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Friday, March 4, 2011

Carnage in Christchurch, but the spirit remains strong

Carnage in Christchurch, but the spirit remains strong
By Spiro Zavos
February 24th 2011 @ 1:22pm  
An old friend, a successful businessman in Christchurch and the proud creator of the finest cricket ground in New Zealand, The Willows, was out on urgent business when I rang him yesterday.

His house has survived the earthquake reasonably well. A lot of crockery has been broken. But there is no structural damage to his house, which is in the inner city suburb of Riccarton.

His grounds have been affected by liquefaction, a manifestation of a foul-smelling ooze of mud and water that rises from the ground and brings an odious smell and a science fiction monstrosity to the awfulness of the destruction.

Another friend says that seven Billabong shopping outlets scattered throughout the city have been wiped out.

The destruction is so widespread that people in Christchurch believe that the second earthquake has created a greater disaster in their city than the Twin Tower destruction in New York.

There is less loss of life (although the figure will probably go into the hundreds) in Christchurch than in New York. But the damage done to the infrastructure throughout the city and its suburbs might take years, perhaps decades to repair.

A businesswoman who runs a big business in the city was in Hasting buying a race horse when the earthquake struck. Her office was totally destroyed. And her desk was a collapsed wreck with great piles of bricks on top of it.

If she’d been at her desk …

There are horror stories by the hundreds. A little child started scrambling across the floor of her house as the quake started. She was killed when a big TV set flew off its mountings and smashed into her.

Anyone who has been to Christchurch will have been charmed by the exquisite masonry in grey and white stone.

These embellishments, some of the oldest and best-loved buildings in the city – the Cathedral and the Christ College school rooms – are now rubble, which is heaped up in giant piles.

The older buildings that were shaken, stirred, but not smashed in the first earthquake are now at grave risk of toppling over. Some of these buildings are hotels which have been booked out for the Rugby World Cup tournament that starts in September.

This is going to pose a horrendous logistical problem for the tournament organisers. And some hard decisions about whether to shift the seven games in the World Cup, including two quarter-finals, to another city.

There are grave concerns about the destruction of the turf at the stadium.

The Prime Minister, John Key, who grew up in Christchurch, has said that everything possible will be done to ensure that the city will get its chance to host these matches, if at all possible. But with hotels crashing to the ground, and no chance of rebuilding them in time for the World Cup tournament, this will take some doing.

There is talk that it will take about four weeks before the Square can be opened up for traffic. Christchurch, like Adelaide, is a cathedral city built around the square, which is the heart and soul of city.

How can the place return to some sort of normality, a big ask after two huge quakes, if people can’t move around it? 

The awful aspect of this is that two weeks ago, the traditional Boxing Day sales, which were postponed, were held most successfully in a day of laughter and high spirits when people strolled through the city buying, sipping their coffees and enjoying the simple pleasure of wandering through their seemingly revived city.

Some described the actual quake on Tuesday as 45 seconds of unrelenting horror.

Continuous and increasingly violent surges raced through the city, forcing people to clutch onto anything solid to prevent themselves from being literally swept away. The feeling was like being on a boat that was being smashed against rocks in the most violent of storms.

As someone who has two little grand daughters, my heart goes out to the children who must have been traumatised by the awful event. And worse still, there are the continuing after-shocks and the possibility of yet another Big One coming again.

In two weeks time, the Crusaders are scheduled to play the Waratahs in their first home game of the 2011 season.

No decision has been made about whether this game will be transferred, perhaps, to Sydney, or cancelled like the Hurricanes – Crusaders match, which was scheduled to be played in Wellington on Saturday.

SANZAR’s statement announcing this unprecedented cancellation said that “all the Crusaders players, team management, staff and board members have been directly affected by this terrible tragedy and it’s our desire to stay here and support our families and community at this time.”

It is understood, too, that one board member died in the earthquake.

I think the people of Christchurch will want the game played at their stadium, if this is at all possible. This is, of course, a huge ‘if.’ You would have to think that it may be impossible to get everything in place for such a big event as a Super rugby match.

But if any community can pull through all these troubles, it is the people of Christchurch. This is the province, after all, of the famed rugby forwards, with their ‘the cranky Canterbury farmers’ mentality.

To explain why I believe that, despite the carnage, this community has an unbreakable determination that life must go on, we should return to my old friend going out his urgent business.

This urgent business involved him driving out to his cricket ground, about 20 miles out of the city, to make sure that the wicket and ground is undamaged. There is a scheduled match between The Willows home side and a local college First XI planned for Sunday.

Mike is determined the match will go ahead as planned.

Life must, and will, go on.

Ernest Hemingway’s great line in The Old Man and the Sea comes to mind as I think about my friend and the Christchurch community’s refusal to let the terrible forces of nature overwhelm them: “Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”

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