Looking back, staying on
Jolted out of deep sleep. Disorientation. Cacophony of roar and rumble, creak of stressed timber, shriek of contorted metal. Cascade of falling objects. A bed become a bucking bronco. Stretched time. Black, black absence of light. Cold. Pre-dawn, 4 September 2010.
Not that we knew it then, merely the start of this roller coaster year of living in the grip of a major seismic event. Awed by the power of earthquake, distressed by the fragility of the built environment, undermined by loss of trust in the safe solidity of home, nerves kept on edge by the unpredictability of the next aftershock, our initial shocked reactions were gradually replaced by growing complacency and self-congratulation for our resilience. Determined to get on with life, by Christmas we thought we were through the worst. Perhaps Boxing Day should have been a sign that was wishful thinking. But no one was prepared, emotionally or physically, for 22 February with its loss of life and injury. No one had anticipated the crumbling disintegration of 150 years of heritage in the city centre, the repeated grey inundation of street after street by the floods of dense silt forced up by liquification. No one had expected the destruction of houses and the impending loss of thousands more. These were scenes that belonged on television, not here in Christchurch, colonial city with its cushioned life style.
Neither had any one predicted the dramatic shift in the physical landscape itself. For me, the collapse of Shag Rock at the entrance to the Avon-Heathcote estuary and the altered outline of Castle Rock high on the Port Hills were as shocking as the loss of treasured buildings. Perhaps we expect the ephemeral nature of human endeavour and accept that buildings do not last forever. Both time and human activity destroy our heritage with impunity. But these were natural landmarks that had endured throughout our history, embued with story and resonance, unchanging on a human time scale. That they could be so altered in the course of a few seconds was graphic reinforcement of the power of natural forces.
The increased damage caused in June at last awoke everyone in Canterbury to the reality of what we are living through. And a year on from last September, the aftershocks continue. As the geologists are fond of putting it, this multiple seismic event is unprecedented in the richness of its sequence of aftershocks. Over 8500 at the time of writing, of which maybe 10% are actively experienced, mostly depending on where we are and what we are doing. Cantabrians can now confidently estimate magnitude and likely epicentre of many of these, and only jolts of 4 and above on the Richter scale are likely to cause more than a momentary pause, followed by a resigned shrug. But few of us now look at buildings in quite the same way. On visits to other cities, we frown at brick exteriors, tall chimneys and ornate facades, look askance at high-rise towers and skirt cautiously around retaining walls. On venturing inside, we look for escape routes and check for evidence of strengthening. In friends’ houses, we gape in concerned amazement at high shelves tottering with ornaments and precious china. Since September last year, I personally have not used a lift, entered a building of more than two stories, parked in a parking building, or lingered in a shopping mall. It’s taken me most of the year to recover equanimity in the dark of night.
Whether directly affected by the larger quakes or lucky enough to have escaped all but cosmetic damage, as I have, no one in Christchurch has been unaffected by the disruption to normal life and the ongoing roller coaster ride of complexity plaguing every aspect of recovery and rebuild that will continue to dominate our lives for years to come. Despite countless examples of courage and commitment from authorities and individuals alike, the drawing together of our local communities and the welcomed support of wider New Zealand, the present public expression of positivity and the understandable parading of progress are but a fragile skin stretched thin over the reality of living here for the thousands of families for whom nothing will ever be the same again.
Yet most of us, perversely, are staying. For many of course, caught up in the limbo of EQC assessments and insurance claims or the necessity of retaining employment and ensuring the continuity of education and routine for their children, there is no other viable option. But for many others of us, staying is an active choice.
Why? I can only answer for myself. Christchurch to me is its natural setting as much as its built environment and the friends and family that have tied me here for nearly fifty years. Although my heart is jolted each and every time I pass by the streets of collapsed or damaged, once familiar buildings or experience the surreal dark silence of the city centre at night, I find huge solace in the glory of the Botanic Gardens, the vast spaces of Hagley Park, the continuing tranquillity of the Avon winding its way through the city –– features that promise to influence the style of our rebuild. From the tawny heights of the Port Hills I can still absorb those life-affirming vistas –– the wide, surf-fringed curve of Pegasus Bay, the stretch of patchworked plains leading my eye to the distant ramparts of the southern alps glistening under a fresh cloak of snow. These are my inspiration. These give me the strength to believe that we will endure.