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Small Miracles

March 2, 2011

As my former hometown of Christchurch transitions from response to recovery, people have openly hoped and prayed for a miracle or two to buoy their flagging spirits. Still, it has been days since anyone was recovered alive from the rubble, and the body count continues to climb toward a figure officials now estimate will approach 240 souls. On top of the human toll, some damage estimates peg the economic impact of the disaster at something north of US$12 billion.

The devastation within the central business district and neighborhoods east of it is particularly pronounced. Sand boils and silt pushed to the surface by the force of the earthquake and the mechanism of liquefaction have now turned to unhealthy dust storms as winds picked up over the past day.

Somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the buildings in the central business district will never be rebuilt and 10,000 or more homes may require demolition. Power and water have been restored to a substantial majority of households, but the damage to critical infrastructure remains severe enough to hamper recovery efforts.

Some estimates put the number of refugees fleeing the earthquake ravaged city at upwards of 50,000. Many of my friends like so many other families have sent their kids away to other cities so they can return to school while parents sort out what to do next.

All of this sounds pretty dire, and to be sure it is. But despite all the devastation and the debilitating effects of fatigue wrought by successive days and nights in response mode with little hope of sleep much less the opportunity to do so, people have still found it possible to look on the lighter and brighter side of their predicament.

One aid worker captured the following effort to rekindle the pioneer spirit in fellow Cantabrians while following the efforts of the Los Angeles County Urban Search and Rescue Task Force deployed by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance:

The University of Canterbury’s Student Volunteer Army must be getting slap-happy after days of backbreaking work shoveling silt from suburban streets as they are now working to build the World’s Tallest Leaning Tower of Pizza:

Judging by some of the photos you would not be so wrong to assume that disasters bring out the pre-adolescent in those of us who can no longer take the usual creature comforts of civilized sanitation facilities for granted:

If the earthquake found you unprepared and — pardon the off-color pun — you suddenly find yourself without a pot to piss in, no worries, mate.

People find themselves much more easily amused when the chips are down. Take this checklist for example: “You know you are from Christchurch when …

  1. You use the term “liquefaction” and “seismic design” in casual conversation.
  2. Digging a hole and pooping in your garden is no longer weird.
  3. Your mayor describes the city as munted.
  4. Weaving through car size potholes on the street is no longer weird.
  5. Going to Wellington to escape earthquakes makes sense.
  6. A shower is heaven.
  7. You have a preference of which kind of silt you’d rather shovel, dry or wet.
  8. You see tanks driving around town.
  9. You are always noting what you are under.
  10. Due to frequent aftershocks during the night, you sleep like a baby–every 10 minutes you wake up and sh*t yourself.”

People in Wellington — the national capitol got a little bit worried that they might be next when a M4 earthquake struck the city recently. In response, Cantabrians quipped they don’t even get out of bed anymore for a shake less than M5.

The entrepreneurial spirit remains alive and well in Christchurch too. One enterprising victim of the an earthquake-induced rockfall has offered the boulder that crashed through his house for auction on the New Zealand equivalent of eBay. Bids are already up to NZ$950. If you fancy this oversized relic for your rock garden there’s just one catch: The winning bidder must come and get the item.

If none of this is enough to cheer you up, consider the hope inspired today by the discovery of two relics of Christchurch’s past. Workers found a glass bottle containing a small piece of parchment near the fallen statue of the city’s founder, John Robert Godley, and a metal cylinder sealed with solder amidst the debris of the Anglican cathedral. Both items have been transferred to the Canterbury Museum for conservation and inspection.

Mayor Bob Parker remarking on the find said he hopes the contents of the supposed time capsules will help illuminate the city’s future by telling people, “Why (our forebears) came here, what was their vision. (sic)” Putting Godley’s likeless back upon its perch has emerged as a top priority for leaders like Mayor Parker and Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright who suggested, “(We must) get Godley back onto his plinth and show Christchurch it started here and lets start again, so we can show that we’re not going to lie down.”

In the midst of chaos, death and devastation, it no doubt helps to take heart in small miracles …

P.S.: Christchurch’s own Wizard of New Zealand, no stranger to hardship himself, cast his spell over the city once more shortly after announcing he will stay despite earlier reports he too would flee the devastation … “I call (upon) the nine spiritual hierarchies: (cherubim), seraphim, domination, powers, principalities, thrones and virtues, archangels and angels to protect and cherish Christchurch.” Here’s hoping it works!

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