Keeping a Level Head on Shaky GroundChristchurch, Spring 2012
This weekend, I needed a vacation. So rather than spending an hour strategically packing a bag, researching weather and travel logistics, driving through half of New Zealand, and eating trail mix out of the same worn zip-lock bag, I’m on my couch, in my flat, warm, dry, and cozy in cotton. We are on the brink of the cold dark winter season, and our time here is slowly creeping to an end. There are still enough weeks to buffer the “Oh my God how is this over already” panic, but they are few enough to have final papers and exams on the radar. And with this, plans have been made to revisit favorite trip locations, and hit up a few others that have been on the to do list. So now with these definitive dates, time is more precious, and things that have been shoved aside for months can’t be shoved much further.
One such procrastinated item stares at me every time I open my computer to look at my desktop: since February 28th, there has been a word document saved here entitled “quake.” I’ve opened it from time to time, adding a few lines or taking a few away. I’ve been close to publishing it twice, but always hesitated for one reason or another. And with traveling almost every weekend, my blogs usually get consumed by scenic pictures and fond memories of travel rather than the reality that we live with every day. But I’ve been procrastinating long enough, so I present to you the long-awaited blog on the city of Christchurch and the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake. My apologies for its length, I’ve broken it up into sections so feel free to pick and choose what you want to read. The ones with dates are the dates that I had actually written those sections.
The signs started when I went to check my bag, because even the Air New Zealand attendant in LA warned me that Christchurch was reduced to a “depressing disaster.” I brushed it off; I was totally blinded by jaw-dropping photographs and mountains that were waiting to be climbed. Eighteen hours later when I shuffled off the plane and into a taxi with a very talkative Kiwi driver who made fun of me when I tried to get in on the wrong side, it soon became very apparent how much life here revolves around the aftermath of the quake. There was construction in every direction, every building you passed had some kind of paint on it to mark its level of safety, and every interaction I had on that first day went something along the lines of “Hi, welcome to the shaky city. My name is _____, and _____ is where you go from our current location in the event of an earthquake.”
Because of New Zealand’s geographic location, earthquakes are nothing new here. But the real damage to Christchurch started on September 4th, 2010 with a 7.1 magnitude quake shook up the city pretty well in the middle of the night. There was a decent amount of damage, certainly enough to destroy some homes and draw attention to the fact that the city’s oldest building were not built in the proper manner to endure this kind of movement. But finding ways to rebuild them or reinforce the structure would not be necessary, thanks to February 22, 2011. At 12:51 PM, the magnitude 6.3 quake shook these buildings for the last time. Take 30 seconds to watch the beginning of this, it will give you a good idea of what actually happened on that day. 185 lives were lost, thousands of people’s homes were destroyed, and panicked friends and family frantically tried to reach each other.
Everyone here has a story, everyone remembers the exact place they were at 12:51 PM, and you can’t ask someone about it without getting chills up your spine as they recount the details. After 911, I distinctly remember the distant stare that people had in their eyes. Well it is that exact same stare: like you’ve put them in a time machine and watched them go right back to that moment, reliving the emotions all over again.
March 16th, 2012
By this time, I had adopted a solid Friday routine of taking a bus out to Sumner (a small beach town about 45 minutes away from University) where I would spend the day in a coffee shop, sometimes to do school work, but mostly just to write. This is the beginning of another attempt at this post from one such Friday.
The bus rides out here have given me the time to dissect a feeling that I’ve struggled to comprehend in the time I’ve been in Christchurch: restlessness, anxiousness, even a little anger, and all for no obvious reason. The people are all friendly, I’ve made a great group of friends, and I’m getting to see some amazing parts of the country. So where are all these negative feelings coming from? I understand how obvious this sounds when I actually say it, but: the earthquake happened. And yes we’ve all been warned about the extensive damage and the non-existent city center, but it is impossible to have any ideas about the mental impacts of a city destroyed to this extent until you’re actually living in an area that has been this obliterated. You literally can’t go anywhere without seeing the aftermath. There is the constant noise of bulldozers or electric power tools, and the color noise of red tape around endless blocks of plots piled high with rubble. Every single building you enter has a “Cleared on ____ date” sign on it, every building you can’t enter is labeled with spray paint, and even our bedroom walls have bright red earthquake emergency plans on them…
Service Learning: Christchurch 101
In some of my previous posts, I’ve mentioned a class I’m taking here called Rebuilding Christchurch (CHCH101). It is essentially a service learning course that is the brainchild of Bill O’Steen, a professor who spent years working in alternative schooling in the states and saw a need for service learning in higher education. The earthquake was the perfect opportunity to implement a service-based course at University, so Billy did just that. This class has been an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the earthquake, participate in service opportunities here, and actually meet some of the key players is the recovery process of this city. Several of the stories to follow and the people that will be mentioned would have never been on my radar without CHCH101.
One day in class, we were discussing individual reactions to the earthquake when a Kiwi student replied: “I wish my house had collapsed.” Huh? I didn’t understand that logic at all until he elaborated, and now it all makes perfect sense. Many houses were absolutely destroyed, and their inhabitants were forced to get out, and start over. But then there are the houses that didn’t collapse: Good, right? Not so much… I learned that the houses might not be gone, but they are not safe to live in due to instability, liquefaction, and a variety of other serious safety issues. So this leaves the inhabitants absolutely stuck. You have a home that you emotionally can’t leave, but physically you can’t live in it… so what do you do? How do you move on? How does this impact your daily life, your ability to work, you ability to do well in school?
You think you’re the only one? In another class, our discussion morphed into a venting session on the attitude that some people held about the earthquake: Poor me, I lost this, you wouldn’t understand, feel sorry for me. The class has an interesting blend of Kiwis and foreigners, and it never occurred to me before this discussion that this kind of attitude is ridiculous, because everyone here experienced the quake and everyone struggles on a daily basis to move on and heal and fix things. Sad? Of course. But at the same time, it brings about this incredible unity, this sense of oneness, a sharing of pain and a sharing of resources.
“Why Wouldn’t You?” The Student Volunteer Army
After the September 2010 quake, two students who were waiting for classes to resume at University decided they were sick of sitting around in the midst of all the damage, so they picked up shovels and went out to start clearing some of the damage. They made a facebook page for other people that wanted to get involved, and soon it had over 2,000 followers. When the February quake hit, the page exploded from around 2,500 likes to over 26,000 within just a few weeks! Needless to say, it became a vital tool for organizing people who just wanted to do anything they could to help, and thousands of students were out on the streets as the first responders while the higher ups were still trying to decide the best way to respond to the crisis.
One of the coolest aspects of this group is that is also became a tool for people around the world to reach out to their friends and families that they couldn’t get in touch with due to communication failures. People would post names and addresses in the group, and some volunteer would venture out to the location to make sure that person was safe, and then report back in the group.
When we met Jason, one of the co-founders of SVA, his first comment was “don’t put me on a pedestal.” He said all of this was just a natural reaction to a clear problem: there was this immense amount of damage, so why wouldn’t you do something to help? SVA gained so much publicity that the founders were actually summoned to Japan to offer their advice on volunteer management there. Jason shared his frustrations over the fact that SVA could never work in any other country, because it was too unrestricted, and too hands on. And that is so true, I know from volunteering with Habitat in the states that you wait around half the time for instruction, for “the okay” to do something, for the liability waivers to be signed. But sometimes there isn’t time for that, and I am amazed by the strength of the SVA network and the amount of people they’ve reached. Check out their website here, or have a look at the facebook page that started it all!
The Aftershocks: Literal and Figurative
Everyone always asks about the aftershocks. I’m from upstate New York, I can deal with freezing weather and I know how to drive a car in a snow storm but when the ground starts shaking under you uncontrollably and you don’t know when it is going to end, well that is a whole different story. My first aftershock woke me up during the night, but being a deep sleeper I remember thinking, “ah, this is actually kind of relaxing” and falling back to sleep. The second significant one I felt was around one in the morning on St. Patrick’s day, so you can imagine the confusion that caused for some of the more die-hard Irish people… but besides that, there was only one that really put me on edge. In the library you can sit on the second floor with a straight view of the entire lower level, and the aftershock I felt sitting there lasted a little too long for my comfort. It wasn’t the actual shaking that bothered me as much as looking down and seeing everyone just stop in their tracks, looking at one another with nervous expressions, most getting that glazed-over look that brings them back to February 22nd… I can’t imagine living through that first hand and then having no control over whether or not it will happen again.
Like I mentioned before, everyone has to deal with this and everyone is effected by it in their own way. I got very lucky with an amazing group of flat mates who I really enjoy spending time with. One is a PhD student from Iran who grew up there in the middle of a war. We’ve talked about PTSD and how the aftershocks bring back those awful memories for her, so whenever the ground shakes she is always the first one to run out and see if we are okay. The first time this happened after our two Chinese flat mates had just recently arrived, she ran into the living room to ask what they thought about their first aftershock and to see if they were upset. Comically, in broken English they both replied, “we did not feel, we were dancing.” It is true that if you are walking or moving around, you may completely miss an aftershock because they are much more dramatic if you are sitting still. So whenever we have a big one and my flat mate rushes over to check on my safety, our running joke is “Oh, you got nervous feeling that one? You must not have been dancing enough!”
The first time I ever hiked in the Port Hills of Christchurch, I was completely confused as to where we were. When you look out towards the city you see tall buildings and some sort of rough skyline, but I had been “in the city” multiple times and I hadn’t seen a building more then five stories tall. That is because the entire city center has been declared a “red zone,” meaning it is completely restricted due to damage and potential for further harm. As a result, Christchurch doesn’t feel like a city. The closest you can get to the heart of the city is the extensive parks and small shops around the outskirts, but the reality is looking for traces of what this city once was in-between demolished plots of land and yellow construction tape.
I imagine it will take decades to restore this area to anything close to what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean that the city in its current state hasn’t developed a unique culture of its own. There is an area right outside of the Red Zone called ReStart, and it consists of several businesses and shops that have taken homes in large, temporary containers. There are container shops, container banks, even a container bar! In another development, we met a woman in CHCH101 who was inside her home when it completely collapsed around here in the earthquake. Left without a home and job, she founded Gap Filler, a non-profit organization that takes demolished plots of land and fills them with something for the community. Examples include a community book exchange, lawn bowling, and an enormous dance floor that lights up when you step on it. Example’s of art work that resulted from Gap Filler can be seen all throughout the city. Like SVA, it utilizes social media to keep the movement going. I’ve gotten emails in the middle of the night saying things like “We need to move a piano to one of our newly acquired plots tomorrow, anyone who thinks they could help make this happen please report at 10 AM.”
If I were to go back in time, knowing the extent of the damage of this city, would I make a logical decision to come here anyways? Honestly, probably not. So if I could go back in time knowing what I know now, would I do it? Not a chance.
Study abroad is supposed to take you out of your comfort zone, and that is exactly what this has done. On a campus exploding with engineers and scientists who study here to analyze safety and fix a tangible problem, I often feel out of place. I spent two semesters slaving over a thesis on alcoholism, which I am very proud of. But those sleepless nights in caffeine overdose and endless hours spent reading previous studies and painstakingly pulling significant trends out of data analysis software have absolutely no relevance or credibility when my peers are always discussing mathematical calculations or analyzing the magnitude of the latest aftershock.
But at the same time, watching a community react to this kind of disaster firsthand is a priceless experience from a sociological perspective. The energy that people possess and the genuine desire to make a positive change is truly incredible, and in that regard I think Christchurch is truly unique in the positive attitude of the people here. I hate to think that prospective students would turn down the opportunity to spend a semester here because of the quake, because regardless of the mountains we’ve climbed and countless the ocean sunrises that have taken my breath away, the energy of this community is easily the most spectacular things I’ve ever been a part of.
So that is the true experience as a study abroad student here in Christchurch. Here is to six more weeks of safety, of serenity, and of true discovery both outside of city limits and within. Thanks for your time and curiosity, some more photos are below. Cheers, J.
You May also like: