty, old buildings just peel off and collapse onto the sidewalk. Many stone churches and government buildings have disintegrated completely. [see the link for before and after photos of some of the city’s most prominent buildings and churches] What’s more, there are plenty of steep cliffs to the south, prone to landslides, and the damp, silty soil under the city has proven to wobble like jelly and bubble up through cracks in the ground, allowing large structures to sink.
Up until last year, they hadn’t had a significant earthquake recorded near Christchurch, and it was thought to be a very safe place (unlike most of New Zealand). Modern buildings still adhered to New Zealand’s strict earthquake codes, but earthquake-proofing has been only a very recent science, and anything built before the 1990s would not meet the codes today. Furthermore, many older buildings were still in a state of repair from last year’s quake (and had continued to be damaged by months of rolling aftershocks). For anyone who’s been following the news stories, it’s easy to notice how many buildings were already covered in scaffolding (now all bent and broken) and surrounded by temporary fencing. [link has lots of photos of some dead, as well as devastation from around the city] This widespread construction work also accounts for how many men in hi-vis coats can be seen in the earliest footage of the quake rescues. Construction workers leapt in immediately to save people in buildings that had come down. Still, several buildings that had been assessed as “safe” in September, were brought down completely in February.
The bad stories are very bad. I listened with much of New Zealand as a Christchurch grandmother phoned talkback radio that night to mourn for the loss of her 9-month-old grandson, who was killed by a falling TV as he lay on his living room floor. A 5-month-old met a similar fate, in the relative safety of his own home, and was laid to rest just yesterday. Scores of relatives and friends have reported getting phonecalls and text messages from loved ones trapped inside buildings, not all of whom have been found. One collapsed building housed a TV station, medical center, English-language school, nursing school, and a daycare facility. At least 120 people were estimated to have been killed in that one building alone, including students from Japan, China and the Philippines.
The parents of baker Shane Tomlin were horrified to see footage of him being carried, semi-conscious, from the ruins of his workplace. After several days of trying to locate him (apparently trying every hospital across New Zealand), Police broke the news to them yesterday that he had died of his injuries and they would be preparing for a funeral.
Several news outlets ran these harrowing pictures of Donna Manning’s father and teenaged children, who had camped in a park outside her office building, waiting for any news. Photographers captured their reaction when Police informed them that the rescue mission had been ended, and there were thought to be no more survivors. (this isn’t a photo I like to re-post, save for the fact that it literally makes my heart ache)
In an appalling act of human greed, while this family still waited in the park for any news, burglars broke into their house and robbed them.
Last year I shook my head at all the bizarre people who flood Yahoo News at times like this, and scream about the end of the world. [EDIT: stories on link have since been removed] Many claimed that God saved Christchurch because it was a “Christian” city, and flattened Haiti because it wasn’t… except of course, that Haiti is about 98% Catholic and Christchurch is remarkably secular (like most of NZ) and actually named after the school at Oxford College… Several people also used the Christchurch quake as a chance to bash Haiti and New Orleans for all the criminals and looters who’d appeared in the wake of disaster (and a lot of comments got pretty racist about that, stating that Kiwis don’t go looting because we’re all “white”). But as with the story of the Manning family, it was incredibly naive to suggest that New Zealand wasn’t getting looting and fraudsters too (of various skin-tones), yet a handful of white looters doesn’t seem to be used to condemn a whole race. As this second quake demonstrates, the real differences between Haiti and the first Christchurch earthquake came down to a lot of factors: poverty, building codes, population density, time of day, location of the quake itself, and just a good old fashioned dose of luck. The video footage from right after the quake shows New Zealanders of all ethnicities pitching in and helping to rescue the injured (Hi, yes, we’re not all Caucasian). [Warning: this is fairly disturbing footage shot by the Christchurch Press newspaper just minutes after the quake. It contains images of deceased and seriously injured people, including the rescue of a fatally injured Mr. Tomlin, above.]
There was also on-the-spot video of Police arresting people for hindering the search efforts… white people. Like all people, we’re mostly a good sort. However, there are scumbags everywhere. This isn’t paradise: it’s planet earth.
The happier stories have been fewer, and often tempered with the greater backdrop of tragedy. Emma Howard’s fiance rushed to her office at the Pyne Gould Corporation building soon after the earthquake, only to find that the whole structure had pancaked down to rubble. Frantic, he explained to a reporter that they were to be married on Friday… They got their wedding. Emma was pulled from the wreckage six hours later, relatively unharmed.
One family had a falling boulder plow right through their house like a massive cannonball, destroying their children’s bedrooms. Fortunately, they weren’t home at the time.
And we want there to be more happy stories, but it will probably be a few more weeks of suffering still to come. Heaven knows when they will recover the last body. Insurers have already started saying that the clean-up from this earthquake may crack NZ$15billion. It is still a very raw time for this little nation. It’s easy to feel powerless.
Instead, I found myself going through the little collection of photos I took last year, and thinking about how Rob and I had mused about moving there. It seems like the sort of city that’s easy to love… And it is easy to love.
Even though Christchurch will mourn its dead, I know it will come back.
Kia kaha, Christchurch.