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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Life from inside the red zone

Life from inside the red zone

Last updated 05:00 06/03/2011
It's 12.51PM inside the cordon that stretches around Christchurch's central business district.

Exactly 10 days since the devastating quake struck, Annabel Newman is at the fire station, trying to find out if there's anything she can do about the stagnant water in her neighbour's driveway because it's attracting mosquitoes, and she's worried they'll spread disease.

She'd normally be busy running her cupcake business, but life is anything but normal.

When the earthquake struck on February 22, her Kilmore St business crumbled for the second time in five months. Her inner city home, where she was catching up on paperwork, was also badly damaged.

"I just bolted outside. The ground was cracking in front of me and water was gushing up. I just thought it couldn't be happening again. And then I thought about the business," she said.

"I was so scared that lives could be lost in that building – that something awful might have happened to customers or my staff." But everyone at Kilmore St made it out safely, something of a miracle, since the building will have to be demolished.

Newman's house fared better, and despite the damage she and her husband are among the few residents who have chosen to stay within the cordon despite the war-zone like conditions. Their movements are carefully policed and they're not allowed outside after 6.30pm.

They can't drive in or out of the cordoned area and if she leaves on foot she has to have two forms of ID and prove her home is structurally OK to live in before she's allowed back.

They have no phone or running water, and only intermittent power. At night she sleeps on a mattress under the dining table, too distressed to sleep in the open.

Nearly all their neighbours have fled, creating an eerie silence punctuated only by the sound of choppers overhead and heavy machinery moving through the rubble.

They could stay with friends but Newman's husband is working long hours with the urban search and rescue teams and she doesn't want to leave him, or her cats, behind.

"It's just easier to stay put," she tells the Sunday Star-Times.

She has ventured outside the cordon only twice since the quake, and both times she was gripped with panic. Day-to-day living has become a complicated affair.

Each day she has to find water fit to drink and wash with. She can't wash clothes and it's been more than a week since she had a hot shower. There's no flushing toilet so she has been collecting water from the polluted Avon, trying to decontaminate it, and then using it to flush waste down the toilet.

Each day she rides her bike to the supermarket – which despite being damaged, has limited supplies – to buy what she can carry. She tries to have a meal ready for her husband each night, which means making sure there is gas for the barbecue.

Then there's the house to fix, the liquefaction to dig out, and the neighbours to check on.

Many of the neighbouring properties have been broken into by rescuers searching for anyone trapped in their homes. The sound of doors splintering is just one of dozens of foreign sounds Newman has had to adjust to.
But it is at night that the enormity of the situation really hits home. The sounds of the city – the traffic, the neighbours' music, people walking by – are gone.

"It's disarming and it's eerie. It's almost impossible to process," Newman says. "It's not because of the aftershocks and it is not because I'm worried people are going to break in. It's because the sounds I'm hearing are so foreign to my understanding of what life is like. The helicopters, the army trucks, the doors being rammed – that's so abnormal and there's no escaping it."

The other inescapable reality is that she has lost her business for the second time in five months.

Four years ago she quit corporate life in London to return home to set up the Cupcake Parlour, and she was devastated when last September's quake hit, and it took eight weeks of battling bureaucracy, insurers and property owners before the Kilmore St fit-out saw her reopen. Doing it all over again is now the only option.

"Unless we get adequate, quick and easy financial support, and some strategic help, I don't know if it will be possible to find the fight and the passion to do it again."

- Sunday Star Times


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