Christchurch: courage under fire

As the finishing touches were being put on events planned to mark the passing of a year since the earthquake that began Christchurch's annus horribilis, last Friday morning the earth moved once more. It was merely - merely - a tremor measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale.

It caused little visible damage, but for Cantabrians it must have come as a gratuitous reminder of the trauma and tragedy that began to rock their world at 4.35am on September 4, 2010. Since that day, they have lived through 8358 seismic shocks, an average of about 23 per day: little fewer than one every hour of every day since that 7.1 magnitude quake turned life in the city upside-down.

Many of those aftershocks will have been insignificant and gone unnoticed, but most people resident in and around Christchurch - quickly attuned to the menace of a moving earth beneath them - will have experienced the 500 or so shakes of a magnitude greater than 3.8. Even this is significantly more than one for every day of the year since, and may give other New Zealanders a sense of the reality and frightening uncertainty the people of Canterbury have had to endure.

In noting this and in reaching for adjectival assistance to describe the mien with which they have met their ordeal - courageous, dogged, resolute, resilient, rugged, staunch - it is all too easy to render it in a wash of pale platitudes which, in the end, are entirely inadequate.

It was a miracle the earthquake which struck just over a year ago killed no-one, an outcome favourably weighted by the time at which it occurred - when so few people were in the central city or out and about - and despite the ferocity of the energy released. It amounted to the equivalent to 67 nuclear bombs of the size that devastated Hiroshima.

But miracles do not often come in pairs and the 6.3 magnitude earthquake, which hit the city at 12.51pm on February 22 this year, provided a savage reminder of urban vulnerability to seismic assault. It left 181 people dead, residents of Christchurch and visitors alike. It destroyed - or at least rendered unsafe - much of the central city that had remained salvageable after September 4; and that was before a further 6.3 shock on June 13. Even now, the heart of the city remains cordoned off, a crumbling, twisted monument to a year from hell.

For all too many people life remains stark: entire suburbs have been condemned, with red-zone residents having lost their land, their homes and in some cases most of their possessions.

In certain respects, those might yet be considered the fortunate ones: at least they can begin to plan their future lives with the certainty they will receive payouts on 2007 valuations of their properties. Amid continuing aftershocks others carry on not knowing the fate of what for many people is their major asset: their homes. Should they wish to move - or had they been contemplating it for lifestyle, family or career reasons even prior to September 4 - they cannot.

Then there are the ruined businesses, often representing the loss of a lifetime's endeavour. For their proprietors this is an additional tragedy, one that impacts on all those whose livelihoods were dependent upon them. Schools have been closed or relocated, visiting disruption on children and parents alike; Canterbury University is having to face the fact it will not be unscathed by the upheavals, with predicted falling rolls and potential reductions in staff numbers.

In fact, no facet of the city has remained untouched or unchanged. It must at times during this past year have begun to seem like living in a war zone with an invisible, implacable enemy constantly lying in wait.

And yet, the over-arching story of Christchurch is not one of defeat and despair in the face of unprecedented natural disaster.

It is one of hope, of positive attitude and of constructive thinking. For this we can only admire our northern cousins and, where we can, offer to assist in whatever way they might need or see fit.

For those of us irritated by the small inconveniences of everyday life, their example of enduring "courage under fire" is a powerful and affirming antidote.



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