Nick Mutch, a native of Christchurch, New Zealand, offers a personal perspective on the 2011 earthquake.
Disasters like this are timeless. The infamous lines penned by the French philosophe Voltaire of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 have a sharp familiarity…
“Deluded philosophers who cry, “All is well,”
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble;”
I wonder, what if I had been in central Christchurch to catch my bus at one o’clock as scheduled? What if my stepdad had not hit a red light, stopping him from driving into a street that was about to become a graveyard? What if my mum had not transferred offices to another city mere months before the fateful day that it would be incinerated at the cost of eighteen lives?
Almost everyone living in Christchurch on the 22nd of February has a “what if” story about their close call with death. The ones that don’t, the 186 dead and their families, have no near misses to console themselves with. They are tormented not by the sight of the grim reaper, but by the feel of his scythe. To walk into the “red zone” as they call the former central business district of Christchurch, is an utterly bizarre phenomenon. It looks like the set of a cheap Hollywood disaster movie, and you keep waiting for someone to call “action!” Looking at the husks of delapidated buildings that you ate, studied or partied in just days beforehand gives you a true appreciation of just quite how fragile we really are.
Above all, this supposedly doesn’t happen here. We have a slightly chauvanistic tendency to think of devastation, whether manmade or natural, as something that happens to faraway countries like Haiti or Indonesia; not civilized, prosperous, first world New Zealand, where the only scenes of death and slaughter come from Lord of the Rings. If nothing else, this was the word’s third biggest insurance claim of all time, totalling over 20 billion dollars. One of the cruelest ironies about the February Earthquake is the fact that there had been a first earthquake in October 2011 which had also caused billions of dollars in damages, but, miraculously, no deaths. The second earthquake took everyone completely unawares, and our proudest monument, the Christchurch Cathedral was razed to the ground.
I usually have too many things to say on any given topic. But I have tried to write about this event many times, and have never been able to produce anything. Now, given time and distance, I’m starting to find it possible to pen my thoughts. The grief from a natural disaster is particularly hard to process, as there can never be any true resolution. No murderer or rapist can be sentenced, no opposing country humbled; nature is most indiscriminate with her victims. Of course, there were bigots who blamed it on divine punishment for New Zealand’s legalisation of civil unions and prostitution, which perfectly explains why so many of those killed were Chinese and Korean international students in Christchurch to learn English.
You can always find villians in situations like these; the “engineer” who designed one of the buildings which collapsed entirely and accounted for almost two thirds of the casualties, was found to have faked his degree. A wannabe staged a cheap attention stunt by claiming to be able to predict earthquakes based on the phases of the moon and the resulting tidal influence. He predicted a massive earthquake on the 20th of March and caused a minor exodus, preying on the fragile mindset and temporary gullibility of those desperate to have some kind of explanation or sense of stability to set against random destruction. Commissions of inquiry would later find various architects, government response organisations and planning agencies culpable in some form for the deaths, but they tend to become irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The point about a natural disaster is that you can never reconcile it into a narrative of the greater good.
And everyone can relate a story that will tug at your heartstrings. I myself went to the funeral of a 26 year old family friend who had been caught in a bus that had been trapped under rubble. His young wife had missed the funeral; she was in hospital to give birth to their second child. Or the tragedy of the girl who left her phone in a building, and turned to walk back in merely moments before the quake struck.
However, along with all the stories of despair, come some of true heroism. Doing far better work in a day than I will ever do in my life, my friend Leon made national news for, instead of fleeing the scene, smashing the window of a crushed work van, grabbing a torch, jacket and hard hat and proceeding to join the emergency services to provide first aid, and pull people out of the rubble. When I asked him about his motivations for jumping in, he told me it “just didn’t really occur to me to just not help. There is a reason why I want to be a cop and that is to help others who cannot help themselves, so this is exactly what was in my mind back on that day. The city was covered in a huge cloud of dust, so I knew shit was bad. Buildings down (the) High Street were already down, so (I) called mum (and) told her I was all good and then started jogging into town.”
Living through a shared disaster gives the community an odd ability to take pleasure in the macabre. Whenever we feel an aftershock for instance, it became customary to have a bet, for a drink, or a dollar, on who could come closest to guessing its magnitude on the Richter Scale. The new clubs built in town carry names such as “aftershock” or “Club 22” (in reference to the quake striking on the 22nd). You need this kind of gallows humour to survive the ongoing struggle.
The reason for this is that earthquakes never really end. We faced over 10,000 aftershocks, and they can strike at any moment, contributing to an attitude of despair and complacency among residents. Why bother rebuilding, when another shock could demolish your work the very next day? For the many victims of psychological trauma, aftershocks serve as a constant flashback trigger. This trauma can be subtle. It often takes months to emerge, and you won’t even know you have it until you wake, gasping and short of breath six months after the event.
I brought a friend from New Zealand, who had lost family in the quake, to Oxford last year. We had, in general, a great time, until I took her around Christ Church, and into its cathedral, which is the exact model for the now demolished one in my city. Looking around, she turned white, then started to slowly sob. Everyone who lived there has it etched into their memories, even the people, over 70,000 of them, that have since left the city, and we will likely live with it for the rest of our lives.
In terms of losses, I count as among the luckiest. My laptop was broken. I still dart for a table everytime the room shakes. I can’t find it in me to dance when Labrinth’s ‘Earthquake’ comes on. I had no close personal friends or relatives lost. But it haunts me to this day and always will.