I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. I lived there from around 1963 to 1976, and visited frequently after that until at least 1985. Now I live in Wellington, about 300 Km away.
A few days ago an earthquake of magnitude 6.3, centred just 10 km from the city centre and a mere 5 Km deep killed an unknown number of people — 76 confirmed at present, but many more are not yet identified. The quake shattered the city: many buildings are broken or flattened, so damaged as to be unusable, or even just showing cracks and assorted problems while people still live or work in them.
This quake came less than 6 months after a more distant, deeper quake of magnitude 7.1. The earlier quake struck in the middle of the night when most people were home in bed. No one was killed and injuries weren’t extensive. This one struck at lunchtime.
Aftershocks continue, many quite strong.
It’s too soon for me to have any coherent thoughts, but I wanted to note these things that are swirling around in my brain.
It’s human nature to care and help
It’s obvious that the first reaction anyone has after getting out of immediate danger is concern for others. Those in the quake helped friends, colleagues and strangers to the best of their ability. Those from far away expressed concern, or started whatever actions they could to help the affected.
It’s what we do; it makes us human: we group together to beat adversity.
That help continues now, and will be needed for a long time.
The Prime Minister, John Key, promised that we as a nation would work together to recover from this tragedy (for example, 2 minutes 02 seconds in to the video below).
We feel connected to your suffering. Your tragedy is our tragedy. … This proud country’s right behind you and we are backing you with all our might.
At other times it’s about blame and shame
Mere hours before the quake the Welfare Working Group released harsh and punitive recommendations, the report Reducing Long Term Benefit Dependency, that would further squeeze some of the most vulnerable people in New Zealand: those receiving welfare and benefits.
The report continues a long trend of blaming people for being poor and needing help, and suggests they just need to try harder. More bureaucracy, more accountability, more statistics are the plan; not more actual help or compassion.
Mr Key sparked outrage last week [February 2011] when answering questions in Parliament he defended his Government’s efforts to help the “underclass”, a term he coined while in opposition in 2007.
Mr Key said the global recession had contributed to an increase in food poverty.
“But it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills,” Mr Key said.
The blame and shame approach goes completely counter to the instinct I mentioned above for help and compassion. I wish as a society we could embrace compassion outside of disasters.
Twitter had the info
I have Twitterpals in Christchurch, as do other of my pals. As soon as the quake struck numerous people were tweeting about it. Within minutes photos came through. The hashtag #eqnz collated tweets about the earthquake.
Very quickly there were tweets about what was going on, where to go, what to do. As the hours have gone by Twitter has been a venue for photos, links to information, tweets about finding people, checking on them, setting up helpful websites and services.
Just like the traditional media, it has its share of rumours and false reports, but overwhelmingly it was the place to go for news and information.
Disaster organisation is very sophisticated
As I watched what was happening on TV it soon became obvious that we have excellent disaster planning in New Zealand, and that such planning is very sophisticated.
Rescue workers moved immediately into action in what was clearly a planned and co-ordinated effort. Spokespeople gave good information, emphasising a systematic approach and generally refusing to speculate.
As I thought about it I also realised all the planning and systems that go on in the background.
The rescue workers we could see on TV were obvously working very hard. But there must be huge numbers of ‘invisible’ people also filling in forms, bringing cups of tea, supplying and cleaning toilets, setting up tape to keep people clear — if you can imagine it, I bet it was going on in an orderly fashion behind the scenes.
And it needs to be orderly, co-ordinated and planned. People are desperate to help, but sometimes all they do is endanger lives. One chap was arrested after making things harder while trying to ‘help’ and refusing to back off when asked to.
The news media sometimes seem too focused on one spot
After a while I added TV News to my sources of information. The major NZ channels carried full time coverage with no ads.
What became very obvious quite quickly though was that they were reporting only from the heavily damaged Central Business District (CBD) while apparently neglecting all the suburbs and other areas.
Perhaps they had a good reason for that. I don’t know: they didn’t tell us.
The news media seemed reasonably humane
The reporters want their stories and sometimes seemed to push a bit hard for words from those in shock and distress. On the other hand they seemed to avoid shots of dead bodies and other invasive scenes.
Distant friends made contact
Soon after the quake, as the news got out, buddies from all over started contacting me to see if I and my friends and family were OK. This included Twitterpals, mailing list buddies, and people who quietly read my MacTips.
My sister’s in Christchurch and doesn’t have a cellphone. Her power was out and the phones were overloaded. Her daughter who’s in Australia was able to find information from Facebook and eventually talk to her mother to share what was going on.
The world has become a small and caring community.
Your problems are my problems
New Zealand is small. We have a total population around 4.3 million. Christchurch is home to 400,000 — 10%. We all know people directly affected. We’re all shaken and perturbed by this disaster. Its economic ramifications will be huge too.
The magnitude problem
We’ve all heard of the Richter scale that assigns a magnitude to earthquakes. The shake last September was a 7.1 and caused only a little damage. This was a 6.3 and was devastating. Scientists have said the force exerted in this shake was much higher.
Why do we use the Richter scale rather than something that incorporates the effect of the shake?
I’m not prepared
Several years ago I assembled an emergency kit. I even updated it last September, jolted by that quake. I feel pleased that I have supplies on hand. I’m prepared.
Except I’m not. I realise I have a small camping stove so we could boil the water we have ready for an emergency.
I’ve never used a camping stove before. I don’t have any matches to light it and don’t know how to light it. Do I have a pot for the water? I don’t know.
Clearly I need to have a practice before I need it for real.
And after all, we were all surprised 6 months ago when Christchurch was hit. Everyone always thought Wellington would get it. We’re all waiting for The Big One here.
Now Christchurch has been hit again. For all we know, their quake will shake loose something that will trigger our known major fault.
It’s not over any time soon
This is a huge disaster. It won’t be over by tomorrow, or next month. Metaphorical aftershocks will resonate through time for a long while yet.