Forget 3 inches of snow… now I see Mother Nature

Fault line Wellington, NZ
Fault line at Wellington,NZ

So, when I left the UK it was Boxing Day 2009 and we’d had the first ‘white Christmas’ in our home town that I can remember for years. Down in the south east of England, 40 miles out of London, the district grinds to a halt when the snow comes down. A journey to work that was 30 minutes can take 2-8 hours and yet the snow that falls will unlikely top 6 inches.

Not exactly life-threatening. Treacherous yes. but with some common sense, the right amount of grit (which according to the local authorities is always in short supply…? This stuns me. It’s grit.) and a bit of caution, nothing occurs that need cause major trouble for anyone.

And, apart from some gale force winds (the storm of ‘87 is a good example), a bucketload of rain (a trademark for Britain) and some occasional tremors (quakes) up north, I think I’d be speaking fairly when I say we don’t have to worry about mother nature too much.

There are, of course, exceptions to what I’ve just said – the highlands of Scotland get ridiculous snow trouble and Scotland as a whole had a terrible winter this past year (2010). But even then – short supplies and lack of post (disturbing Christmas shopping deliveries) were the main issues as far as I know.

Now hot foot it (or take 2 planes and a short break somewhere like Honkers or Singapore) 10,600 miles (17000km) to Sydney, Australia and the story is somewhat different.

I wasn’t here for Black Saturday but the devastation is not forgotten here and the terror and destruction of a bush fire is bad enough without the knowledge of the awful events of that dreadful day. No one has forgotten, no one will forget. They’ve moved on and come back fighting, but they will always remember.

Nevertheless, I was here for the tidal wave in Toowoomba (QLD, Australia) and the fact that 75% of QLD was declared a disaster zone. I’ve watched a category 5 cyclone hammer its way through Northern Queensland bringing winds of 295km an hour and putting friends of mine in danger (they removed themselves from the path in plenty of time). And on a much lesser scale I’ve gone through Sydney’s version of a heatwave which at 41 degrees Celsius, pisses on the UK getting their knickers in a twist about 32. Sorry UK, I love you, but it’s true.

Throughout the flooding of a major city like Brisbane, the terrible stories of young boy’s heroism to have his younger siblings rescued prior to them and then being swept off by a tidal wave of flooding where the water got to metres high in the space of one hour – I have watched, listened and read in absolute wonder. I know these things and worse are happening the world over and I know we’ve suffered some terrible flooding in the UK over the years. But never before have I watched natural disaster after natural disaster happening in a developed, wealthy country and its neighbouring, sister country. Never have I had friends and family endangered by these unstoppable forces.

And then on the morning (lunchtime local time) of the 22nd February 2011 as I was spending my year anniversary of working at my first job in Australia at that job, an earthquake struck Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand.

I watched live and unedited coverage of the rescues in the immediate hours after the quake – so many people seemed to be being pulled out you couldn’t think it was too awful. I mean, yes, watching the rescues and seeing how distressed and shocked these people were was pretty harrowing. These people looked like they thought they were going to die – 1 minute of absolute terror.

But now this situation has turned from all the constant rescues and all the people running around the CBD (central business district) to a whole different town. 24 hours later and it’s almost a ghost-town, filled only with search and rescue, rubble and small plummets of smoke where some fires smolder on. Most of the bad fires were put out in the immediate aftermath. Fires, along with the liquefaction which causes flooding and water shortages, are consequential elements of an earthquake which need to be looked after to avoid graver consequences.

And so, more hours pass and it gets worse – tremors are still shaking and when they come, the look on the members of the press’ faces is understandable, as they stand in the middle of the bedlam, next to the shaken, dilapidated and unrecognisable buildings, the terror they feel even then cannot be missed. Even though they’ve endured 10’s aftershocks by this stage. It’s like a dog that’s had a abusive owner – once struck, if someone raises a hand in their direction again, even if only to pick up a nearby object, to that dog they don’t know if this is going to be a repetition of the moment they fear most, and if it is, if this time, they won’t be so lucky to survive.

When that quake hit, it wouldn’t have seemed that unusual – in the 6 months since the September 2010 earthquake, aftershocks, tremors have become par for the course in Christchurch. Yet think of the nature of earthquakes – they can predict some things about earthquakes but you don’t get much warning – you can’t look at any weather maps to know how far off it is like a cyclone, you cannot predict the depth of its tremors like you can predict the speed of gale force winds. When this quake started in the first few seconds it might have seemed like it was ‘just another aftershock’ – do you hide under your desk, do you run out the building or do you just wait a couple of secs and it’ll all be back to normal.

My partner’s niece lives in Christchurch  – she is fine but the quake was bad – their flat is trashed. Of course there were agonizing hours for my partner’s family in NZ as they waited to find out if everyone they knew in CHCH was ok. But we were the lucky ones!

As night falls in New Zealand tonight the city is cut off. It has been declared un-enterable and a curfew has been set. Anyone trying to enter the city centre for whatever reason will be arrested. There are several reasons – dangers of falling buildings and debris is one – the city’s tallest building, the Hotel Grand Chancellor is looking like it could fall to the ground at any moment. Then there is the opportunities for looters of course – already thieves have struck in damaged and deserted homes in the suburbs. It’s just sick.

Meanwhile, search and rescue has continued for hours and will continue to too – they go on for around 100 hours in these disasters. They’re using amazing dogs who are trained to sniff only for the bodies which are a) breathing and b) breathing beneath the rubble. They can recognize the smell that traumatized bodies give off, as different from those of the rescue workers above the rubble. They can find a smell through a 10cent piece gap. Incredible.

And good job too. One thing that strikes me as we go into the second night of the earthquake aftermath is even if I was caught up in that earthquake and I was still alive how would I be feeling right now? I might be injured – I’m guessing not badly or my chances would be getting pretty tight right now. So let’s presume I’m not even injured, that I’m just sitting there. My colleagues have either gone quiet or they have been rescued but so far no one has found me. I’m sat in the dark. In a tiny space. I left my phone so I have no way of communicating with those I love or the rescue teams. Do they think I’m dead? Have they given up? Or if the are looking, are they going to get there in time? No one to talk to, no way of knowing what’s even happening in the outside world.

I find that absolutely terrifying.

If you’re lucky enough to be thrown into a space where a pillar fell and blocked the ceiling from falling on you, or whether your desk saved you – then you’re lucky. Yet I reckon nothing could prepare you for hour upon hour of being trapped in a confined space in the dark, no one knowing you’re there.  And for those that do this, they, in my mind, show the most incredible strength.

And let’s take at a look at the realistic situation outside that tiny space. No water in 80% of the city, many entombed for 12 hours or more before rescue, the last person rescued was pulled out after 25 hours had passed, and fewer and fewer people are coming out of the rubble. Amputees being operated on in make shift hospitals referred to as ‘a triage’ – in local parks. Worse, families are sat around holding vigil, not knowing whether their loved ones are dead already or alive and awaiting rescue. As they’re waiting, they’re maybe being told there is no hope – which happened for the families of 30 people known to be trapped in the CTV building when the search for the living was called off and the efforts put to a different building.

Looking around the city and the suburbs, the destruction is unbelievable – parked cars have graffiti sprayed on them, but this is good graffiti – it reads ‘CLEAR’ – meaning the vehicle has been checked by search and rescue. It happened in just one minute and despite being just 5.3 on the richter scale (in comparison to September’s 7.1 magnitude) the shaking was so violent many didn’t stand a chance – the quake just 5km in depth. Not very deep at all and hence why the damage was so severe.

Yet there is hope. In Haiti a teenage girl was pulled from the rubble 15 days after the quake hit.

One thing that strikes me every single time each of these disasters has happened is not just what a close proximity I am to them now I live over here. Moreover that Australia and New Zealand countries are strong and I’m in the midst of it so I can see that strength and it’s more real than you can put down on paper. There is just a will to survive and to keep the country they love so much, just the way they love it and never to be seen to crumble even when battling the worst of the elements. There’s such a sense of pride. Now pride brings most countries together, I’ve seen it happen in the UK. And interestingly, moreso tragically, it takes something catastrophic and oftentimes deadly to bring this sense of unity and pride. So, in some ways I guess there is an upside to all the bad things that keep happening beyond our human control. And also some comfort in the fact it is not human – it’s nature and it’s bigger than us!

Finally, the unity amongst countrymen within each country over in this part of the world is strong and almost tangible, also strong though, is the ANZAC bond. Yes they are highly competitive in rugby, yes they take the piss out of one another (check out the ‘Beached As’ cartoon) and yes, it drives them insane when someone cannot tell the difference between an Aussie accent and a Kiwi one (which to me, now seems crazy – but before I lived here or met my partner I would have probably caused the same rage!). But the pain felt in New Zealand at the moment is being felt in Australia too, and not just because tons of Kiwis live here and tons of Aussies live in NZ. The Tasman sea separates them but it doesn’t weaken that bond. And it should set a standard.

If you got bored and skipped to the end of this blog, no worries. Take one thing away with you – the Kiwis have a Maori phrase I’ve heard several times now since I’ve been here, or more likely since I’ve been with my partner. But I love it. Short but sweet and, in my mind, its meaning is the same as the comfort it brings when spoken. I say it now to those in all their traumas over in Christchurch but I say it also to anyone I know (and I know a few) who are having troubled times, or feeling like they need some inner strength and support.

Kia Kaha…. be strong. In my mind you already are


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