Walking to and from work at Georgetown is normally a very pleasurable experience. Despite the cold the walk down Wisconsin Ave occupies an interesting and diverse 35 minutes. But for the last few days my solitary walk in which I usually recite New Zealand poetry to myself and have the odd chat to the occasional homeless person, has taken on a more solemn tone. The 6.3 earthquake in my home town of Christchurch and images of death and destruction over US TV and newspapers is utterly surreal. Only two months ago I was walking the streets of Christchurch in mid-summer, visiting my favorite secondhand clothes shop, coffee shop and book shop all before boarding the plane to the United States to take up my Fulbright fellowship. Although family, close friends and my Canterbury University colleagues are all alive, the same cannot be said for many Christchurch families. With the death toll guaranteed to increase from the current 103 it is difficult to imagine how such an event will affect both Christchurch and New Zealand. With a population of between 350,000 and 400,000 Christchurch is New Zealand’s second largest city. With a population of just over four million New Zealand cannot afford to lose the productivity of Christchurch and the port of Lyttelton. But, it is the human cost that most confuses me. What does it mean for a community to have collectively experienced such a tragedy? What scars has and will it create and how will such damage manifest itself? Other concerns center upon the peculiarities of earthquakes. This second major quake came just over five months after the 7.1 back in September. Since then there had been more than 4500 aftershocks with hundreds of these in excess of 4 of the Richter Scale. Within two days of this second major quake there had been in excess of 30 +4 scale quakes. Such activity will continue for months with aftershocks from both the 7.1 and 6.3 being felt. Unlike weather systems earthquakes hit without warning. A small aftershock could always develop into a third major quake or it may not. Living with such fear has taken a significant toll on the people of Christchurch over the past five months and in light of this latest killer quake may send many over the edge. I predict that there will now be a mass exodus from the city with people moving to Wellington, Auckland or perhaps to the relative quake safety of Australia. Again, what will this do to the psyche of Christchurch? I am not sure anyone knows. For me, it is difficult to imagine lecturing to a class of 200 only to experience an aftershock, or for the city center to be entirely closed displacing thousands of jobs and the vibrant hub of the Christchurch community.
I know that each Christchurch resident and New Zealander will be asking themselves similar questions. It is reassuring to know that other communities around the world have been through similar tragedies and have survived, rebuilt and flourished. Whilst the physical rebuilding of Christchurch will take years it will undoubtedly take decades for the wounded sole of Christchurch to fully recover. Having said that, Christchurch people and Kiwis in general are a hardly lot. Already a determination to rebuild the Cathedral has been shown along with a steely resolve that Christchurch will come back better and stronger. Although earth quakes illustrate the awesome power of mother-nature it takes much more than a 7.1 and a 6.3 earthquake to break the spirit of Cantabrians. Christchurch will come back, but it will take time. Knocked back on its heels it may be, but not knocked out.