Darkest Day Followed By Our Finest Moments

Tracey Barnett ©March 2011
Christchurch Earthquake

It was just one moment, wasn’t it? Just one image that actually made this disaster hit home for you. Maybe you watched hours of television coverage or read dozens of news stories. But just when you thought you were getting numb, I’ll wager you can pinpoint one thing amongst the deluge that truly got to you.

Hold onto that image for a minute. Keep it safe. You’ll need it.

These were a handful of precious days for this country. Politics actually stopped, cynicism went quiet, and an entire country’s clarity of purpose became singular.

This was a gift no one ever wishes for.

Whatever level of sadness you felt about frantic texts that eventually went silent in ruined buildings, rising body counts, or a toppled cathedral—the gift all of this may have given you—was just that one pause. That connection.

Maybe it’s natural—but only a fortnight later, already the immediacy is fading. The image of the Samoan father, “The IncrediBro Hulk”, moving limestone slabs like Lego to free someone trapped underneath, is replaced with talkback about “disaster porn” and tax levys. Two minutes of silence is going to be followed by months of loud political noise.

What will have been lost by then was that one moment when you remembered why those you care about most—family, friends, colleagues, countrymen you may never meet an island away—matter.

If John Key gets the political guts to tax us to help Christchurch, I will write my cheque without hesitation. Not because I believe it will ever replace the history of what we have lost, but because in one short week, since I came to this country from America seven years ago, I have finally begun to understand what being a New Zealander means.

Six years ago, I watched different television coverage from New Orleans. Then, supply trucks were stranded like beached whales, while people withered in the heat without water, far too many days after Hurricane Katrina struck. Huge cross-purposed federal agencies were falling on top of each other, killing innocent people under their weight. In America, Oprah got through, but the US government couldn’t move its behemoth behind.

In this country, the contrast of effectiveness was almost obscene. Within 24 hours, Christchurch had 300,000 litres of water delivered to its ruined front door.

Kiwis would much rather be damned for doing, than damned for not. Almost immediately, independent water tanker owners like Stephen Bleeker called officials to offer help. When they didn’t hear back from swamped Civil Defense staff hours later, they took initiative, sourced water from farms and processing plants, then phoned Federated Farmers, who immediately joined with Fonterra to coordinate a fleet.

You want everyday heroes? There are lists of diesel suppliers who gave petrol, massive efforts by the combined vendors headed by the Grocery Council, the entire thousands-strong army of volunteer students who are doing everything from shoveling liquefaction silt to spending the night assembling wheelbarrows, to the “Farmy Army” of machinery now entering the city.

Let me introduce you to a country you may never have realized you know, one I see with eyes different than yours. Eyes that saw what New Zealanders who have lived here their entire life will never say outright, because you prize understatement like a national value. You think you just got on with it. You’re wrong.

As individuals, as a community, as a nation together, your response to this earthquake has been nothing short of astounding excellence. New Zealand may have experienced its darkest day, but it was followed by its finest moments.

You are so used to the unspoken strengths of your national character, you don’t see how remarkable it feels to outsiders.

Last night, two visiting American friends came to dinner. Having just tramped in Fiordland, they were diverted from Christchurch to Wellington the evening of the quake. Just as they were getting nervous they wouldn’t find a vacant Wellington hotel room, two single Mums approached and asked if they needed a place to stay. The women had come to the airport to do something to help. This was their gesture. They stayed with one of them. When she left early for work the next morning, she asked them to lock up behind them.

This is who you are, New Zealand. Capable, independent, compassionate, driven, unpretentious, laconic, honest—our number-eight-wire resourcefulness never looked more like a thousand golden threads that formed the strength of rope.

I know it won’t stay this way. We’ll stop listening hard enough over time. We’ll embrace the new politics of disaster, forgetting that they ever left us in those first few stark days. We’ll start to skip over rebuilding articles and snark about whose highway is more important to build. It is inevitable that the gratefulness of rescue gives way to the frustrating, hard scrabble of recovery.

But I do still have different eyes. Like a wound, I know that almost one-third of the people in New Orleans have never returned, six years later.

As for that one image that connected you to Christchurch this past week, get ready. You’re going to have to hold on to it tight—for a long, long time.

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