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Sunday, March 20, 2011

We can never be adequately prepared for 'The Big One'

We can never be adequately prepared for 'The Big One'

Last updated 09:20 17/03/2011
My new red wheelie bin doesn't seem like much of an offering to fate, nor does the container of water I'm storing in case The Big One comes to us here in Wellington.

Reality, as we now know, is that everything gets destroyed, including your hoard of baked beans. Maybe scavengers will be grateful for my lame effort as they scramble over the debris that was once my family's and my home.

By the time I'd watched the enormous wave race towards Japan for the millionth time I'd had enough of terror by proxy. It's not that you become indifferent; it's more that your inability to prevent what's happening is painful.

This has to be the first time in history when people all over the world have such terrible events screening in their own homes right while they're happening, with wobbly voices and equally wobbly cameras held by real people, not reporters.

You come to see how conventional TV news reporting calmly sanitises events, even the worst of them, and how its well- groomed anchormen and women, safe in the studio or standing, suitably lit, in front of the camera, help to distance you. They're the soothing news-time parents who tuck you up in bed and tell you nothing bad will creep out of the cupboard when they turn the lights off.

I first thought about this during the live coverage of the Twin Towers' destruction in New York. The two planes hit those buildings over and over again all day long, a visual mantra of horror, shock and fear that conditioned you to anticipate what would follow.

You knew that the world would pay for this for years to come, that many people far away would suffer and die as a result - and you also knew there wasn't a damn thing you could do about it.

The sense of frustration and impotence was overwhelming then - as it has been with the Christchurch disaster and now this latest catastrophe.

How different the course of wars might be, I like to think, if the people back home could see what really happens.

I was reminded, watching that huge wave, of Hokusai, and his famous print of the giant wave overwhelming fishermen. Mt Fuji sits calmly in the background of that image as if to say life will go on, some things are eternal, we're just little dots of detail whose individual lives are helpless against the forces of nature, and we fool ourselves if we think we can prepare for the worst it can offer.

He wasn't wrong. If he was around today he could produce a suitably telling image of a nuclear power station in the aftermath of a huge quake; the hubris of science getting its comeuppance.

I thought also of the Japanese disaster team that arrived so swiftly in Christchurch, revved up and ready to go, with their furry black dogs to help find survivors - or bodies - in the rubble. They could hardly have imagined the enormousness of their next job. Nobody could.

Like the Japanese, we live with the constant reality of earthquakes, some of us perched on known fault lines, and all of us in the capital constantly told we face The Big One any day.

Like the Japanese, I guess, we do earthquake drills, hoard tinned food and water, and carry on. Geological time is so much different from our human time scale that disaster could come today, or in 300 years time, when it won't be our problem.

Meanwhile, Japanese names keep turning up in the death columns of the Christchurch quake.

Those people travelled a long way to die the way they, like us, knew was always a possibility. Their personal disasters are dwarfed now by the collective trauma back home, the scale of which is too big to take in.

I sympathise with the Chinese position on compensation for the parents of people who died in Christchurch. I gather that insurance on those young people's lives would only pay out to surviving spouses and children, an ethnocentric arrangement that doesn't square with the Asian reality, with its strong interdependency between generations.

While our politicians referred the problem back to China, suggesting the Chinese State should offer a form of welfare in cases like this, the way we do, the Chinese might well reply that we'd be a lot better off if we adopted some of their practices.

What is so logical, after all, about substituting welfare for what families once automatically did for each other? Looking at our social problems, has that really left us better off?

- The Press

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