"Where do we start?" That is what people in Christchurch asked a reporter on Wednesday as the city tried to make sense of its loss. "Where do we start?" is the question for us all.

There is a scale to measure earthquakes, but how do you quantify their toll? Where do we start? Amid the rubble and the timber, the splayed foundations, the wounded and the lost? The falling rocks, the blasted Cathedral, the men in fluoro bearing stretchers of the dead?

Heartsick within hours from the images on television, the cracks and the diggers, the concrete and iron, a patchwork of disaster knit together in real time.

The impossible question now, in trying to take the measure of catastrophe, where do we start?

We start with the people. The people of Christchurch, divided for now into the rescued, and their rescuers, the survivors, and the lost. The people who have suffered so unfairly, we begin by acknowledging their loss.

We watched agog, those first appalling images from the city centre as dazed Cantabrians became people on the run, racing past wailing car alarms and away from falling masonry, jumping off footpaths, diving out of harm's way, desperately trying to get home.

The pictures kept coming, and we watched on into the night, as police and rescue workers swarmed over the great concertinaed buildings that the earthquake turned into tombs, picking and hacking their way through piles of smoking wood, and stone and iron, a real-life, red-lit hell.

There was a lot of talking on television. What was remarkable in retrospect was the speed with which we seemed to make sense of it all. Thank God for Hilary Barry, she gave voice to the pictures, she was dignified and humane.

The first images from a recovery at the CTV building didn't need any sound, though. TV3 rolled them unedited, we saw a bloody, sheet-wrapped stretcher, the bearers lifting it out of a gaping hole in the ground. All the more horrible, all the more momentous for being silent, a small dirty bundle, proof that the news was the worst.

I left my house soon after that. I couldn't watch any more. It was raining in Auckland, a wild end-of-summer rain. I took a bus up Queen St and everywhere I looked was carnage and despair.

Not really, thank God, the pictures were just in my mind. Queen St was teeming, crazy, safe as houses. A thousand miles away Christchurch was riven and Auckland felt obscenely unscathed.

By then we knew about the people who died on the buses. I imagined the Whitcoulls Building in Victoria St coming down around us, Smith & Caugheys, the Old St James. Why should it be them and not us, here, on the number 24? That simple geography could decide that fact seems too cruel.

Every city in New Zealand is Christchurch after this, every village, every small town. I've been there precisely twice in my life, but Christchurch is the only city that matters right now.

It is impossible to be in Auckland and not be in Christchurch, impossible not to see its broken lineaments in the outline of my own dear town. Nothing matters for now except for telling Christchurch that we feel this. Not pity, but a sharing of pain.

The people of Christchurch are just people, the same as us. We share their humanity at the most basic level, we're all mortal, all hopelessly fragile in the same way.

We know this with certainty now, after Christchurch. I tried to be nicer to the people on my bus.

We start with the people. We finish with them too. Nothing else matters, not buildings, not possessions, the places we make our homes. Only people. He Tangata.

All over Christchurch, people are looking after each other. Rescuing each other, feeding each other, giving each other shelter and whatever comfort they can.

I see this on the television, I hear it on the radio since this horrible epoch began. Help is coming from within the country, help is coming from all over the world. We will look after each other, and when the time comes we will bury our dead and mourn together as well.

Nine years I have lived here; nothing ever happens in New Zealand, that has always been my joke. Never once did I dream something like this would happen, but in the broken city, people are looking after each other as best they can.

That makes me proud to be a part of this country, proud to have made it my home.

The rescue workers are the face of it, they have spent days and nights now burrowing through that terrifying rubble, an indefatigable host of courageous, grimy women and men.

But everyone is at it, the neighbours in Lyttelton, the kids having jumble sales, the well-meaning, ungrammatical posts on Facebook shouting at us to give money or get off the phone.

Everything changed this week, for the people of Christchurch, and for all of us who love New Zealand, who value the quiet and safety of our home.

"All is changed, changed utterly," the great poet of collapse, William Yeats, wrote.

In the aftermath of disaster, where to start? We start with each other. We take care of each other, we acknowledge this loss.