Christchurch three months on

CATE BRETT
Last updated 05:00 22/05/2011
Mara Apse
CARYS MONTEATH
COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Mara Apse organised working bees in her neighbourhood after large cracks opened up in the hill, which they filled with a liquid absorbing clay.

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Cantabrian Cate Brett explains how the internet, buckets of clay and learning to tango are helping her community heal after the February 22 quake.

Having survived the quake, we now risk being crushed by the weight of numbers.

In his aptly named "financial stability report" the head of the Reserve Bank, Dr Alan Bollard, described the February 22 quake, with its $15 billion price tag, as "one of the biggest natural disasters in relative terms to befall an OECD country since World War II".

As a proportion of New Zealand's domestic economy, Bollard tells us, the impact of the Canterbury quake was twice that of the Japanese quake.

Up close, the figures are no less mind-numbing: beneath our feet, we are told, lie more than 300km of damaged sewers, leaking 37 million litres of sewage each day at one stage; within the Four Avenues that frame the central city are 900 crippled buildings awaiting demolition; within the suburbs are 20,000 homes which have sustained close to, or more than, $100,000 worth of damage.

But these figures do not begin to capture or quantify the brutal editing of our lives that has occurred in the aftermath of February 22. The 181 killed; the dozens learning to live without limbs or coping with pain and trauma; the many thousands whose daily existence and livelihoods are in limbo behind the central city cordon; the tens of thousands whose entire life's asset now depends on the decisions of the loss adjusters and geotechnical engineers pouring over the city.

And now that the oddly anaesthetising effects of adrenalin are fading, we are beginning to take stock of the personal losses which no actuary could ever factor into an insurance premium: the family heirlooms swept unceremoniously into wheelie bins; the dusty boxes containing hand-drawn birthday cards, Plunket books, trophies and certificates, irretrievably lost beneath tonnes of bricks and mortar; a lifetime's collection of books and CDs scooped up in a demolition bulldozer's bucket; a beloved grandparent's needle-point cushion lying rain-soaked on a child's bed now exposed to the night sky.

As a community we are going through what Canterbury University political scientist Bronwyn Hayward describes as a collective experience much like grief. From studying how citizens, especially children, cope with such change, Hayward says it is possible to chart a process through which we will progress as a community.

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"We've gone through the surge of mutuality or goodwill and we are currently starting to experience the period of intense anger and tension and blame. Then, they tell us there will be a phase of vision, followed usually – but not inevitably – by a reassertion of the old power."

But Hayward also talks of the transformative possibilities of such events. The "new insights that grief brings into our past and our future" and the "opportunity to rethink what really matters amidst the turmoil of the earth cracking and in the rubble of stone buildings, an English delusion we should never probably have built but we loved anyway".

How we respond, says Hayward, is influenced by what's gone before: our relationships, our experience, our cultural and our spiritual depth.

This, then, is the story of how an ordinary little community, hunkered down on the west-facing flank of the Port Hills, has responded in the 90 days since the earth convulsed beneath it.

In that period we have learnt a great deal more than we could ever have imagined wanting to know about the state of each other's ring foundations, piles and sewage pipes. We have also surprised ourselves – and others – by marshalling a labour force capable of averting rock hazards and applying 30 tonnes of "fill" to our damaged hillside. And we have rediscovered the joys of the war-time Saturday night dance in the local church hall, where, last month, about 80 of us took our first tentative tango steps.

But perhaps most importantly we have begun to realise the potential of the internet as a tool for connecting people at a time when reliable information is in such short supply and an active and engaged community has never been so vital to our survival.

OUR FORAY into "virtual community" began almost exactly a year ago on May 23, 2010, as half a dozen neighbours experimented with OnlineGroups.Net. The site, developed by Dan Randow, provides easy access to software which allows Luddites like ourselves to set up private or public internet groups centred on the simple functions of group email exchanges, discussion threads and file sharing.

OnlineGroups' stated goal is to facilitate "collaboration" and "knowledge sharing". Our motivation was a little less high-minded.

Sheltered from Christchurch's "beastly easterly" and two minutes from the Port Hills' tussocky tracks, we shared the usual middle-class preoccupations with preserving the peace and tranquility of our neighbourhood; swapping gardening and running tips; sharing a glass of wine in the late summer sun on each other's verandahs and marking the seasons and family celebrations with the occasional party or pot luck dinner.

Before February 22, 2011, our discussion topics were dominated by subjects such as babysitting, gardening, book and clothing swaps. Our most ambitious project had been a weekly fish delivery in which we took turns at collecting a standing order from the local Greek fishmonger and depositing the packages out of cat-reach in one another's letterboxes.

With just 10 households online, we sensed we needed a critical mass in order for our virtual community to become less needy and more self-sustaining. So we dropped leaflets to the 60 households on our street and, on a searing Sunday afternoon in mid-January, hosted a street party, explaining to a group of about 50 locals what we were attempting to do and gathering about a dozen new recruits.

But it took the February 22 earthquake to really bring this virtual community to life – and to begin to fulfil its promise as a tool for "collaboration and knowledge sharing". Unlike the September quake, which left this neighbourhood relatively unscathed, the February quake was seated almost directly below us, and caused major damage. Since this quake, the number of households connected online has grown to 40, which represents the majority of dwellings in our immediate area.

And over this time our vocabulary and preoccupations have developed an altogether tougher edge. Neighbours still harvest and share their excess courgettes, pears and feijoas, but online discussions are reserved almost entirely for the rich exchange of information about the myriad earthquake-related issues which now dominate our lives: the latest snippet of geotechnical information about our land; the comings and goings and musings of umpteen loss adjustors, insurers and engineers; the urgent action needed to ameliorate the latest hazard from rock outcrops or broken sewage pipes; the upcoming community meeting; the need for temporary and not-so-temporary accommodation.

This vital exchange of information and support began to flow within days of the February 22 quake. Remarkably, given the severity of the damage to many homes, nobody in our immediate neighbourhood was killed. But, like many hillside suburbs, our proximity to the quake's epicentre resulted in extensive damage to the land, the infrastructure beneath it, and the many gracious old brick homes perched on its back.

In the first weeks after the quake, our community, like much of the city, was on its knees, without power and water and jolted by hundreds of aftershocks. Many houses were uninhabitable; many took refuge with friends and family in other parts of the city or country. But many also stayed, and, one by one, households came online and joined hands. Through these raw and emotional shorthand accounts of how each household had fared and what they knew of their neighbours' fate, we began to piece the street back together.

Some who had left the city and logged on from their temporary homes describe how these early posts acted as a psychological life-line and spurred them to return home. Then, after a week or so, those who had remained, and those making daily forays to their shattered homes, began to organise themselves to address the most urgent needs: access to water for humans and animals; the safety of homes threatened by rock fall; help for those needing to salvage essential belongings; emotional support for the grief-stricken.

ON TUESDAY, March 29, our online group received an email: "Working bee this Saturday – large hillside cracks." Written in an unusually authoritative and forthright style, the email originated from an adjoining street where residents were confronting the prospect of a long wet winter with significant land cracks running through the back of some of their properties.

Like many Port Hills suburbs, the land on which we are perched has been violently shaken, resulting in a raft of novel "features" of intense interest to geologists and geotechnical engineers. The woman responsible for first introducing these engineers to the most significant crack in the suburb's lower slopes was Mara Apse, a long-term resident of the area. Mara and her neighbour Stephen Beuzenberg had co-authored the "working bee" email.

Mara has made it her business to become a conduit of information between the army of consultants and scientists scouring the Port Hills and the residents whose fate these experts would determine.

An intelligent, engaging and tenacious person, Mara succeeded in capturing, and holding, the attention of three men who were closely involved in the consortium of public and private organisations advising Civil Defence and EQC on land stability and remediation issues: James Molloy, the principal geotechnical engineer with GHD; Dave Bell from the University of Canterbury's Natural Hazards Research Centre and consultant geologist Mark Yetton.

Accompanying various experts on field trips around the neighbourhood, Mara had been warned to brace herself to deal with the inevitable divergence in the robust "expert opinions" that would be debated in her presence. She took great heart, however, from the opinions of one such expert – Dave Bell, who believed there was an immediate temporary solution available for this neighbourhood's hillside crack: bentonite.

Bentonite is a naturally occurring clay which is often used as an environmental sealant due to its swelling properties. Because of the potential for water to infiltrate the hillside cracks and cause slippages or landslides, it was essential that these cracks were at least temporarily sealed before winter.

However, as James Molloy explains, at the time these discussions were taking place, resources in Christchurch were so stretched there was little capacity to organise such an exercise for one small pocket of homes.

Except that Mara Apse was determined that this small pocket of homes was capable of undertaking the work itself: "Right from the start we had been saying to these guys, look, the people who live here love this place and they want to go on living here. So what can we do to help? And eventually they came back and said, well there is something you can do, fill the cracks with bentonite."

So, with the backing of the geotechnical experts, the project was signed off by Civil Defence and Mara arrived home on Friday, March 25, to find about 30 tonnes of materials, comprising seven tonnes of bentonite and 23 tonnes of sandy gravels with which to mix it, deposited in large sacks at various junctures down the street.

Fulton Hogan agreed to provide concrete mixers and two contractors to assist, so all that remained for Mara to do was recruit dozens of labourers willing to work in two-hour shifts over a weekend hauling 10-litre paint buckets through the backs of about 40 private properties to fill in the hillside crack. Hence the "working bee" email.

Miraculously, the worker bees – described by Mara as "bent and buggered like me" – came swarming from all over the hillside and neighbouring streets and, during the course of a long hard day, succeeded in mixing and shifting 24 tonnes of materials up on to the hillside. A second wave of workers took over the following weekend to complete the project. Those unable to carry buckets kept the workers fed and watered.

Despite periods of quite heavy rainfall in the past month, James Molloy says the initial signs all point to success with the bentonite fill providing the temporary bridge allowing water to move over, rather than down, through the cracks.

For Mara and her community, the project restored a sense of purposefulness and some small measure of control, countering the sometimes overwhelming sense of powerlessness that most have experienced in the wake of the quake.

"Probably what I learnt most from this exercise is that a community can be so remarkable, pulling together with a sort of selfless commitment that you didn't know was really possible beyond your own little familiar corner of it.

"Here we had people wandering through the backs of other people's properties, working alongside total strangers. People have learnt to trust each other in whole new ways. It has been totally transforming."

AFTER THE labouring came the music and the dancing. On an unusually mild evening in late April, about 80 locals and friends descended on the nearby Anglican Church hall bearing food and drink to share. The local cafe, Fava, loaned us tables and glassware.

For several hours Christchurch's fabulous six-piece band, Tango La Luna, transported us from our ravaged city and dislocated lives. Perhaps it is indicative of just how far outside our comfort zones many of us are living, that when asked by tango teacher Kerry Mulligan to stand and take our first tango steps, everybody in the hall stood and did precisely that.

Now winter is at our door. And, just as political scientist Bronwyn Hayward described, there is a growing sense of frustration as we struggle to negotiate the labyrinthine systems of public and private insurers while holding together jobs and families in houses that are not our own.

The story of our first 90 days will be mirrored by the stories of communities all over Christchurch – communities which paradoxically are now healthier and stronger than they were on February 21. However, the question Hayward poses is whether we are capable of maintaining this new trajectory and incorporating these new lessons about what really matters into how we rebuild our lives, homes, neighbourhood and city.

Cate Brett was editor of the Sunday Star-Times from 2003-2008 and is now a senior researcher and policy adviser for the Law Commission. Her family home fared better than most of her neighbours' and she and her family hope to return to it before the end of winter. Three other households in their extended family, including her parents, are currently out of their homes.

Neighbourhoods wanting to set up an online group go to www.onlinegroups.net

Individuals and communities wanting to discuss whether bentonite filling may be a suitable option for their area are advised to contact the CCC Helpline to arrange an engineering assessment.

- Sunday Star Times

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