Compared with the floods in Pakistan and China, and the earthquake that ruined Haiti and other recent natural disasters from South Asia to Chile, the earthquake that struck the Canterbury Plains near Christchurch, New Zealand, early Saturday morning (NZ time) was nothing.
It was big and terrifying, to be sure, of a slightly higher magnitude than the Haiti quake (7.1 compared with 7.0) and has done a great deal of damage both in and near the city, but not a single life was lost and at this point it seems only one person is critically injured. Such is the difference between living in a developing nation with heavy concentrations of people and poor building standards, and living in a moderately large city (350,000) with a lightly populated hinterland in a rich country.
But nature is a great leveller (excuse the pun) in one sense: the Christchurch quake was just as unexpected and sudden as any other. People were rudely awakened at 4.30 in the morning by a frightful noise and jolting, like a train hitting the house repeatedly, and a minute later, in some cases, their home was in ruins.
Both new and old buildings suffered extensive damage — amongst the old, an historic homestead where part of the filming of the 2005 movie The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe took place. A street of near-new homes will have to be demolished. Older buildings in the CBD cracked and their facades came crashing down. At the University of Canterbury more than a million books have been thrown off shelves and a precious collection of Greek and Roman antiquities is badly damaged. The port of Lyttelton is damaged. And everywhere that there are cracks, grey sludge has oozed out over streets, lawns and even floors and has to be shovelled away. Breaks in water and sewage mains have to be located and repaired. It’s filthy, dangerous and fixing the whole thing is going to be hugely expensive.
New Zealand has a lot of experience with earthquakes, plus the occasional volcanic eruption. Part of my family folklore concerns the 7.8 Murchison quake of 1929 which shook the West Coast (across the Southern Alps from Canterbury) where my parents were living — a young married couple with their first baby. Two years later the face of Napier, on the east coast of the North Island, would be forever changed by another 7.8 quake. In the early 1970s I lived in Rotorua, within the suggestively named Volcanic Plateau, and would often feel tremors in bed at night. Not for nothing are we named The Shaky Isles. The whole country lies at the intersection of two major tectonic plates — the Indo-Australian and the Pacific — from which numerous fault lines radiate, some long buried.
The fault that caused Saturday’s quake (and continuing aftershocks) was one of the latter; geologists had no idea it existed and were expecting trouble from other quarters — which could still come. Really, there could be unknown faults ready to rupture almost anywhere in the country. Even when they are known, the time when they snap under pressure is not.
Seismology is an inexact science. Environmental scientist Chris de Freitas wrote in the New Zealand Herald yesterday about optimistic efforts in the US and Japan during the 1960s and 1970s to make it exact, which came to nothing. Unpredicted earthquakes kept happening.
What can be predicted are the results if a quake does strike; therefore authorities can manage and minimise the risks of human fatalities and injuries as well as damage to buildings and infrastructure — by strict building codes, for example, by setting up adequate civil emergency services and by preparing people to respond quickly and appropriately when disaster strikes. As de Freitas points out, risk management becomes all the more important as urban centres expand in earthquake-prone zones. Funnily enough, even when places have been devastated by quakes, people nearly always rebuild on the same spot.
Mind you, in our country we don’t seem to have too many alternatives. But this kind of risk-taking also seems characteristic of the human race; we know that life is full of risks, but we also know that most of them do not materialise. There are reasonable risks, such as rebuilding your home in Christchurch, and unreasonable risks, such as (in my view) bungy jumping from a bridge over a New Zealand river. There are moral risks, such as going into a crumbling house to save your wife or your son, and immoral risks, such as building a substandard house on unstable ground — the kind of thing we have seen too much of in recent times.
Our optimism about coming out on top should be tempered by respect for human life and human dignity in the first place, but also by respect for nature and its negative as well as benign powers. We can control Mother Nature up to a point, but she will have the final say in the form of floods, fires, eruptions and earthquakes. In the twinkling of an eye she can strip us of everything.
Well, not quite. We are always left with our dignity, our intelligence and our virtues. In fact, our distinctly human qualities tend to shine with greater brilliance in the wake of a natural disaster, which suggests — dare I say it, from the relatively safe distance of Auckland — that we need these calamities from time to time. There are many inspiring examples of patience, generosity, resilience and other virtues in the Canterbury earthquake zone right now, but I will just mention one to conclude these reflections.
Christchurch has acquired a reputation as the epicentre of a plague known as “boy racers”, a tribe of young men and their molls who make the lives of other citizens a misery of a weekend as they roar up and down city streets in their souped-up cars, spewing fumes and screams into the night air. It’s enough to put you off the younger generation altogether.
What a joy then to read in this morning’s paper that a university student using Facebook has drummed up a growing student army of 1300 who will spend the week going around the worst hit areas shovelling up sludge and doing any other cleanup jobs pending.
With any luck the quake may have permanently altered the profile of the youth population down there.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.