Edge of Disaster

It’s been a week since the Christchurch earthquake, and Wellington had its obligatory “moment of silence”.  At 12:51, the time the quake hit, the hundreds of people packed into Civic Square stood silent for a minute.  Actually, they’d been standing silent for a fair minute or two before then.  It’s kind of freaky, actually, to have so many people, in such a public place, in the middle of the day, standing still and silent.  After the minute was up, they played the national anthem, and hundreds of people softly sang along.  Well, for the first verse anyway.  Like national anthems anywhere, nobody knows more than the first verse.  Unlike some national anthems, the NZ one is singable by your average person.

We’ve had lots of people asking how we’re doing, if we’re okay.  I was trying to explain in an email to my mother how odd it is to be sort of fluttering around the periphery of this huge disaster.  All of our friends are fine.  As far as we’ve heard so far, their houses are fine (one friend lost her home in the last earthquake, back in September), though some have lost chimneys, and several have had all of their belongings dumped on the floor.  Here in Wellington, there was no earthquake, and of course everyone is fine — but the chaos down south sends up ripples and eddies that catch up locals.  Though it would be more accurate to say that locals are willingly diving in…

Kerry, who actually works in Emergency Management, has spent days in “the bunker” under the Parliament building, directing messages, fielding requests, routing calls.  Much of our own city council has been pulled in: as with the last earthquake in September, the building inspectors from Licensing & Consents have gone down to assess buildings, so people know if their houses are safe to live in.  The Arts Centre was repurposed as a refugee processing center, and most of HR (including our friend Mel) spent a couple days there coordinating services for people coming in, or working out of the national emergency management center.  Air NZ and the military put on a bunch of flights to mostly get tourists out of the city, and they sent them to Wellington, where many of them arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, having left passports, toothbrushes, and everything else behind in buildings no one is allowed back in.  (The largest building in Christchurch, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, is currently leaning on a neighboring building, while engineers try to figure out how to bring it down safely.)  Geoff down in IT sorted out computers, laptops,  phones, etc. for the processing centre and for the airport.  Everything from setting up new land lines to take the extra call volume to finding chargers for cell phones so people could tell relatives they were alright.  Anyone who could spare an hour from their desk was asked to take a shift at the Council’s call center to take down details from locals volunteering to billet refugees until they got flights out sorted, or their consulate could get them new passports.  Our friend Sharon, who teaches Japanese, spent the weekend interpreting.  Zane, a geologist, is still down there assessing landslides.

And the rest of us sort of flap our hands looking for something useful to do, and in the meantime go on about our regular lives, while folks down in Christchurch are digging trench toilets to share with their neighbors, and boiling drinking water on gas barbeques.  The local eBay equivalent, TradeMe, set up sections where people can post offers of (or requests for) accomodation, lost or found pets, even rides around the country.  People all over NZ are offering their spare bedrooms, their beach houses, transport around the country, pet sitting services, whatever they have to offer, basically.  One ad read simply “If you are stuck somewhere because the roads are messed up, text me on ___ and I’ll organize a 4×4 to come and pick you up.”  In the city, the university students en masse showed up on campus and organized themselves into work crews and the army is coordinating with the ringleaders to put them to use where they’re needed.  (How often in history have students cooperated with the army so well, I wonder ?)   Canterbury farmers, who were spared the worst of it this time, are coming into the city with shovels, wheelbarrows, and even backhoes to help neighborhoods clean up the lakes of silt — ten feet deep in places — brought up by the liquefaction.

Even the big corps stepped up to do their part.  Fonterra rerouted its milk tankers to bring in water.  Coke is supply some crazy number of pallets of bottled water per day “until further notice”.  Air NZ has super-cheap “compassion fares” for people who need to get home, or get away.  The breakfast cereal companies are donating food, Johnson & Johnson medical supplies.  Heck, Loreal is donating shampoo.  One does what one can.

So, yeah.