A month ago, to the day, a new normal for all of us in Christchurch began. Tap water isn’t drinkable and now smells like bleach. The CBD is a wreck, something like one in three buildings will have to be demolished. The roads are covered with bumps, cracks and silt. And the game of guessing the magnitude of an aftershock has lost a lot of it’s charm. On the morning of the 22nd, school started later because of a teacher’s union meeting. Friends from school posted on Facebook that the school swimming sports weren’t going ahead that day because of the weather. It was looking like an average day.
At 12.51pm I don’t think anyone realized that the quake was going to be any different to the numerous other aftershocks we’ve had. But this one kept going. Everyone in the Chemistry lab we were in safely got under the tables. Maybe surprisingly, no chemicals were spilled or glass broken. After the shaking stopped, I grabbed my bag on the way out and we all went to the field.
About an hour later, still on the field, just after replying to someone on Twitter that they should hold off trying to get in touch with friends in Christchurch via phone because it sounded like everyone was fine, I read a tweet that the quake had claimed lives. We experienced a strong aftershock while at school near the end of last year. I think we all thought that this would be the same: that there would be no deaths, not 166+. That the city centre would be accessible in a few days if it was cordoned off at all, not in months. That boiling water wouldn’t be required at all, not for longer than a month. The 166+ people dead are our people. I completely agree with Moata that it’s unlikely that someone in Christchurch doesn’t at least know someone who knows someone who has had to attend a funeral over the past few days and weeks. No one thought we would have to adjust to a new normal.
“All of my friends and family have been accounted for, though the chances that an acquaintance or a friend of a friend has not been killed is fairly low. There are only a couple of degrees of separation in Christchurch.”
A few days post-quake, I saw an article about cyberbullying in schools relating to teachers searching phones. I’m not doubting the seriousness of the problem, but one of the commenters suggesting banning cellphones altogether in schools. Without most students having a cellphone, the task of getting everyone home from school with an adult (especially for younger students), with limited access to buildings (and their landlines) until they were checked by engineers would have been made even more difficult. Technology is something that should be embraced everywhere. The uses of it post-disaster illustrate that point perfectly. Garth Bray, a TVNZ reporter, talks about how helpful smartphones were after the Japan earthquake here.
Back at home, a few hours afterward, our place was relatively untouched. The power and water were out and silt made it’s way into the garage, but they were little problems compared to the big picture. With our cellphones, mobile data and battery powered radio, we still felt connected.
In the time it took me to get home, the IT community of New Zealand and beyond already had the EQ.org.nz map up in one form or another, running Ushahidi (I love the name, it is the Swahili word for “testimony or witness”). Over the next two weeks it complemented media coverage by mapping the locations of important resources for Christchurch residents, like available ATMs, petrol stations that were open and what the restrictions on petrol there were, where water, medical treatment and showers were available…. Within a day or two they managed to arrange the short code text service for EQ.org.nz with Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees, volunteers to man the messages coming in through the website, meetings, a partnership with the Student Volunteer Army and media coverage (the map was mentioned in newspapers, on the TV news, on Teletext(!), Fair Go and by the @CEQgovtnz Twitter account)… If I was in charge of an emergency, I’d want to be working with these guys. The media were great. Fairfax, and in particular Reuben Schwarz liaised with EQ.org.nz and Stuff.co.nz switched from using their own instance of Ushahidi to the EQ.org.nz instance. Google and TradeMe, among others, set up pages to help too.
By now, my sister had walked home from the CBD with colleagues and brought with her the war stories of what town was like. What the Cathedral looked like, the chaos and the people. That the huge window beside her that she climbed out of had luckily burst outward instead of bursting in towards her.
Over the coming days we started to get into the hang of the new normal, which involved filling up bottles of water at my granddad’s house and using his shower. A couple of times we received wrong number calls from people trying to find out if their loved ones were okay. They responded with something along the lines of “oh, I thought you were x and alive”.
The two times I ventured into the cordon with Project7 as a photographer, everyone was friendly, including the army personnel and the other media. The feeling in the cordon was eerie and somber, but still hopeful. Silt that had emerged from beneath the ground had effectively buried cars parked on the streets. Shop fronts were shattered and fluro writing was spray painted on to mark that a building had been checked for people. Cars were crushed by falling masonry. Buildings had collapsed. About a month before the quake I was at the top of the Cathedral’s tower, which collapsed in the quake and near the top floor of the Forsyth Barr building, where the exit stairwells collapsed. I had a slight feeling of guilt that media were allowed in the cordon, but business owners that needed to get essential equipment and documentation out from their buildings were not. I know businesses were starting to be let in shortly after my last trip in, but there is still anger within the business community. I think many probably regret not grabbing some things on their way out.
I have mixed feelings about the memorial service that was held. I didn’t attend, or really watch it, but I have read that many people found it touching. On the other hand I read that some families couldn’t bring themselves to attend because their grief was still too raw. Businesses would have felt the effect of either having to close for another day, or paying employees time and a half plus giving them a day in lieu. Students missed out on another day of school. It sounds like it helped people, which is great, but I think it could have been held at a better time later on.
If the quake did anything, it made everyone stronger. It confirmed what I think everyone knew, that in a natural disaster there are many people who are kind and selfless. Our New Zealand spirit shined. CTV’s building was one of the most badly hit but the message on their channel was “down but not out”. The press conferences introduced foreign media to terms like buggered and munted. Our mayor, Bob Parker, in one of the press conferences talked about one of the main sign language interpreters being given the name “hot Jeremy” by a Facebook fan page. Forgotten time capsules were discovered in town. And a boulder that smashed through someone’s house was sold via a hilarious auction on TradeMe.