Sunday, February 27, 2011

Post-quake life in the Christchurch suburbs

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) organiser, activist and writer Murray Horton pens his personal impressions of life in the suburbs after the 22 February 2011 earthquake brought death and devastation to New Zealand’s second-largest city. Authorities have confirmed 147 people dead with 50 unaccounted for. This is an edited extract from an email to friends and fellow activists received by Café Pacific. Murray, his wife, Becky, and a nameless stray cat live in the inner suburb of Addington.

By Murray Horton

BECKY and I are alive and well. We're living (camping, more accurately) in our house. It has no structural damage, unlike so many others. But it has sustained more interior damage than was the case with the September 4 quake. For example, we have evacuated nearly everything out of our lounge in case the chimney decides to part company with the wall, as it has now got more noticeable cracks where it joins the wall and the fireplace surround itself is coming loose.

Unlike September, this one sent things flying in all directions and knocked everything off the walls, smashing a number of things; including the office’s Chairman Mao clock (is nothing sacred?). Surrounding streets had cracking, slumping, ground rising, liquefaction and flooding (I witnessed water and silt start pouring from the ground as a huge aftershock struck as I was walking across our little neighbourhood reserve) but we have never had that in our street or on our land.

We were without power from Tuesday until Saturday, so had no internet access, nor did we get to see any of the TV coverage. Having no power was a blessing in disguise. One of the first huge aftershocks on Tuesday swung several of our light fittings so violently they hit the ceiling and smashed, showering the floor with broken glass and leaving naked wires dangling from the ceiling. Believe it or not, I was able to get not one but two separate electricians to come to the house and render them safe before the power came back on. These weren’t mates, just regular sparkies I found in the phone book.

Water on ... but just a dribble
Water started to come back on Friday but it is only a feeble dribble (better than no dribble, however). It will be a while before we can have a shower or wash clothes. We never lost the phone (good old analogue landlines … our cordless phones, answerphone et al, went dead).

Because we use bottled gas for cooking, we never went hungry. We dug a toilet in the backyard, even rigged it up for shelter and privacy. And from Tuesday to Saturday we slept under the dining room table. Now we’ve moved back into our bedroom – as Becky said to me today, if we die, we die. Of course, things are far from back to normal – we have low flying helicopters passing over us from dawn until dusk (we’re not far from Hagley Park and Christchurch Hospital); soldiers and police from several countries are manning the CBD roadblocks and curfew just walking distance from our home.

To all of those friends who brought us water, let us use their houses for computer, internet, mobile phone charging, showers and toilets, Becky and I are eternally grateful. To all of you who rang and texted from around the country and around the world, many thanks for going to the trouble of getting hold of us (which was not easy).

I’ll just tell you one of my quake stories. I was in the Canterbury Television Building [a building that collapsed with an estimated 100 people inside] at 10.15 that morning for an interview about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the US/NZ Partnership Forum taking place in Christchurch that day, and the opposition to the TPPA being organised by the New Zealand Not For Sale Campaign. It was the first time I’d set foot in that building since 2008. We (me, the young reporter and the cameraman) did the interview in a first floor meeting room, then we sat around afterwards and chatted. I probably left the building between 10.45am and 11am. The young guy (Rhys Brookbanks), who had only just started at CTV, is among those believed killed in that building’s collapse. I was one of the last to see him alive, as it turns out.

I don’t know what happened to the Zimbabwean cameraman. From there I went to Kiwibank in the Bus Exchange Building in Colombo Street to do the CAFCA banking (because there was supposed to be a CAFCA meeting that night, in Lyttelton). I was at work, in front of this computer, when it all kicked off.

You don’t need me to tell you that this was an event of indescribable violence (and I only experienced what happened at our place, which was bad enough, but very mild compared to the catastrophe that happened in so many other parts of town). Tuesday night was just one continuous earthquake as wave after wave of aftershocks slammed into the house, some of them with the force of runaway trains. In between times the ground just continuously rumbled and shook. Neither of us got any sleep and I doubt that anybody else in Christchurch that night did as well.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the city. Our little street has been significantly depopulated. Everyone knows people who have left. One of our closest friends and colleagues is among them. Those staying put are under great stress in many cases.

Both CAFCA and ABC (Anti-Bases Campaign) are scheduled to meet this week (all committee members have sustained house damage ranging from moderate to serious to uninhabitable). I have every intention of getting out the next Watchdog but there are plenty of others involved in that process who may have more pressing priorities. So it might well be a smaller than usual

The Roger Award is on schedule (the event to name the winner is in Auckland, April 4). I have every intention of undertaking my North Island speaking tour in April (the first time I got access to electricity, at a friend’s house, I went back to work writing my speech). And I’m going to speak in Dunedin in May.

Murray Horton

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA)
Aotearoa/New Zealand

Pictures: Searching for survivors, CTV.CN; Murray Horton at the Pacific Media Centre in 2009.

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