Christchurch, and what can be learned from disasters

Christchurch was the ‘Overall Winner of Major Cities’ in the Nations in Bloom International Competition in 1997

March 05, 2011 – Updated March 26, 2014

The second earthquake in Christchurch happened nearly two weeks ago (on February 22, 2011), but for many, the memory of it and what they have lost, will haunt them for years to come. My heart is with those who lost loved ones, for they can never be replaced. And while we can rebuild most of the collapsed buildings and homes, last week’s earthquake destroyed one of New Zealand’s prettiest cities—almost beyond recognition.

Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand and the largest city in the South Island, with a population of around 390,300 people. It became a city by Royal Charter in 1856, making it officially New Zealand’s oldest established city. Along with Philadelphia, Savannah and Adelaide, it was planned with a central city square with four complimenting city squares surrounding it, and a parklands area that embraces the city centre. The city also has many beautiful Gothic Revival buildings dating back to the 1850s, half of them now severely damaged or destroyed in the earthquakes.

Christchurch’s only other disaster occurred in 1947, when New Zealand’s worst fire destroyed Ballantyne’s Department Store in the inner city, killing 41 people. Although the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September last year caused widespread damage to the inner city and suburbs, miraculously there were no fatalities.

But the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck last week had a far more lethal impact, severely damaging and/or destroying a third of the inner city’s buildings and claiming 163 lives at last count (the final official toll is now 185 lives lost), with many people still listed as missing. Lyttleton, 10 kilometres from Christchurch, and where the earthquake was centred, was heavily devastated, with the central part essentially destroyed.

Within New Zealand and elsewhere, there is much grief over lives lost. There is also grief over lost businesses, homes and buildings, as well as a comfortable way of life. Many frightened or now homeless people have packed up and fled the city, flying out on the first available plane, or packing cars and trailers and driving off to stay with friends and relatives in other parts of the country.

A friend emailed me that when the earthquake struck, he was in Wellington. However, when his wife drove into the city to collect business mail, the quake moved her car right across the road. Glass from collapsing buildings showered down around her as she watched the Pyne Gould building go down “like the World Trade Center.”

“Our house is basically OK,” my friend wrote, “but we lost almost all our dishes from every drawer and cupboard.  We have a large trash bin with so much glass it is hard to move even though it is on wheels. Took about 6-8 hours to get the house sorted… Currently we have no power or water.”

The following day he wrote, “We just found out that a couple in their 70’s a few houses away went to the city that day to shop and haven’t returned.  Their son took photos of them to the morgue in case…  So sad for so many. Aftershocks and loud thumpy sounds still happening on a very regular basis.”

Some days later, after driving into some open parts of the city he wrote: “The damage is everywhere, every street.  Where I work is closed until at least 14 March. The Grand Chancellor, the largest hotel in Christchurch (about 15 stories), is leaning and expected to collapse, covering a two block area. Sally’s office building (17 stories) is under review. Its emergency staircase collapsed during the quake and trapped people on floors 15-17. They were taken off by helicopter.”

Newspapers now report that the two buildings claiming the greatest number of lives were built on soft soil, which is highly susceptible to liquefaction. This means that many engineering problems will have to be overcome to rebuild the city on solid ground, which could take as long as fifteen years to complete. I understood from a visit there in 2007, that much of Christchurch was built on a drained swampy flat, which could account for the problems with liquefaction currently being experienced.

Tree lined streets of Christchurch
Tree lined streets of Christchurch

I vividly remember how the beauty of Christchurch lulled me into a feeling of well-being and safety strolling along the tree-lined streets and through the beautiful parks and gardens. Yet so many buildings became a lethal trap. It seems such a strange irony indeed that we have so much legislation in place to ensure people’s safety, yet Nature can strike such a blow that thousands of lives can be lost in one fell swoop.

Heritage Buildings in Christchurch
Heritage Buildings in Christchurch

Sometimes we wonder why some people died while others were spared. Yet disasters of this magnitude can reveal what we have hidden within the deepest core of us. Emerging from the shock and trauma and rubble are stories of heroes and lucky escapes, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and horrors endured while doctors amputated arms and legs to free people from crushing tons of concrete and rubble. Police say they are already starting to see an increase in domestic violence, and several burglaries have been reported as looters take advantage of people being absent from their homes.

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun who wrote When Things Fall Apart, stated that we need chaos and disasters in our lives to “wake us up”. As terrible as this appears, this is sometimes what we need to change the whole course of our lives for the better—although often we can only see this in hindsight.

A car accident in Florida many years ago had this affect on me. Driving along an Interstate that night I was worrying about finances and if I would find a job. I heard a bang and the car suddenly spun out of control before rolling twice on the median strip, coming to rest right side up on the edge of the road facing oncoming traffic. A friend I was going to stay with that night collected me from hospital after x-rays for a back injury.

A few days later, after everyone had left for work and feeling very sore and sorry for myself, I picked up the top book from a pile sitting on a lamp table, wiped off the dust and was stunned to read, How To Stop Worrying And Start Living, by Dale Carnegie. I opened it to a quote from William Osler:

“Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future… Shut close, then, the fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of a life of ‘day-tight compartments’.”

And so I began to learn to live my life in ‘day-tight compartments’. I went downtown to buy some paints to do a promised painting for my friend, and called into an art gallery. The owner wanted to see photographs of my work. And that is how I got the job I needed, running the art gallery, painting, and teaching art in the back room—all in exchange for a really lovely apartment to live in close to the sea.

When a friend told me, “You know there are no accidents and you are exactly where you should be awaiting your next calling. Didn’t you learn anything from your book?” I had to laugh. I suddenly felt lucky to have people in my life who could remind me of the things I had taught myself, but apparently forgot when I plunged headlong into negative thinking again.

As it turned out, the little town of Lake Worth was exactly where I needed to be. People came into the gallery looking for inspiration to rise above their own limitations. Opening myself to others I learned priceless lessons about life and human nature, and it quickly became the most enriching time of my whole life. I made more friends in Lake Worth than I have made anywhere else. Teaching painting to adults, I learned that art is a powerful tool for healing. When I decided to rewrite my book at a publisher’s suggestion, I found an editor there who taught me much more about the process of writing and did this work for free because he believed in me. Ultimately, this sent me on a journey that would last over twenty years, sharing with others I met along the way what I was learning about human relationships.

But best of all, Lake Worth was the place where I was able to open my heart enough to experience other people’s pain and joy as well as my own. Although I am aware that joy and pain are flipsides of the same coin, I came to know at a very deep level that if I wanted joy to be a more permanent part of my life, I needed to develop the courage to journey into past pain and not only learn from it, but to use that learning to rebuild my life on a more substantial foundation.

Ironically, I would never have learned these things if a truck hadn’t clipped the rear panel of my car and turned my world upside down. That close encounter with death made sure I would learn to live more fully in the present and bring purpose and meaning to my life.

Gradually, as I began freeing myself from worries about the past or future, I learned that my security does not belong ‘out there’ somewhere, but within my ability to listen to the voice within that guides me each and every moment through the traps and pitfalls of life, encouraging me to work through life’s inevitable traumas and heartaches and disasters with the words, “How can I use this experience to learn more about myself, life and others, and what I have within me to give?”

Update, March 10, 2011
The earthquake dangers facing Christchurch were examined in an Inside New Zealand documentary broadcast on TV3 in 1996, in which concerns are expressed about the vulnerability of Christchurch’s heritage buildings and the soft foundations upon which the city was built.

View the trailer for When a City Falls, Gerard Smythe’s feature length documentary of the Christchurch earthquakes, and what happened to half a million New Zealanders the year their lives changed forever. Filmed without narration, people tell their own stories. You can view the whole documentary at Journeyman Pictures.