John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Big picture will show limit of disaster

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News media have focused on the same scenes of devastation, stopping their cameras from showing the limits of the destruction. Photo / Brett Phibbs
News media have focused on the same scenes of devastation, stopping their cameras from showing the limits of the destruction. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Downtown Auckland was a good place to be at 12.51pm on Tuesday. Not everybody stopped for two minutes' silence. Some people must pass their lives unaware of anything larger than their experience.

And it was beyond the wit of Auckland's traffic controllers to stop all the lights for two minutes.

But it was a good place to be. The office towers all around looked solid and permanent against a blue sky. When the clock ticked to the precise minute the ground didn't shudder, walls didn't fall, people didn't scream. It was just my imagination.

Auckland has no reason to fear an earthquake. Nor did Christchurch when I lived there. In 10 years I never felt a tremor, which is no wonder when you read that the faultline under Canterbury that moved last year hadn't previously moved for at least 16,000 years.

Geologists hadn't even known of it, nor the nearby one that moved last week.

They had no reason to do soundings for faults under Canterbury. They do now.

But that figure, 16,000 years, is worth bringing to mind every time we read of residents leaving Christchurch intending never to return, or somebody questions the wisdom of rebuilding the city, or more stringent building standards are advocated.

We could waste a lot of money in fear of an event that may not recur for thousands of years. Geology might not be sure of everything but it sounds certain that Christchurch's second big quake was an aftershock of the first, probably the largest that was likely.

GNS Science's Hamish Campbell compares an earthquake to a wooden ruler breaking. Bend the ruler a little to simulate the earth's curved surface, then put pressure on it from each end to represent the constant tectonic movement of the earth's crust.

When the ruler snaps it is not a clean break; the wood ruptures in several places around the breaking point. It can take a year for rock strata to snap as a ruler does, but a year in geological time is a nanosecond.

Even 16,000 years is a tiny fraction of the 80 million years that New Zealand has been parked on a tectonic pressure point.

We are too dazed to make sensible decisions yet about what should be done for Christchurch. Those of us living at a distance from the quake are at a particular disadvantage; we can't see beyond the news picture.

My sister manages a medical centre in Shirley. She drives into the dust and devastation every day. She says the people are despondent. Many of the enrolled patients have gone to Australia. Others come to the centre and cry. They are just tired. she says.

Nurses don't cry but she surprised herself the other day. She was on the phone to a health service somewhere and the person kept assuming the practice still had a working computer. Finally she had to say, "we haven't got a computer", and saying so made her crack up.

It's worse than it looks on TV, she says. I don't doubt it but every day she drives out of it again. She sees its limits. News cameras don't show the limits. Photographs are edited so that the subject fills the frame.

Consider what we are not seeing. We are not getting aerial shots showing vistas of destruction, panoramas of an urban wasteland. Television is not letting its cameras run from the media bus on trips inside the cordon.

We are not being given a silent tour of street after street in ruins.

Cameras keep focusing on the same few sites: the cathedral, the Press building, CTV, Pyne Gould Corporation, and remnants of the grand churches.

When TV One's Sunday programme last weekend said it had put the cathedral's dean, Peter Beck, in a helicopter for a bird's-eye view of the city, I watched eagerly for an overview at last.

From the air we saw the cathedral again, the Press building, CTV ... In between those now familiar images we got close-ups of Beck gazing down and gasping at what he was seeing.

Why couldn't we see what he was seeing - everything he was seeing? I think I know the answer. Too much of the scene below him would not have supported the story.

This is human nature. Emergency workers returning from Christchurch are just as determined to give us reports of unremitting horror. I don't suppose I will really comprehend the damage until I see it for myself. No matter how big the catastrophe it will be framed, contained, finite - that is when we can deal with it.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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