Quake - a year on: Tale of three cities

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As New Zealand prepares to mark the first anniversary of the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake, nzherald.co.nz asked local bloggers to describe how their lives have been affected in the year since. We sought a range of voices to paint a broad picture of how life really is in the shattered city.

Peter Hyde wrote passionately and extensively about what he called the "three cities," a way of describing how Christchurch wasn't experiencing one single state of emergency, but three different situations. Peter was a loud, clear and strong advocate for the desperate, resilient east.

Read Peter's quake blog, Call To Action.

Peter Hyde says the toughest part of the past year has been the way the quakes have arbitrarily made winners and losers out of property owners. Photo / Dean Purcell
Peter Hyde says the toughest part of the past year has been the way the quakes have arbitrarily made winners and losers out of property owners. Photo / Dean Purcell

When we got power back on a week after the February earthquake, I sent out an electronic plea for more direct support and attention for the worst-affected suburbs of Christchurch.

This was in response to the "three cities" I saw developing - Rescue City in the photogenicly-ruined CBD, Shower City in the areas which had their services largely intact, and Refugee City where tens of thousands huddled amongst broken houses, rockfall and liquefaction.

That "three cities" notion quickly spread as shorthand for the very different needs and dynamics that our city was facing. I have no way of knowing how much direct difference my original plea made. But it did seem to get through to the media and politicians, who began to publicly recognise the enormous problems faced by the residents of Refugee City, and we started to see small, but welcome, improvements.

Since that challenging time, everyone has developed a greater appreciation of the sheer physical magnitude - not to mention the ongoing nature - of the disaster here.

Small wonder that the initial official response was seen as inadequate, dwarfed as it was by the sheer scale and widespread nature of the damage we all faced.

Recognising that fact allows us to appreciate even more the enormous efforts made by those at the coalface - the water, sewerage, roading and power workers in particular, and all those agencies and volunteers who tried to provide immediate relief and support. It's also given us the very sobering lesson that we need to rely on our own resources extensively - prepare for seven days of self-reliance as a minimium, not just 72 hours. Keep those basic civil defence items up to scratch, including spare batteries and gas. And get to know your neighbours and local community, as you'll need them.

The toughest part of the past year has been the way the quakes have arbitrarily created
winners and losers. Your house may be basically fine but your neighbour's needs a rebuild.

The house over the road is red-zoned with a payout the owners are happy to take, while their neighbour is getting substantially less than they feel their home is worth - certainly less than they need to buy something similar elsewhere. As with homeowners, so with businesses, employees, building owners, schools, community groups, suburbs and even politicians.

That's one of the reasons Tony Marryat's pay rise attracted so much public ire. In more normal years it might have been a just-tolerable pat on the back But instead it was seen, understandably, as an obscene abuse of those who have suffered the most in a year of disasters, stress and dislocation, and against a consistent backdrop of ill economic winds.

For now, we've all lost a city - not merely a concentration of buildings in the CBD, but the powerful, cohesive and compelling identity which so many Cantabrians have proudly supported for generations. For the foreseeable future we face political scuffles, a disjointed administration, the loss of entire suburbs, facilities and iconic structures, a lack of focus on suburban communities and the glacial speed and maddening bureaucracy of claim resolution, land decisions and reconstruction. It's hardly the makings of strong civic pride.

And for many, the tough times are yet to come, as financial support such as accomodation insurance and business-interruption insurance runs out.

Happily, the story doesn't end there.

The in-pouring of local, national and even international support did not go astray. From the farmer delivering clean water from Little River, to the thousands of donors from all over who made possible timely Red Cross grants, to the larger philanthropic trusts who are now helping support pop-up community efforts, you have delivered not just direct aid but also an important psychological boost. Your obvious will that we recover quickly, and well, has served to strengthen our own failing resolve and kept many of us going.

Just as importantly, community-led support and recovery initiatives quickly flowered across the worst-hit suburbs and they still survive and even prosper in most places. Many of them began on street corners or in other ad-hoc spaces but are developing into community hubs supported by networks of local agencies and volunteers. In spite of tiredness, ongoing delays, frustration and countless examples of continued unresponsiveness from on high ("like bashing your head against an unreinforced masonry wall"), this community-led response is overcoming many problems and creating opportunities for a better future.

Dianne, a Queensland Flood volunteer who posted this comment on the Australia Broadcasting Corporation's website in early March last year, can tell us how, and why:

"NZ'ers are resilient, do it yourself, wonderful people. Their isolation in this world has taught them many, many skills, not always evident to the outside word. They will now put all of those skills, and their resilience, to work, to rebuild their lives, and to rebuild Christchurch."

At the grassroots, we're already reclaiming and strengthening our suburbs - those which have been permitted to survive. And in time, we'll get our whole city back.

Just watch.

Read also:
Mike Dickison - City without a heart
Bex Davies - Christchurch is 'the waiting place'
Adrienne Rewi - The biggest test of all

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