Christchurch earthquake: Immediate pain carries spectre of long-term loss

By Michael Guerin

For those in Christchurch on Tuesday, the memory will live on for a long time. Photo / Brett Phibbs
For those in Christchurch on Tuesday, the memory will live on for a long time. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"I will never come back here again."

That sentence sums up the different type of pain which will follow the grief that now darkens Christchurch's days.

As rescue efforts continue and the full extent of the quake's horrors become reality, few people are able to think beyond tomorrow.

Beyond finding loved ones, somewhere safe to stay, food, water and clean clothes for the kids.

At the moment the immediate questions are: "How bad is it for us, or the people we know? Who still has a home, who is never coming home?"

But once the choking pill of human loss has been digested, Christchurch faces a loss that'll take years to become fully tangible.

Back to our opening quote. It comes from Victorian visitor Sharon Lang, who was in Christchurch on a working holiday this week. She and her husband Chris love Christchurch.

"We've always talked about how it would be a great place to live one day," says Chris.

But not any more. Sharon swears she will never come back here because what has happened has traumatised her too much.

"And to be honest, even if I had to come back for work I would stay way out of the city. Both the places we had dinner this week are now gone, destroyed. That's pretty hard."

And that problem of fear is going to take even longer to fix than the horror show which is the CBD.

Put simply, a lot of people who were in the Christchurch CBD on Tuesday won't want to go back.

How many people who've witnessed death and destruction first-hand will want to go back to their average-wage job on floor seven of their building? Who wants to sit in a cafe they've seen cave in?

On Monday night I had dinner with friends on Colombo St at a restaurant that is now rubble. Even if they rebuild it, the same relaxed appreciation of surrounding will be impossible to replicate. It will forever be our place of "what if".

And hotels. How about a cheap rate on Room 1201 in that hotel close to the square anybody? I didn't think so.

Who will ever want to climb the cathedral, if in fact it survives? Or enjoy the teppanyaki at the Crown Plaza now the hotel looks like it's been bombed.

Will I every truly relax over a drink at Coyotes, the Tap Room, or Mickey Finns again? Or every time the music gets loud and the floor starts to shake will I hold my breath?

For the younger and more socially adventurous, Christchurch used to be a haven for late-night partying, with all bars within easy walking distance.

After the quake of September 4 many bars were closed, either through damage or lack of disposable income among the party crowd. Christchurch at night felt depressed BEFORE last Tuesday.

Now it will be a long time before the party resumes. Which raises the question for some, why stay?

Born and bred Cantabrians are stoic, tough and proud - even by New Zealand standards - and this tragedy won't send them scurrying. But horror is unforgettable and fear lives in the gut. How many people who don't have to risk experiencing it again will stay?

If you were a young worker with the world at your feet why stay in a city in ruins? Wellington, Auckland or the Big OE beckon.

And will young families drawn to Christchurch from Tinwald or Temuka, Greymouth or Geraldine by the promise of jobs and education for their kids want to stay in a city where they go to sleep nervous?

After Hurricane Katrina, many people who left New Orleans never came back because to those not born there, one city is much like another. And given that choice people may choose the one that doesn't shake.

As for tourists, they can choose to go anywhere to spend their relaxation dollar. The easier and safer the better. And a hotel falling over in the centre of town will erase decades of picture postcards.

Loss of tourists and young families and, of course, loss of businesses that are too broken to repair could inflict an economic pain on Canterbury that will takes years to heal.

This week, this month, maybe for the whole of this year, there are more immediate wounds to be tended.

But luxury spending in Canterbury had already dried up, cash flow turned to cash dribble. It will only get worse, much worse.

Is this an over-reaction to seeing first-hand Christchurch's beautiful CBD looking like the inside of a spoiled child's Lego box?

Maybe. And I will always come back to Christchurch because I often work here.

But would I come for a weekend away? Would I stay in the central city, in room 1201 at my usual hotel?

Not any time soon. Would you?

- NZ Herald

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