Please note: At the time of the earthquakes, and in the first two years after, I ran a website under the domain name CafeReflections.com. I posted many articles and images about my Canterbury Earthquake experiences there. In recent times I have been rebranding my websites and the CafeReflections.com domain is no longer owned by me. Any personal reflections from that website have been retired from the Internet. Today’s anniversary reflection is the first one in approximately three years to be shared publicly. This has made it quite lengthy. I thank you for taking the time to read and glimpse into one earthquake survivor’s journey to recovery.
Three Vows to Keep Away the First World Darkness of our Disaster
22 February 2016 – written at 8:37 a.m.
Darkness. Deep, black, terrifying. My world is crashing down around me. I feel so alone and yet I know I am not. There are others here. A city full of people, some like me, struggling to overcome the anxiety and terror and loss triggered five years ago today. Others getting on with it as best they can. For many, their lives have been changed in ways we cannot possibly imagine – physically altered from crush injuries that damaged nerves or irreparably ripped their bodies apart.
I woke this morning in the darkness that overcomes me periodically. Post-Earthquake Stress, triggered by other small and large stressors, such as three in past week: the 5.9 Magnitude Valentine’s Day Earthquake, news of a loved family member being diagnosed with cancer, and an unexpected conflict with a third party.
Each of the past 5 years have had major stressors, all causing upheaval and chaos in my life. I feel like I am lurching from one mini disaster to another. I know I’m not alone in experiencing a chaotic time since the earthquakes.
2011 was a nightmare year. Our family business, where I worked, was only just starting to recover from the September 2010 earthquake. I was there in the centre of the city on Feb 22, at 12.51 p.m. We were relatively lucky. Our 150 year old building protected us enough so that no one was injured or killed. We escaped, and I am forever grateful to the men who constructed it in the 1860s. No one in my family was killed or injured, which also was a blessing to be grateful for.
For the rest of 2011 we tried to adjust to being exiled from our business premises. We were in the most restricted part of the CBD Red Zone, and could not access anything for two months. We were taken in on the last business recovery bus trip, and, aided and abetted by two policemen, were given 90 minutes to do a smash and grab raid on our jewellery shop. What a heist!
It almost didn’t happen because the safety engineers didn’t like the look of the mezzanine floor in our shop. My father and I argued with them; it had kept us safe on Feb 22, so it would keep us safe during the recovery raid. We were right; it was still standing strong when we went in for our last recovery trip in December 2011, just before the building was demolished.
2011 was our year of living in limbo, battling with the insurance companies, who told us ‘not to worry as we would be covered’, only to find out they were false prophets. Let down by them, we set up a pop-up shop to clear our stock for the winter of 2012. As that time in our temporary premises came to an end, my 98 year old grandmother died. More heartbreak for our family.
Three Vows to Help Rebuild My Life
I made three vows to the victims, injured survivors and search and rescuers at around 9 p.m. on Feb 22.
I’d finally made it to a safe haven – a friend’s house in Hornby, where they had the luxury of power, hot water and flushing toilets, and relatively solid ground. I watched the search and rescue efforts unfolding on the television, still not comprehending how my family and close neighbours had managed to walk away physically unharmed.
The television showed the devastation in the city: the PGC, the CTV, the Link Centre (across the road from our shop), Cashel Mall, the bus in Colombo Street, Manchester Street…the horror was everywhere. People had died, people were trapped, people were injured, some so severely they lost limbs. I had seen some of this as we fled the CBD; the injured and dead being attended to in the streets, some being transported in makeshift ambulances to the hospital. But to cope with it, I had ‘pretended’ I was walking through the scene of a Hollywood disaster movie set.
The First Vow: Honour the Victims by Living My Dreams
My first vow was to honour the people who would never return home alive – the tally kept rising until it reached 185. My heart broke at the thought that they would never get to pursue their dreams and live their lives to the fullest.
I could though. Despite the survivor guilt racing through me, I vowed to stop waiting for the right time to pursue my dream (helping to release a million trapped books), and just do it.
My doing it was delayed slightly, but in October 2012, my publishing company, Keswin Publishing Ltd, released its first book, Café Reflections: Christchurch City 1975-2012. This was my tribute to the central city and its community, lost forever on 22 February 2011. It was a personalised documentary about growing up, working and surviving in Christchurch.
My Second Vow: Contribute to Helping the Injured Adapt to Changed Lives
In publishing Café Reflections, I could also honour the second vow: to contribute in some way to helping the crush injured survivors adjust to their completely changed lives. I donated the author royalties to the Christchurch Earthquake Survivors Trust, along with my skills and time to build them a website for various charity fundraisers. They were grateful for my donations, as small as they were.
My Third Vow: Help the Responders Tell Their Story
The third vow, to help those who came to Christchurch in response to cries for help, was honoured in early 2013, when Keswin Publishing Ltd released its second book, Responders. Co-authored with Pete Seager, it documents the earthquake deployments on the trained New Zealand response team volunteers. We donated our author royalties to the Christchurch Earthquake Survivors Trust again.
More Roller Coaster Years
In 2013 I moved in with my partner and a few months later EQC descended on us and did superficial repairs to the place we are living in. We couldn’t move out, as we had nowhere else to go thanks to insurance issues (long story). Then just as we finished that and I tried to catch my breath, EQC advised they are doing major repairs to the house I own which is now a rental property (another long story).
Those repairs went from July 2013 and finished Christmas week of the same year. I managed to rent it out a couple of weeks into 2014. In March my cat, Chloe, died suddenly. We’d been together through so much during our 14 years together: divorce, moving house six times, the September earthquake, the February earthquake, EQC repairs and more. Not long after this one of my aunts died. And a few months later, another aunt, this time from cancer.
At the end of 2014 Keswin Publishing Ltd released the first edition of the Christchurch ‘then and now’ comparison series. It showed the city pre-earthquake, and compared the changes of the same scene in 2014. The year ended on a high, with it being a best seller in the local bookstores.
As 2015 began, I vowed the high would continue. The first half was mostly okay; we adopted two lovely kittens, Stanley and Tessa, from Otago, and I had time and energy to work on the next books in the pipeline.
Then at the end of August we got terrible news. My elderly aunt, holidaying in Europe, had fallen, hit her head, and gone into a coma in Prague. The prognosis was bad. Some of my family flew to Prague to support my uncle, and the whole situation created chaos back home. Another long story, but suffice to say, she recovered enough to be flown back to her home in Australia. I went across to see her – more heartache. She has gone from an active 81 year old, to a woman requiring full time care in a nursing home. It has been extremely stressful on all the family.
In the middle of this, our kitten, Stanley, went missing. Now 8 months old, we searched frantically for him, only to learn he had been hit by a car and killed. We retrieved his body, and gave him a respectful farewell. The lessons he taught us in his short life will be turned into a book in due course.
So 2015 was our annus horribilis. We were determined to turn things around in 2016, and things were ticking along nicely until this past week.
I once read it takes 7 years to recover financially from a disaster. I’m not sure how long it takes for the mental or emotional recovery.
This morning, lying in my darkness, I thought about the 185 people who died this day, five years ago. I thought about the ones in particular who had been trapped in dark pockets in the rubble, unable to escape and aware of the fate that waited for them.
My current darkness is psychological, not physical. I can get up. I can continue on. I can rebuild my life. They can’t. I have choices. They do not. In 2011, after escaping the CBD, I made the choice of a future where I would not walk a safe path. I chose to pursue my dream – no matter what. To never ever give up, even when obstacles taken on nightmare proportions and pressing on seems futile.
Haiti Mon Amour
I remember a moment in the winter of 2011, sitting in my car outside the CBD Redzone fence, by the Bridge of Remembrance, at night. I had U2’s song, Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour) playing. It had become my anthem. Although it was written about Haiti’s devastating earthquake, it spoke deeply to me; a reminder that our disaster experiences were not unique. I sat in my car, listening to the song, looking across to the pitch black darkness that had been our vibrant CBD and cried tears of anger and frustration, hurt and pain.
Our sky had fallen, the earth had quaked, and although it seemed far into the future, I knew we would put the city back together again, some day. Christchurch was broken, but the people’s spirit would not – because we had no other choice.
Five years on from our own disaster, last night, before going to sleep, I did an online search to see the recovery progress in Haiti. The headlines I read could have been written about Christchurch. Anger, frustration, hurt and pain over promises made and broken by the authorities to rebuild what was destroyed. But the similarity ended there. The already impoverished survivors in Haiti lost the little that they had. It killed 160,000 people, and displaced 1.5 million people, many of them are still living in refugee camps or in makeshift shelters on the top of the rubble, begging for food and the basics needed to survive. Read more at Time.com.
I have always said that Christchurch’s earthquake was (and still is) a civilised, first world disaster. Despite our struggles with EQC and insurance claims, the complaints of recovery mismanagement by the authorities, the slowness of the infrastructure and CBD rebuild, we have come a long way. We have power, hot water, flushing toilets, good housing, money, and most importantly food. We have a lot to be grateful for, plenty to be positive about, and even more to be proud of. While the earthquake related stressors we deal with are very real, they are first world stressors. We have the resources to deal with them, and access to help if we need it.
Choose the Setting of Your Sail
As we reflect on the past five years in Christchurch, we need to stop playing victim and laying blame elsewhere. We need to acknowledge that the only victims were those who lost their lives. The rest of us are survivors, who have the capacity within us to rebuild our lives into something worthwhile. We may have lost our homes and/or our businesses, but we do not need to lose our dignity. I have been privileged to meet and talk with people who lost loved ones or suffered terrible crush injuries. Their strength and courage to continue on and rebuild their lives is inspiring.
I know people who have become some embroiled in the battle to get what they perceive is rightfully theirs from their insurers or eqc, that their health and quality of life is suffering. Are bricks and mortar, and a few thousand (or tens of thousands) of dollars, really worth debilitating yourself or dying for? I personally don’t think so.
We need to stop and ask ourselves how much of our situation is of our own making; what choices did we make prior to and immediately after the earthquake, or in the past five years, that have lead us to the situation we are in now?
We need to ask ourselves how the situation we are in would look to an earthquake survivor from Haiti, from Chile, from Turkey, from Nepal or any other third world country?
Most of all, we need to take stock of what we have, be grateful for the good, and acknowledge that the power lies within us to rise up from the impact of the earthquakes, and the man-made disasters that followed. We are not helpless. We have within each of us the ability to stop focusing on the negatives and overcome our first world disaster problems. We have within each of us the potential to make a great difference to the world in positive ways, and this is the path I have chosen to take.
My last words in this 5th anniversary reflection come from the late Jim Rohn, and is very relevant to a mass trauma event like our earthquakes:
‘The same wind blows on us all. It’s not the blowing of the wind but the setting of the sail that determines your future.’
Kia Kaha. We have survived five years; may you set your sail towards your dreams, finally ride out of the earthquake storm and thrive for many more.
Learn more about my books here
Photo Credit Rob Roy CC BY-NC-ND One of the hand riveted steel beams in the Triangle Chambers Building, circa 1862 (New City Hotel).