Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Christchurch earthquake: Battle of Port-a-loos in dusty suburbs

Wendy MacFarlane and her children mask up against wind-
whipped dust laden with sewage. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Wendy MacFarlane and her children mask up against wind- whipped dust laden with sewage. Photo / Brett Phibbs

On the eighth day, there was wind and dust. In Dallington there is plenty of both, but Port-a-loos are much harder to find.

Wendy MacFarlane struggles back toward home from the local water and food station on Gayhurst Rd, her children clustered about her wearing dust masks and clutching a few supplies given to them at the station.

The sausage sizzle at the food station was hidden beneath a cloud of dust. The dust is a constant haze. After two days of still, hot weather the reeking silt laden with sewage has dried out and the nor'wester now sends it billowing out, coating people as they walk.

From the top of the Port Hills, the dust makes the split in the city between quake zones and non quake zones clear. The northeast - where the soil melted and boiled from liquefaction - is covered in a haze of dust, the other half is clear.

With the wind like this, the truckies are heroes. Out at Bromley they drive their trucks in a constant stream to the dumping ground, more than 400 trucks from every company possible collecting the silt from piles in the street and dumping 30,000 tonnes off each day.

In the streets, nobody hurries because there is no escape from it. It sticks in the eyes and coats the mouth and nostrils. The efforts of water trucks to dampen the roads are futile. Dust masks are now another essential in Christchurch's arsenal.

Ms MacFarlane's house still has no power or water. Every two or three days, the single mother and her six children go to a friend's for a shower.

"Once you get back home you're dirty again anyway with all this dust and silt."

She is a midwife but the schools are closed and her usual child minders had left their homes.

She uses the description used by many others in the same situation: "It's like camping." The optimistic attempt to view it as an adventure is always delivered with the same fed-up shaky smile. There is little fun in "camping" with six children, aged 3 to 10, in such conditions.

People don't complain about their own plights when they know that in the CBD people lie dead.

"We're fine, we're alive," is a constant refrain, followed by a plaintive "but a Port-a-loo would be nice."

Eight days on, the Port-a-loo wars are intensifying. In suburbs such as Bexley, Aranui, Avonside, and New Brighton, where the sludge was at its worst and power and electricity are distant memories, there are only a few Port-a-loos, some serving more than four streets.

Port-a-loos are the new currency and reports emerge of stealth raids on Port-a-loos in other neighbourhoods and of people hiding them away on their own sections rather than sharing.

People hear news of 900 Port-a-loos on the way, another 500 on order. But they never seem to arrive.

Ms McFarlane knows Sumner has a good supply of Port-a-loos - and that they got them early, as did Lyttelton.

"The rich people seem to get them," she says, resigned.

In Bexley there is at least one consolation to living near the sewage ponds - they were among the first to have the big piles of silt on their streets carted away, reducing their dust.

There are still no Port-a-loos but the bills are still getting through - it's the postie's first day back at work.

Out in Heathcote Valley there is less silt but most houses are damaged.

Julie Bos is living with her husband and dog Murphy in a caravan in her driveway, their son Tom in a sleepout. They had other places to stay but wanted to stay near their neighbours. Her house - a 120-year-old brick home - is a wreck. She says she's "spooked" but is not going to leave - the summer flowers are in full bloom, rich with scent - and she doesn't want to say goodbye to her "Garden of Eden".

They will rebuild. "No bricks," she says. "It was a beautiful home. We just didn't realise we were living in a time bomb."

Down the road Rhombus Cafe owner Justin Good hopes to set up a coffee stand outside by the end of the week.

"We called it Rhombus because it didn't really have a square corner in the place to start with. In fact, maybe now the door might shut more easily."

His shop appears salvageable, but the shop joining his - a tofu making business - has completely collapsed. Outside, local Dale Finch is dropping his chimney rubble off at the corner. He doesn't expect to keep his job: he's a window cleaner on high rise buildings in the CBD.

Help was slow to come to this part of Heathcote, partly because the main connecting road was closed by a rail bridge collapse. But two Port-a-loos arrived to service the suburb the day before, complete with hand sanitiser. Luxury.

- NZ Herald

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