Phil Taylor 's Opinion

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Phil Taylor: World's kindness that we can repay

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Marcus White and Liana Bush are comforted by a stranger while collecting personal effects from the car in which Liana's father's Ross died. Photo / Greg Bowker
Marcus White and Liana Bush are comforted by a stranger while collecting personal effects from the car in which Liana's father's Ross died. Photo / Greg Bowker

It's the only time I saw a policeman cry. Acts of kindness can do that.

I was in the city centre on Wednesday to visit the remains of the cathedral, the CTV and Pyne Gould buildings, where many victims of the February 22 earthquake are buried.

It wasn't loss that drew the tears but that we - Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand - are far from forgotten here in our remote corner of the world.

A Welsh rescue team were hard at work. There was a comment about how so many had flown here to help from so many countries.

"Incredible," was all the policeman got out.

I understand better now the importance of relief teams New Zealand sends overseas to desperate places, how appreciated those Kiwis are.

Here, in Christchurch, I made a point of saying thanks to every foreign relief worker I met. Such as the three Australian Federal Police officers I saw the other morning grabbing a bite in the only cafe operating in Woolston.

Two from Canberra, one from Melbourne, fathers all three, they will be away from families for at least two weeks. No need, they said, "We want to be here."

Six degrees of separation. The best thing to come of this disaster is the sense of community that emerged - neighbours looking out for neighbours, traffic as dense as our city but courteous in a way Auckland's has never been.

The knock on the door at a precinct of elderly residents - Gemma, from the local bakery, giving away pastries. Random acts of kindness have been common of late in the country's second-biggest city.

Such connectedness may eventually mean we will all be personally linked in some way to the loss of someone among the estimated 240 who have died.

Not long after the quake, Ian Harris, standing outside his recently renovated but now utterly wrecked house on a Mt Pleasant hill, commented that despite all the destruction he didn't know anyone who had died. Nor did I, and then ...

On day seven, at Sumner reporting the evacuation of a hillside, I met Melanie Bradley minding her infant son as he played on the beach. Trying to keep it as normal as possible for the kids, she explained.

She was born in Sumner and has loved living there ever since. She had the option of a house in Kaikoura away from the aftershocks and says people thought her mad to stay home with the gas burner and the long drop dug in the backyard.

Family solidarity is the reason she won't go, especially now. Her uncle was a victim. He must be properly farewelled when his body is identified and released.

He was a brickie, she tells me, ironically crushed by a brick building after he pulled over to buy lunch at a shop at Nancys Corner on Riccarton Rd.

Later that afternoon, I get a text from a Christchurch cycling friend. Had I heard the sad news about Ross Bush? Crushed in his car at Nancys Corner.

I make a point of going to the site to pay my respects. Ross had parked a couple of doors from the Hagley Night'n Day Foodstore, adjacent to the only building in the row to have crumbled. His car and trailer are squashed to no more than the height of my knees.

In the debris, you can make out trestles on the trailer. Even at 74, Bush was a worker. Despite a bad back, he still rode - his group of mates (nicknamed The Magpies) recently cycled the country, Cape to Bluff.

Ross was an accomplished rider in his day and one of the great characters of Canterbury cycling. I remember him winning - in his veteran years - the Round the Gorges Classic having employed the essentials of the sport, will, endurance, cunning.

The story goes that he told his colleagues in the leading group that he was busting for a pee and they should let him ride ahead to relieve himself. They did but Ross didn't stop until he'd crossed the line first.

The city will need tenacity and smarts, too, to reinvent itself.

On Wednesday I went inside the CBD cordon to the Arts Centre, the base of the recovery operation.

Press conferences are held in its auditorium here, as they were after the September 4 earthquake.

Tucked away against a wall in an entranceway to this room, forgotten for the moment, lies a whiteboard covered in yellow post-it notes.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? The question is posed in bold black letters and the city's citizens have responded by writing their thoughts on the sticky paper squares about the city they want to emerge.

The February 22 quake has made the canvas on which to create it that much bigger. Estimates of buildings in the CBD that will be demolished vary from one-third to two-thirds.

Post-it notes: "Let's dethrone Wellington as the Bohemian centre of New Zealand."

"More piazzas."

"Separate, kerbed cycle lanes"

"No, to ugly shopping boxes filling the gaps."

"Be unique and don't build a concrete jungle."

"Stop the malls, no more sprawl."

And there's a longer one:

"We need ONE person as a focus for regeneration. Look at Lisbon after its earthquake in 1755. The Count of Pombal is responsible for wide avenues, grassed central areas, large squares and low-rise buildings - a human-sized city."

Up to 100,000 died in the Lisbon earthquake, which gave rise to a city known for its architectural signature.

The focus in Christchurch has been on what is lost but there are many heritage buildings still there. The museum, the town hall, the Ballantynes building all came through. The Arts Centre - where Rutherford's Den, the old workshop of our most celebrated scientist, has been closed since the September earthquake - will be restored and Christ's College will be repaired. The Cranmer Square historic precinct sustained heavy damage but may survive.

On the Port Hills, the Sign of the Takahe (half-way up) and the Sign of the Kiwi have survived.

Built a century ago as staging posts on the route to Akaroa, they are precious landmarks in a city that lost many, including Shag Rock, on the point between Redcliffs and Sumner.

Christchurch seems determined to rebuild its most recognisable symbol - its cathedral.

Post-it note: "Preserve our historic buildings. Rebuild them ... with materials that were there before. Create an earthquake heritage trail."

But, is it safe? That's the question householders are asking. This week the mood in Christchurch has changed from shock and grief to frustration, sometimes anger. Why has help been so slow to reach poor areas in the east, such as Aranui? When can owners of businesses inside the four avenues retrieve equipment essential to get their companies going again?

Can residents rebuild confident there won't be another devastating earthquake in their time?

One week on at 12.51pm, I was on the Summit Rd of the Port Hills because I wanted to look over the city during the two minutes of silence. There are just a few of us at this spot. A couple embrace while on a car radio the Lord's Prayer is being recited.

Alan, a Christchurch City Council employee, points to the southwest and says that is where the city should move, to countryside sitting on good shingle beds. Alan is from Burwood and that means liquefaction. While walking the dog one evening he counted only half a dozen properties that looked unaffected. Most homes were built on concrete slabs that had cracked or moved or both.

"Before they build a new subdivision they should drill down 100 metres to see what is there," says Alan. "If it's silt, then don't go there."

Guarantees? Architects say they can design for the conditions. Going by the ruins, that will mean brick, mason and stone are out.

Geologists didn't know of the Port Hills fault until, stirred into life by the September shake, it threw up a magnitude 5 after-shock a few days after the Darfield-centred earthquake. That, too, was on a fault we didn't know about.

GNS Science seismologist Dr Kelvin Berryman, at the media centre this week, told the Herald he didn't think Christchurch was in for another big earthquake. The 6.3 magnitude February 22 quake was an aftershock of the September 4 earthquake, although "late and large".

"The 7.1 earthquake imposed stress on the next piece of rock, and they have a bit of a say and we end up with this earthquake cloud."

The aftershocks he likens to a "relaxation period" as the land settles and he says they seem to be fading more quickly this time than after the September quake.

But the 1929 Murchison earthquake was the first in a series of seven magnitude 7 earthquakes in 13 years around the country, including Napier.

Might the Port Hills and Darfield earthquakes have stressed the big known faults in the region - Hope (near Hanmer), Porters Pass and the Alpine (considered to be capable of producing a magnitude 8)?

The answer is yes and the probability of more earthquakes may have been heightened, he says.

But not Christchurch. Dr Berryman thinks the city has had its big events.

Let's hope so, and let Christchurch get on with the job of reinventing itself.

Post-it note: "Lots of good ideas about recreating ChCh but we need good ideas on wealth creation to pay for it."

- NZ Herald

Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer. He has 30 years’ experience on newspapers, including in Sydney and London, and joined the Herald in 2004. Taylor writes on a broad range of topics. He is a former winner of Reporter of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Sports Reporter of the Year. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics and a post-graduate Diploma in Journalism, both from the University of Canterbury. Taylor has been awarded journalism fellowships to Green College, Oxford University, and Wolfson College, Cambridge University.

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