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Disaster Dharma

June 29, 2011
Their sense of humor intact, Cantabrians have learned to make the best of a bad situation. (Photo by Bronwyn Hayward)

This week the New Zealand Government announced that it will buy out more than 5,000 Christchurch homeowners affected by the February 22 earthquake that devastated the Southern Hemisphere city of 400,000 people. Many more are still awaiting assessments of geotechnical conditions that threaten to undermine any investment in rebuilding their shattered lives where the rubble of their homes now rests.

Since the original earthquake last September, Christchurch has experienced more than 7,300 aftershocks. Two of them had moment magnitudes greater than 6.0 and several more exceeded magnitude 5.0.

With their central business district and most iconic landmarks still in ruins people are wondering when they will get the chance to start rebuilding. The logistics alone suggest the task ahead will be Herculean — although for many it seems, at least for now, rather more Sisyphean. Some estimates indicate that it will take about five years to raze all of the damaged buildings and clear the debris left behind.

With each significant aftershock the community has come together to meet immediate needs, but some wonder how long this can continue. No firm estimates seem readily available to indicate how many people have packed up and left for awhile if not for good. But the impact of their departures are beginning to show signs of straining the social fabric even as the physical fabric of the community remains tattered and torn. This begs the question how people will organize themselves to meet the ongoing challenges of living in the devastated city.

From what I can tell from monitoring Facebook posts and talking to friends, the people coping best with the situation are those who have managed to keep a small but strong social circle intact. A sense of humor has helped immensely with this. As has the willingness to share other forms of human capital.

The most valuable commodities being exchanged in Christchurch these days are not dollars or dozers but instead quick smiles, soft shoulders, firm handshakes, hearty laughs and quiet strolls together along the dark and dusty streets. The duties of those undaunted by disaster are few but strict: In Christchurch they are summed up by a song written and recorded by New Zealand arist Dave Dobbyn entitled Loyal. The second verse summarizes much of what drives those still living in Christchurch these days:

Out in the battle, flung far and used.
Where does allegiance lie?
Sometimes when all of your hopes, and all of your dreams,
Are too much to value in one moment.
And all of us anxious, but why hurry love?
History’s here and now.
Oh and why are you waiting – waiting for what?
The history of some love?

Those daring enough to remain in Christchurch these days seem to share something in common much more powerful than their love of the place or the economic interests they have in homes or jobs. It’s the relationships that have nurtured and sustained them through this serial tragedy that now bind them tightly together. They have history together; a history bound up in love and hope.

The dharma of disaster requires little more of us than a willingness to share our vulnerability by being present in the suffering of others. No burden is too terrible or too great when enough people are willing to bear it.

Those awaiting answers, like those who now know the Government will step in to buy up their properties, have important decisions to make. Here’s hoping they find comfort and direction in the help offered by their friends and families.

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