The Christchurch Earthquake — Community, Local and Online
As you may know, OnlineGroups.Net has an office in Christchurch, as well as in Wellington and Canberra.
The Christchurch office of OnlineGroups.Net was based in a CDB building called Kenton Chambers from 2004 until December 2010. Kenton Chambers suffered only very minor damage in the 4 September 2011 Christchurch 7.1 earthquake, so we, and a bunch of associated businesses were all happily occupying the building until Christmas.
On Boxing Day 2011 a shallow 4.1 magnitude earthquake occurred right under the Christchurch CBD. Small earthquakes are like fire crackers. If one goes off across the room, it’s funny. If you’re sitting on it, it hurts. The Christchurch CBD was sitting on the Boxing Day ‘quake. Outside the CDB, it was hardly worth interrupting a sentence for. But in Kenton Chambers the smaller ‘quake was more violent than the big one. This time, the building sustained much more damage, so we were out.
Since then I have been working from home in Sumner, which is where I was on 22 February. You probably saw Sumner on TV after Feb 22. It was telegenic because of the large rockfalls. Some commercial buildings and many houses on the surrounding hills were badly damaged. But for the most part, the damage was minor, especially when compared to the Christchurch CBD or to the eastern suburbs built on wetlands and poverty. Our place was almost completely unscathed.
My partner and I gathered Miss 8 from her school. Some friends joined us at our place. We hunkered down for a week without power, water, sewerage or telecommunications. We met our neigbours in a new hyperlocal economy of help, equipment and news. With a portable radio and a smartphone charge from a neighbour’s 12v inverter, news filtered in. Mercifully all my friends and family were ok. Many were much less lucky. Even among my friends, like Alan, Lucy and Layton were stories of smashed houses and offices, and horrifying escapes from the CBD.
In our privileged situation the aftermath of the earthquake was almost fun. At about the same time, I had planned a camping trip where we would voluntarily be without power, water and mod cons. We improvised a toilet and even a hot shower. Days filled with carrying and boiling water, and new routines for lighting and cooking. Many freezers full of food were barbecued. But the backdrop to all this was the trauma of a shattered city. Even without negotiating the twisted streets, the very absence of the usual services brought home the reality of the situation in successive waves.
One feature of the daily routine was to collect water. In the queue there was always some local news. The same guy drove the water truck each day, and he would report news from the many conversations he had heard. Then a community hub sprang up, with a movie screening and briefings from the local police, fire and civil defence. Volunteers coordinated food, hand-sanitiser, assistance of all kinds, a community laundry and showers. I saw vitality that I had no idea was present in Sumner. With the roads blocked or congested, I went days at a stretch without leaving my neighbourhood. At the same time, stories continued to pour through blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
Even now, a month after the earthquake, each day comes with new stories of the impact of the earthquake. With each story comes a new heavy feeling. Around me, most people are experiencing similar feelings — even my Christchurch friends who live out of the country. Especially in the first couple of weeks, I observed myself and others behaving in unusual ways. I think we all respond to grief differently.
This reminds me of other experiences of grieving and deepens my understanding of it. Grief happens at two levels. On the surface, we grieve for things we have lost — loved ones, homes, livelihoods, infrastructure, familiar places and landmarks. At a deeper level, we grieve for the loss of trustworthiness of the world. If the world can take away these things, what else can it take? This sometimes manifests in reflections about the value of each day, or of loved ones. I have felt it as a deep but indeterminate sense of disturbance.
There is something about the ground that is important to us humans. When we are born, we emerge from weightlessness, and settle to the ground, or someone or something held up by it. We learn to walk by learning to fall forwards, foot extended until it meets the ground, which is always there in front of us. For all the richness of our virtual connections, when the ground beneath our feet begins to leap or shake around, it makes the world seem fundamentally unsafe.
Along with the others who have been affected by the Christchurch earthquakes, I am quietly grieving, staying connected with myself, my feelings, and with others as best I can. And like the others, getting on with my life. Living more locally, with more of an eye on my garden and neighbours. And being online with a new consciousness of the value of this medium, when commuting is hard, and there is no CBD to go to. This reminds me of the craziness of the idea of living online and the craziness of living without the opportunity to connect online.