(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 2.)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ famous opening line from A Tale of Two Cities referred to the turbulent period of the French Revolution, but he could almost have been describing last week’s terrible events in Christchurch.
Such catastrophes bring out the best and worst in humanity. The worst would include the scum who burgled the home of TV presenter Donna Manning while her children maintained a vigil outside the collapsed CTV building where she was missing, presumed dead. Christchurch has always had more than its share of lowlifes and it was probably inevitable that some would seize this opportunity to go on a thieving spree.
Not quite as bad, but still contemptible, were the Christchurch dairy I heard about that wanted $15 for four litres of milk and the airline (not Air New Zealand) that was charging $800 for a flight to Sydney.
Fortunately the instances of vile behaviour were greatly outnumbered by tales of courage and heroism by both victims and rescuers. As the days passed, stories emerged of people staying with trapped and injured colleagues rather than saving themselves, and of emergency workers and volunteers risking their lives by mounting rescue attempts in unstable buildings that could have come crashing down at any moment.
Newspaper photographs and television footage showed rescuers working like men possessed in their determination to free total strangers. On the TV news I saw a young Maori or Polynesian man lift what looked like a massive slab of concrete off a victim, and I gazed in awe at a newspaper photo that showed firefighters checking the lower storeys of the Pyne Gould building while the upper floors teetered at a crazy angle above them, threatening to collapse on them with the next aftershock.
At such times, most of us ask ourselves how we might respond in such a situation, either as victims or as potential helpers. The truth is that we don’t know until we’re put in that position, and most of us have no desire to find out.
On a less dramatic note we learned of instances where people did simple, neighbourly things. One man with an artesian well in his backyard piped water through to the street where others could help themselves, and I particularly liked the story of the woman who still had a power supply so ran leads out to the front of her house and invited people to recharge their cell phones or boil electric jugs.
Students and farmers put their shoulders to the wheel, clearing away the foul-smelling silt that clogged streets and properties.
Such basic, practical acts of help restore our faith in our fellow human beings and demonstrate an underlying social cohesion where it’s not always visible. It’s a shame that it takes a crisis to bring that community spirit to the fore, but at least it’s there when we most need it.
Businesses weighed in too. Air New Zealand provided $50 fares to and from Christchurch from any airport in New Zealand. Fonterra installed massive vats in strategic locations around the city and filled them with fresh water carted by its fleet of milk tankers. On radio, I heard a Coca-Cola delivery contractor say that the drinks company had dispatched a convoy of trucks from Auckland carrying bottled water for free distribution.
Goodwill flowed copiously from overseas too. All-night hosts on Radio New Zealand and Newstalk ZB read out a steady stream of text and email messages from every corner of the planet, offering sympathy, prayers and encouragement. On the website of the Boston Globe newspaper, a dramatic display of quake photos attracted hundreds of comments – again, from multiple countries – expressing solidarity with the people of Christchurch.
There were other aspects of the quake to take encouragement from. The national news media rose to the occasion, as they usually do when there’s a big story to focus on rather than the familiar diet of crime, political conflict and banality (though by week’s end, television was back to its usual tricks, gratuitously trying to pluck at our heart strings).
Just as he was last September, Christchurch mayor Bob Parker was an inspirational civic leader, working his heart out and always composed, upbeat and articulate. The Peter Principle famously states that people rise to their level of incompetence, but there must be a reverse rule that says some individuals grow in stature and respect as greater responsibility is placed on them. If so, the former TV front man is one of them.
The prime minister was impressive too. Not only did his natural empathy shine through, but like Helen Clark, he’s quick to grasp the detail of a complex situation and assess its implications. At times like this we see why John Key was successful in the fast-moving, high-stakes world of international currency trading.
So in terms of the human response to the tragedy, the good far outweighs the bad. But what, if anything, can we learn? And what of the future?
To answer the first question, one potential benefit is that New Zealanders will be made much more aware of the need to prepare for natural disasters. Expect a run on hardware and outdoor stores as people quake-proof their homes, buy water containers and lay in emergency rations. But human nature being what it is, the effect is unlikely to last long.
As for the future, pessimists are talking as if it’s all over for Christchurch, but that’s the immediate shock speaking. People are resilient. Christchurch will rebound. There is too much invested in the city to let it die.
One possible outcome, though it may be too much to hope for, is that the awful effects of the quake will serve to unify and galvanise us, instilling a needed spirit of cohesion in a country where sectional interests and political gamesmanship too often retard progress. Pulling together in a time of crisis could have a transformational effect, both socially and economically.
The brutal shock that the Christchurch quake will undoubtedly deliver to the economy might even rouse New Zealanders from their long Rip Van Winkle slumber, shake off their complacency and get them focused on generating wealth rather than consuming it. Now that would be something.