Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Seven Years On

This day, this very hour 7 years ago, we were standing at the front door talking to a woman who was delivering census papers. She left us the forms and returned to her car. We closed the door and the house started to move.  

It wasn't like the September 2010 quake which had been longer and was noisy and incredibly violent - it was like a shorter version of the massive Waiau/Kaikoura quake in November 2016 which, for two minutes,  felt like we were on a boat in a big swell. 

The door bell rang and the census lady was stood there, pale and shaking, asking us if we knew where the quake was.  She'd just got in her car when it hit and her immediate urge was to connect with other people. We stood outside feeling the earth still moving as we tried phoning people to find out where it was centred.  

News came out fast that it was a major quake in Christchurch - a really severe one, and that there were casualties, that buildings had collapsed.  We turned on the radio and television and started watching the unbelievable scenes unfold as we tried to contact family and friends. 

Thankfully all were physically safe but, like most people in and around Christchurch, we knew people who'd come very close to death, who lost family or friends, who were deeply traumatised by the sight of their city falling around them and by the deaths and injuries they saw. 

It wasn't a huge death toll when placed in a global context but Christchurch is a small city and 185 deaths and numerous serious injuries meant the disaster touched everyone.  It was made much worse later by the knowledge that most of those deaths and injuries were preventible. Some were unavoidable - people hit by giant rocks tumbling off hillsides, a baby killed by a falling television - but many others need not have died.

Had the CTV building been properly built in the first place, rigorously inspected and condemned as it should have been after the 2010 quake; had the concerns of people who worked in it been listened to - concerns about the amount of movement in aftershocks or when demolition was going on nearby; had the rumour not been spread that the reason the building moved so much was it was on base isolators and therefore was safe - 115 people would not have died.  

Had the old and weakened brick buildings been condemned  and the unreinforced brick parapets over city streets been removed or braced - the people who were under them when they fell would not have died or suffered terrible injuries. 

My younger brother had just moved his successful manufacturing jewellery business out of Victoria Street into a shop at the base of the Clarendon Tower.   Had he not done that he'd have been back in business within months as the premises he'd moved from were unscathed. He and his sons and other staff ran for their lives as the city crashed down around them.  He was unable to get back in to the building to retrieve tools and stock for many months and he ran aa reduced business from his garage until his untimely death in August 2016.  

He became obsessed with predicting outcomes - including earthquakes. If he could predict the future he could protect his family and not make another decision like the one that had placed him and two of his sons at risk and left his business - literally - in ruins.  The outcome was an inability to make any decisions at all - including getting medical treatment for the liver disease that was slowly killing him.

My brother was certainly not alone in suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. Mental health issues in Canterbury have been massively increased since the quakes. It's not just the fact of a big quake shaking your city to pieces, it's never being able to fully relax because of the anticipation of aftershocks; it's the physical effects of the constant pumping of adrenaline and increased cortisol levels; it's the loss of sleep, and it's the persistent stress of not knowing ..... when the next shock will hit, when your house will be fixed, when your claim will be settled, when decisions will be made about the shape your city will take so that the constant reminders of disaster can be covered over, when something will be done about the threat of flooding such that every time it rains you lie awake all night worried your house will be under water and worried because you may never be able to sell it. 

Life for all humans throughout the whole of human evolutionary and social history has been uncertain. The only absolute certainty is we all die. We cope with that and the fact that mostly we don't know when or how we'll die, by developing networks and support systems, rituals and patterns of behaviour -trying to impose an order and degree of certainty onto a natural order that can and often does disrupt all our affairs in a moment.

It may be why so many people are drawn to the known, to certainties and to the leaders who promise they can protect and maintain certainties. It's also the appeal of the short-term - make the most of today because tomorrow may never come or may be a nightmare. 

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