2 days ago, our city was again struck by a major earthquake. 5 months ago, a 7.1 magnitude quake struck in the dead of night, miraculously resulting in no casualties. We patted ourselves on the back, brushed off our knees and started to rebuild, thinking that we had suffered and survived 'The Big One' that all NZers grow up expecting sometime during their lifetimes.
This time, though the quake measured less in magnitude (a 6.3), it was centred a few kilometres from the city centre and was only 5km below the surface.
Dozens have been killed. Possibly hundreds. Being such a small city, everyone knows someone dead or feared dead. 2 degrees of separation and all of that. There are 200 people still unaccounted for. 2 days on, people remain trapped beneath the rubble of their workplaces, cafes and homes, while sniffer dogs and their masters (co-workers seems a fairer term) scour the debri. Amazing stories of survival emerge. We watch, glued to the TV, as Armani-clad business people emerge from literally pancaked buildings, covered in dust and bloodied, their loved ones hysterical with relief from their point of vigil. The media anger us with their intrusion into the carnage, but we still watch, turning off the TV only when our children ask another awkward, unanswerable question, or when the tears become too much to hold in.
By some crazy stroke of 'luck', soldiers, both foreign and local were in the city completing exercises at the time. I use the word 'luck' loosely, because it's hard to speak of such a thing when 30 minutes from your doorstep there are people dead and suffering on the streets. What is luck?
But we're okay. The kids are a bit nervy, but so are we. Our beautiful historical city has effectively been destroyed. Basic infrastructure is mostly beyond repair, so primary services like running water, power and sewerage are either not functioning or severely rationed. Disease is feared, as raw sewerage flows into rivers and leaches up from below the surface, blending with silt and sand to form a stinking sludge.
This isn't supposed to happen here. Surely our well-heeled selves in fair Christchurch should be exempt from such horrific acts of nature. Surely these things only happen in third world countries, where we can just click our tongues, flick World Vision $100 and absolve our consciences from any personal responsibility or grief. Disasters on this scale don't happen to real people, do they?
Our historic Anglican cathedral, long seen as the symbol of our city, and indeed a symbol of resolute Cantabrian spirit following the last quake, is a pile of rubble. 20 people are believed to be dead in its ruins, but it is unsafe at this stage to attempt to retrieve the bodies.
I can't bring myself to post pictures. is where you will find many, if you haven't already been glued to it.
Some time next week, I'm going to have to go back to work. I'll have 24 children asking hard questions. They will know people who have suffered immensely. Many will know people who have died. What will I say? How on earth can we carry on with writing our Beach Education trip recount, our mathematics goals, our swimming programme? In years to come, these children will open their Year 4/5 exercise books, see the date of February 22, 2011 carefully printed in sharp pencil and underlined in red ink, and marvel that it was a normal day until 12:48pm. Now it is viewed as anything but.
Somewhere there is a line between experiencing and acknowledging stark horror and loss and just getting up and soldiering on. Who knows where that line is, for this generation of New Zealanders who have been so blessed until now never to have had to suffer heart-breaking times.