There was an error in this gadget

Search This Blog

Follow by Email

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Return to the Quake Zone

The last time I visited Lyttelton was four days after the Feb. 22 earthquake and the trauma was all too obvious, both physically and psychologically. Situated closest to the violent quake’s epicenter, this small port community saw its main and lower streets all but destroyed, with historic brick buildings tumbling down in tandem with the sense of security of its residents. Lyttelton is a unique and colorful mix of characters, where fishermen and port workers share the same streets, cafes and bars as bright young things from the city who would rather live over the Port Hills from Christchurch’s more sedate, English-style streets. Indonesian fishermen and Russian sailors are constant visitors, ship-girls vie for trade from historic hotel bars and the township attracts artists, writers and hippies of all ages.

At least, that’s how it was prior to Feb. 22.

The Saturday of that week, Feb. 26, Lyttelton had a summer street festival planned in its main street. London St was a miniature of the community, with historic buildings containing cafes, art galleries and bars interspersed with banks, the town supermarket and a well-used library. I’d been there in January and sipped coffee while watching the passing parade, where few seemed in any hurry and stopping for a chat was a constant occurrence. Much of London St was badly damaged in the quake but the community, seeking a bright spot among the rubble, decided on the day before the planned party to relocate the festival to the school yard. I was staying across the water at Diamond Harbour and, when told of the festival the night before by the wife of one of the ferry skippers, stayed one more day to attend.

The strongest impressions I came away with were of the rawness of people’s grief,  a strong unfocused anger (an earthquake is a very abstract thing to hate) and a coming together of the community. Lyttelton is joined to Christchurch by a tunnel under the Port Hills or longer roads that go up and over passes. The tunnel was closed by the quake and Lyttelton, like most of the Banks Peninsula, seemed to have been forgotten by the powers-that-be as they concentrated on the city’s higher population areas and the bodies still to be recovered in the Central Business District.

In some ways, Lyttelton was fortunate. The only life lost was a well-respected local man who’d been working at his joinery business in the city when the quake occurred, and had been hit by falling rocks in an aftershock as he walked home across the hills to get to his family and ensure they were safe. The joiner's family and friends gathered together in his workshop a few days later to build him a coffin of native wood left over from the family home he had built.

The town was also fortunate to have the HMNZS Canterbury in port when the quake occurred, and the sailors and soldiers aboard reacted quickly and decisively to offer help.

But local residents, like those throughout Christchurch, knew they faced long waits until they knew what might happen with their damaged homes, businesses, lives and livelihoods. Since the first Christchurch quake in September, many residents had waited to get damage assessments, insurance payouts, repairwork or sufficient information on when any of that might happen. Aftershocks had been felt constantly since September and there was a sense among many of those affected that the Government and insurance companies were waiting for things to be over before making decisions. Each subsequent shake, and I experienced a strong one myself while there in January, reminded residents that there was no clear end date for this event. A death, however tragic, is an ending and those left behind can begin the grieving process. I would compare the constant upheavals in Christchurch, as tectonic plates abrade each other, as more akin to a long, lingering illness with no end in sight.

The aftershocks create their own trauma, more so after Feb. 22, as none can know until they’re over just how bad this one might be.

Kiwis are renowned as being strong, resilient folk, although many of us have lost that trait as we become progressively more urbanized. Lyttelton, being a small, more rural community, retains that “No. 8 fencing wire” mentality (a belief that you can fix almost anything with judicious application of a piece of fencing wire, or perhaps a coathanger). I saw that the week of the quake in the way the community was rallying around its own, but the rawness of their grief and the shock meant they often excluded outsiders in doing so.

I returned to Lyttelton this past weekend, and the streets are still a scene of carnage. Buildings are opened at the front, as if hinged dolls' houses, the frontage's framing, lining and bricks lying on crushed cars in the street below while chandeliers still hang above. The lower street, that nearest the port, was home to the hotels and bars, and all have been closed due to damage. Some will never reopen. The Time Ball above the port, a chronometer for the benefit of ocean-bound navigators built in 1876 by the makers of London's Big Ben is damaged beyond repair. Most of London St remains fenced off.

But there is a stronger sense of positivity than that I observed on my February visit. A group of local women has been making cloth hearts embroidered with messages of support and aroha (“Live Life Love” was one example) and pinning them to the cold steel fencing. They have now started making smaller heart brooches to give to individuals. When I tried to decline one, saying I wasn’t from Lyttelton, they laughed and told me everyone needs a heart. I was invited to join them to make more at the Saturday Market the following day. I did, then took my hearts to another community further around the harbor.

The Lyttelton Coffee Company, a popular meeting place in London St, was so badly harmed it seemed likely to be demolished, but staff had set up under an awning outside the damaged library and the conversations and care among residents was more focused than before the quake. People talked of how to help each other, and how others could also help.

With all the other bars damaged, Fisherman’s Wharf, overlooking the damaged but working port, had become the social center of the town, with great food, caring service and an air of possibility rather than loss. Regular Saturday night parties were also beginning at the Naval Point Club, offering bands, beer and fun for no cover charge and giving locals a chance to blow off steam.

BNZ, the Bank of New Zealand, had responded to all the town’s cash machines being inside the cordons by bringing a mobile teller machine to allow people access to cash. They came and went each day, but people were more than willing to help out if anyone was temporarily short. I asked the server at the Coffee Company if there was anywhere else I could get cash as I was hoping to have a coffee before catching the next ferry, he said I could have one anyway. I had $2.10 in coins so got the $2.10 "Special of the Day."

Lyttelton, like all of Christchurch, is still hurting and is likely to be for some time. An older woman I walked to the ferry with told me her house above the port was badly damaged, and the apartment block she’d just bought into in Christchurch and had been about to move to had been demolished. One home gone, one uncertain, but she was happy to be alive. As Lyttelton’s residents pick themselves up and shake themselves off, I salute their courage, their spirit and their strong sense of community.

Kia ora, kia kaha.

No comments:

Post a Comment