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New Zealand's darkest day

Everyone will have seen the horrifying images of the destruction caused by the earthquake that hit our second biggest city, Christchurch, at lunchtime on Tuesday, February 22nd. NZ is a small country of just 4 million people, and there will be no-one in the country untouched by this. Today, 3 days later, 600 specialist search and rescue teams from all over the world are sifting through the rubble still trying to find survivors, but with little hope. The last survivor was rescued more than 48 hours ago. So far 113 are confirmed dead with 200 still missing. Most of course are New Zealanders who were in their work places in the very centre of Christchurch or lunching in the central square overlooked by the historic Christchurch Cathedral – which now lies in rubble, covering an unknown number of bodies -- but there are thousands of tourists and foreign language students living there as well from all over the world. Many are among the dead and missing.

This is a city that was just recovering following the 7.3 earthquake that hit them out of the blue last September. That came in the middle of the night when everyone was at home in bed, and by an amazing miracle no-one was killed or even seriously injured, although there was extensive damage to property and roads. Since that quake the Christchurch residents have had to put up with thousands of aftershocks, which were finally becoming less frequent and generally smaller, although there was a big one the day after Christmas. This recent earthquake was 6.3, but much shallower and much closer to Christchurch’s CBD. That along with the ongoing de-stabilization of buildings and roads caused by the first earthquake and the thousands of after-shocks, and the timing of this quake in the middle of a working day, has made it many times more devastating. This is a new earthquake on a new (previously unknown) fault-line, and thus Christchurch will now go through the many months to years of numerous after-shocks again. This is a community who has had very little uninterrupted sleep since September.

We live a long way from Christchurch at the top of the other island (North Island) but I grew up near Christchurch and many of my family and friends live there, including Josie, one of my daughters, her husband, and their two small children. Josie, who is the very young CEO of the very large YMCA in Christchurch, was one of hundreds caught in the middle of the quake, and in her newsletter to the International YMCA association this was what she said about that surreal experience.

“At the time of the quake, I was having a lunch meeting in a cafe in the CBD. The entire cafe is now rubble. We were dug out of the building by police. Emerging into the street a short time after the quake, I felt calm, enjoying in some ways the adventure of it all. I now realise how lucky we all were. There was chaos and carnage on the street in Christchurch. People screaming and blood everywhere. I helped extract one person from a flattened vehicle, amazingly unhurt although very distressed.

I raced back up the road to the YMCA only to fall over numerous times because of violent aftershocks. When I got to the City Y it had been evacuated to Hagley Park, along with the rest of the Christchurch central city businesses. We did manage to gather together in the dining room of the Y about an hour later, offer comfort and hot drinks to our YMCA guests and other random passers by, and take a form of 'roll call' to start to account for people. It was raining inside – the flooding throughout the building on all floors, through the ceiling onto the ground floor. At this stage none of us were really aware of the extent of the damage in the central city.

Civil defence then advised us to totally evacuate and lock down the building. We were all back to Hagley Park. We set up tents and a soup kitchen and began feeding our people and anyone else who came along. Eventually Civil Defence set up a proper tent for people to overnight in…”
Her full letter and updates are posted on the International YMCA website (http://www.ymca.int/).

When the quake hit, we, like thousands of others in NZ, tried to get in touch with family and friends in Christchurch as we watched with horror the terrible images soon coming in on the TV and internet. We, of course, knew Josie would likely be in the centre (indeed the main YMCA building where her office is located is now in the cordoned off central CBD area). Within probably 5 minutes of the quake I called her cell phone and it rang with no reply and then went dead and stayed dead. Three long hours later we received a call from our son who had got a text from her to say she was OK (we have no cell phone coverage on the island so can’t get texts) but she hadn’t been able to contact her husband and children (one at school and a 3-year-old). As electricity, phone lines and most cell phone coverage was out all over the city, finding family was impossible for many people. Neither she nor us knew if her family were OK until 6.30 that evening when Josie finally managed to reach home. Three days later hundreds of families are still waiting and some still hoping that their missing loved ones will be found alive or even better are safe somewhere else – an increasingly unlikely possibility.

Josie’s house was in one of the harder hit suburbs and she fears it may not be able to be safely rebuilt, but it is liveable in now. They, like 80% of Christchurch still have no water and no sewage, and 50% of households have no electricity. My son, who no longer lives in Christchurch, has a retail furniture shop there that was hard-hit by the last quake and he thinks is a ‘goner” now. One of the strange things about this and the last earthquake is the liquefaction of the sandy soil some of Christchurch is built on. It occurs when the soil is shaken violently, causing water to rise through its pores and turning the ground to grey sludge into which cars and houses sink. This happens in seconds as the earthquake happens. As well as that of course, the roads move in great waves as people watch, and buckle, with great fissures opening, and rocks the size of two story houses smash from hills and cliffs onto houses and roads below.

The rescue effort is phenomenal, and incredibly well organised, involving so many countries who have come to our aid, and using the very latest technology to find survivors in extremely dangerous and unstable situations. I imagine there are few people experiencing this here who do not think about countries like Haiti whose toll was so many, many times greater and whose poverty and poor infrastructure meant that the search and rescue and rehabilitation efforts were hampered at every turn, however good the intentions.

NZ, I think, has no enemies; we are a peace-loving country with a strong moral sense, and have sent help throughout our short history to numerous countries in need. What comes around, goes around. It is hard to be on the other side of the fence because of a disaster that is not man-made, or even a ‘natural disaster’ caused in part by global warming. Some might say that Christchurch shouldn’t have been built there, but Christchurch was one of the ‘safer’ places in terms of natural disasters. NZ is the youngest country on earth both geologically and in terms of human habitation, and its very youth makes it less stable. Indeed its great scenic beauty is a result of geological ‘upheaval’. But the other side of this is that there is nowhere in NZ that is entirely safe from either earthquake or volcanic activity. Here on our beautiful island -- and indeed everywhere in NZ except Christchurch -- is as beautiful as ever, and we can only hope that Christchurch will be rebuilt, and that one day this terrible time will be just a sobering and sad memory. Thankyou for all the thoughts and messages of support to those you know – or don’t know – who are in the midst of this in Christchurch, and keep your thoughts and messages coming as they will make even more of a difference as the sad tasks of grieving and rebuilding go on and on.
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