Earlier this week on February 22, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city just after lunch at 12:51 pm (local time). Here in California it was still Monday the 21st, when early in the evening my husband reading news online called out, “there’s been another earthquake in Christchurch”.
That area had just experienced a 7.1 earthquake in September of 2010, a major geophysical event with no fatalities. I felt my stomach clench in fear. I just had a feeling that this time was going to be bad.
I lived in Christchurch from 1991-1993 while attending Canterbury University. Life-long friendships that blossomed there I am proud to say are still flourishing today. My heart sank as I thought of those friends, some of whom are still there and of other family and friends in New Zealand who could well have been in the area.
I started trying to sift through the early internet reports and although the images looked bad, at first the death toll seemed surprisingly low. Then I came across The Landslide Blog in the American Geophysical Union Blogsphere, and the objective scientific description of this event chilled me more than the images I was seeing:
“In essence this is a bulls-eye hit of a substantial event on the city. The Geonet reported magnitude is 6.3 …but the depth is very shallow (only 5 km). The consequence is high levels of shaking in the city center. ..
The likely impact of the earthquake is likely to have been exacerbated by the timing in the middle of the day, which means that many people will have been in the street (unlike the September 2010 (Darfield) event, which occurred very late at night). This means that many more people will have been in the way of collapsing buildings, breaking glass, etc. Fatalities are very likely as a consequence….”
Although lately I’ve come to bemoan the invasive role of technology in our modern lives, on Monday night I was sure grateful for the immediacy of the internet.
I saw posts from friends Georgina and Antony that they and their children were safe and together. I asked after another friend Melissa and her family who live in a suburb along the coast, closer to the epicenter of Lyttleton. Does anyone know her or how to find her?
Soon I found myself instant-messaging with another friend in Nelson who knows Melissa and she texted a mutual friend, who called Melissa’s granny to try and get some news. I left a post on my friend Slavko’s wall hoping that he’d see it and soon let me know he was safe.
I went to bed that night with sick anxiety and the grim reality of Powerlessness.
But by the morning I had already heard back from Kate in Nelson, Melissa and her family are safe. Still no word from Slav but I saw others writing to him, and mustered the certainty he would be okay.
I’ll admit, that moment sitting in front of the glowing screen thousands of miles away from being able to help those I care about, I said quiet thank-you to the Gods for giving us Facebook.
It’s so surreal watching destruction unfold on familiar grounds. I’ve walked through those streets and know those buildings. I remember drunken nights with friends laughing through Cathedral Square, and eating fish and chips and deep fried everything from the place by The Press building, and our shitty little flat above a row of shops in an old brick building – the type to just crumble and fall.
Christchurch was my first home away from home. It’s the first placed I lived away from my parents and it’s where I began my journey of growing up. To be sure, it was messy and mistake-ridden time but it was mine.
I spent the first year away from home in the dorms at Uni Hall where I made friends that I still have today. The next few years saw: first flatting experiences, many a night spent dancing at the Worcester Bar, Saturday mornings wandering through the Art Centre food stalls, laughing too much with my friend Slavko to get our papers done, riding my bike through Hagley Park, bad romances, RDU, and many, many an art-school-party and film fest.
We were young and excited and theoretical and we certainly never thought about uncertainties such as Earthquakes.
With any natural disaster the the tendency of the observer is to personalize – ‘what if this had happened to me? This impulse is good, it’s what leads us to give our money and resources to those whom we have never even met.
By knowing people who were directly affected by this earthquake and having myself been inside the buildings that I was now seeing reduced to rubble, the viseral quality of the images became much more real. But what had happened there didn’t really begin to truly sink in until I started to hear back from some of my friends online.
I am sharing their voices with you because their words describe better than any disaster movie script or procedure manual, just what will happen a catastrophic event occurs:
“Our family all here. Our home, a mess, craked, but not totally broken. It has hit our suburb hard though, the ground turns to liquid, tarceal a thin skin that has wrinkled and sunk, water and silt everywhere. And then someone with the bbq set up handing out sausages! It was like a huge giant running over the earth…
..Phillip watched the cliffs around him turn to water cascading, red dust, women screaming holding their babies, and then had to drive in the van through live wires, rocks falling, trains hanging…just mad….running out of diesel, phone battery going, traffic blocked, and then leaving van in the road, stuck, and running to get motor bike, no shoes. Our children now with a friend, on way to the closest high area.”
“Just managed to get out of the city and get power on my phone. And water! So delicious…thanks for good wishes and care. We are ok. xo”
“Finally I made my way across town, I am right on the other side, a 20 minute drive took 2 hours of negotiating wrong streets, potholes, cracks, local people out helping you get around mud and water, rubbish bins in huge holes, cars left stuck and caught on strange angles, bolt upright and glued to my window, bumper to bumper, you would roll your window down and talk to some stranger next to you..”
“Thank you for all the support. We’ve had enormous aftershocks all through the night and today – we didn’t get much sleep! Our chimneys have smashed down but house otherwise ok.Our building in Hereford Street has collapsed .”
Yesterday I had my first hot meal and fresh water and a hot coffee! I sat quietly wondering whether I was going to giggle or cry – so simple. and I held my friends hand as we sipped coffe and shared war stories. I thought she was lost because she always replies but it took a while to find her. We’re just so grateful…and all the other stuff? Things you buy and think you need? bah! I’ve known thirst now and water is enough.
“The day before the kids and I had walked over those lyttelton cliffs, had an ice cream in Lyttelton in a shop now gone, in the morning I had been at a strike meeting in town. There are so many lucky misses for us- but not every one. One father from school caught under rocks in his car- 3 sons. How to move on, repair, trust? Where will they even begin mending and fixing. Not sure if Chch will continue to be our home?”
The mind just begins to reel to think about what will be involved to clean-up after an event like this. How to even begin to move on?? And it’s hard to comprehend the ripple effect that will continue to move through the country and their economy as each person is in some way personally connected with this tragedy. In a small nation, this kind of an event will transform everyone.
My friends from Nelson, Georgina and Antony who run a business in the central business district of Christchurch, had this to say:
“Our own disaster movie unfolding. This is our place in the CBD in the foreground, Christchurch’s tallest hotel crumpling behind it. We had tenants in the front who are all ok, NZ Prints‘ warehouses are behind the front building – we are cautiously optimistic that because they were already braced with huge steel props and are single story we may be able to recover most of our stock at some point.”
“This is the most surreal, life changing experience and we are so lucky to still be here. Our businesses are seriously (hopefully not terminally) affected ….thankfully all our tenants escaped unharmed. I have a dear friend who is an engineer who risked her life yesterday to check our stock is at least undercover.”
So…how to go on? How to find hope? rebuild and find your way again?
“One thing I would to you say is prepare a disaster kit – especially water – because these things do happen in the first world now and then…..sometimes the victims will look just like you and me.”
The anxiety of the unexpected natural disaster has been weighing on me. I’ll look at my kids and think ‘what if I had to make my way across town to them, unsure of their fate?’ I sat in my living room yesterday and looked around at all my possessions, and flashed on it all crumbling and turning to rubble.
Of course, one can’t live with these thoughts all the time. It is unbearable to go through life with the feeling that at any moment you could lose it all. But in some ways we must. We have to walk some precarious tightrope of human emotion between denial and hyper-vigilance to get through the day.
And this week I realized that one part of the answer of how do to this is gratitude. This week I experienced being grateful for the ‘basics’ (food, available gas, lights, running water)and everything that we take for granted in first world lives.
The other part of the answer of how to heal things I think is through service to others.
Already there are people all over the world reaching out to those in Christchurch including this excellent appeal for the NZ Red Cross made by two guys who are “not tied to any charity or relief organisation, we just want people to give what they can where they can. Giving is the act of spreading love”
Yesterday the Prime Minister of New Zealand announced an International Appeal so those all over the world who are concerned about the people of Christchurch can contribute.
In Nelson, on Tuesday March 1st the inaugural celebration of Purple Cake Day will kick off. The aim of this event is to celebrate the children in our lives and empower them to help other children in need worldwide.
Purple Cake Day is an idea conceived by Nelsonian, Emily Sanson-Rejouis to celebrate the spirit of her daughters, Kofie-Jade (5) and Zenzie (3), who were lost with their father, Emily’s husband Emmanuel, in the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.
Emily holds a deep spot in my heart. We were girlhood friends together at Nelson College for Girls and she was obviously a special person even then. When we finished our university years, Em was the one who took her golden light out into the world and did good deeds for her global family while I returned to California and sold clothes. Her story breaks my heart in such a way that I can’t even write about it, but if you want to learn more go here.
Immediately following the earthquake, Emily established the Kenbe La Foundation (‘Kenbe La’ means “Never Give Up” in Haitian Creole), a registered charitable trust, to provide educational opportunities for children in need. The Foundation has since established Purple Cake Day as a specific day to celebrate and connect children from around the world.
In New Zealand, Purple Cake Day falls on Tuesday and will also mark one week since the Christchurch earthquake. The organizers have extended the mission of raising funds to support children in Haiti to include the children affected in the Canterbury area. They are asking people across New Zealand and the world to wear purple as a show of support and solidarity with the victims of these disasters. I really like what Emily said in this recent interview:
“From my experience, there are many ways we can help those going through this … even just messages of support can be a lifeline for people to know they’re not alone.”
The day gave children, who often wanted to help but did not know what to do, the opportunity to do something, she said.
“It’s terrifying for kids to imagine an earthquake could happen anywhere out of the blue – this is a good way of doing something positive to help ease that.”
So tomorrow when it is again Monday here in California, in unison with Purple Cake Day in NZ, I am going to make my own small effort to mark the celebration with my children here at home.
In addition to showing my support for this incredible initiative started by a woman I admire in response to the most devastating event of her life, I want to take this opportunity to teach my kids about gratitude and giving.
I’ll be having a little crafting party after school with some friends and their kids (anyone who’d like to join, please contact me!). I think we’ll make cupcake money-boxes so the children can begin saving some coins for charitable giving and inspired by the ‘Get Involved’ page on the Purple Cake Day website, we will be making some purple flags to carry messages of hope and support for children in Christchurch and Haiti. It’s a simple gesture and not very grand, but I want my children to know that they are a part of the human family and that when disasters befalls Us, we reach out to others. As others would reach out to help us. Because that is what a family does.