Cameos from a disaster zone.. .The first five days
The phone went around 10pm last Tuesday night. It was a picture agency based in London, wanting to hire me to cover the earthquake.
I did not hear it until Friday. And I am glad.
I was far too busy and anxious, working my way through the concentric circles of my own network. Firstly my children and immediate family, then my closest friends, then those a little further out, and then everybody else I could think of. Were they all right? Were they safe? How had they experienced the earthquake? What could I do to help (if anything)? It took some time.
As I said, I am glad I did not pick that message up until Friday. Had I done so, no doubt there would have been the flurry of getting my gear together, organising a press pass, driving down through the night, and doing my best to get inside the cordon, to focus on all the misery in the central business district. Suffering and pain, shattered buildings and shattered bodies. The usual subject material of the hard news photographer during a disaster. I am sure a number of you would have jumped at the opportunity, but I am not one of them. Family and friends are more important than the dubious distinction of having my pictures published in a foreign newspaper. Besides, there would have been any number of images available from any of the picture libraries like Getty.
I am glad I did not pick that message, because I spent the week doing something quite different.
About 20 years ago, in a moment of civil-spirited weakness, I joined Civil Defence. Because of my experience as a caver and climber, I soon found myself in charge of the local light rescue unit. This lasted for a couple of years until family commitments led to my giving it up.
Then, last year, following a chance conversation with the local civil defence controller, I put myself back on the team here in Hanmer Springs.
Fast forward to last Wednesday.
On Wednesday I got an e-mail, group-sent to all of us on the Civil Defence team here in Hanmer Springs. Were any of us available, it asked, should we be required, to go down and help? Civil defence teams all over Canterbury were being activated and put on standby to give assistance as needed. We would need to get ourselves there and be fully self-sufficient for at least 24 hours. Sleeping bags, food, water, warm clothing… The lot.
On Thursday the request came again; could any of us go down that day? I could go and I was desperate to do so. I had had enough of continuous television coverage, of watching events unfold to the South. I wanted to help.
Shortly before midday I left for Christchurch to work in the welfare centre at Burnside High School. I had no idea what would be asked of me until I got there. Eerily, it was only 10 days since all of us in the local civil defence group had received an e-mail, asking us what training we felt we needed. Since any experience I had had was in rescue work, I had absolutely no idea of welfare, and what I might be asked to do. But it was enough to be there, to have the opportunity to help out my fellow Cantabrians. Almost as an afterthought, as I was leaving, I decided to take a camera with me. The opportunity might come to make a few photographs of what I saw. So, rather than take my gigantic Alpha 900s, I opted for the little Sony NEX, which, I suspected, would be less intrusive.
The first of the three eight-hour shifts I worked left to me in a state of shock. Somehow I found myself looking after the check-in area, listening to people’s needs and directing them to the right place and the right people to help them. They came in droves and they kept on coming. Some were without power and water and needed to fill up. Others had not eaten for a couple of days and were hungry and thirsty. Whole families traipsed in, confused and dazed. A steady stream of backpackers kept coming, young people who had come to visit Christchurch, who had heard about how wonderful New Zealand was and been in the central city at 12:51 p.m. on February 2. Some of them had lost their money and passports, while others had been camping since that time wherever they could. Some of them needed assistance to leave the country and go home. One Welshman with whom I spoke, on a middle-aged OE, had arrived in Queensland in time for the floods, and then relocated to Cairns a day or so before Cyclone Yasi threw herself at the Queensland coastline. He had arrived in Christchurch on February 21. You know, he said to me, grinning, maybe I should go home. This holiday is not working out very well.
And between the mind-numbing blur of dealing with one problem after another for nine continuous hours, I began to hear a few stories, as people opened up and share their individual journeys. There were the Irishman and the South African who are long-term residents at the YMCA in the central city. They had been evacuated from the building to Hagley Park and, in the rush, had left all their belongings and documents behind. Did I have any idea, they asked, if they could get back in to get their stuff? They had been moving from welfare centre to welfare centre for nearly 3 days and had no idea when or if they would be able to get back in. All their attempts to contact the manager had come to nought. He/she was not picking up. I went to find an answer for them, but, by the time I did find somebody who could help them, they had already made the decision themselves to relocate to the newly-setup welfare centre in Rolleston. They thanked me gratefully for my attempts and headed for the bus.
At Amberley, when I had reported in, they had given me my name badge, Day-Glo vest, some petrol vouchers and a training hand-out. I had read it on the way down, thinking I might have some idea of how the system worked.
I had no idea whatsoever. As time went on, I realised that all the training in the world cannot prepare you for times like this. In the end you learn on-the-job. And you have to learn fast.
I sat with another couple, clearly well off, who told me how they too had been evicted from their lovely apartment in the restored Government Buildings behind the Christchurch Cathedral. They had been told to go and had jumped into their people-over and fled the central city. Now they were camping in the back of it just outside Christchurch. They had no idea when they would be allowed down to get their stuff. Did I have any idea? No, but I suspected it might be quite some time before the buildings were judged safe enough for them to go back into the central city. So, for the time being, they were camped out of the city at nights and came to the welfare centre each day for meals and fresh water.
You have everything you need, I asked?
Oh, she replied, we are okay. There are people more need than us, she said dignified me.
If there is anything you need, I said, please do not hesitate to let us know. There is more than enough to go around.
Thank you, she answered. The firm tone in her voice made it clear that only her pride was holding her together.
I met Andy and Greg while I was spending an hour or two keeping an eye on the dormitories. Two of the gymnasia had been converted into sleeping areas, with mattresses and donated duvets. Andy and Greg were camped out (or rather camped in) because they had nowhere else to go. It was then that I got a glimpse of the underbelly of our society. From time to time we all see the homeless, the people who live on the streets. But there is a layer just above that, an extremely fragile one, of people who are only just off the streets, for whom it is a daily battle just to stay indoors to have a roof, a bed, and something to eat. Hope and the future are optional extras, impossible luxuries. Greg was wearing a neatly-pressed shirt, with a Land Rover Owners Club logo on the left pocket.
Do you own a Land Rover? I asked.
He grinned at me.
Oh no, he replied, I got this one at the op shop. It has two pockets (he gestured towards them) and I always like my shirts to have two pockets.
Later I would see him walking confidently by, his dreams neatly pressed and wearing a bright red checked Swanndri jacket. Op shop chic.
Andy did not move from his bed. His speech had the intonations of somebody who had lived in a predominantly Maori-speaking community. It turned out that his whanau were from Tauranga. He and Greg had been sharing a small flat in one of the many faded, draughty, unkempt villas located east of Latimer Square, where a lot of the layer-above-the-street people live. He told me how he had not worked for a couple of years, how he had lost one kidney, that the other one was failing and that there was every suspicion he had cancer. WINZ would still be paying the bulk of his sickness benefit money as rent into his landlady’s account.
It’s really hard, he said, trying to survive on the dole. I would love to get a bit of part-time work, but nobody seems to want me. And I don’t know what’s going to happen about our flat. She is still getting the money, but we can’t live there.
Maybe you could go back your parents in Tauranga, I suggested.
No, he said, my sister and her kids are already living there. They do not need me. Anyway, he said, there are worse off than me. There are those who need help more than me. We are good here, he said. We are good. It’s comfortable and there is plenty to eat.
I went and found him some bottled water.
Another couple on the other side of the gym arrived, to settle in for the night.
Our house is a mess, he said. It was bad enough in the first earthquake, but now the foundation is in pieces. His wife told me how she was out of a job, how her work as a cleaner had come to an end. The hotel where she worked had collapsed.
We are not too bad, her husband said. At least I have a job, working for a food distribution company, and they need all the help they can get at the moment.
Plenty of overtime? I asked.
Oh yes, he replied.
And the pay is good?
No, not really, but we will get by.
Late at night, around 10 p.m. a man walked up to sign on, to get help. He had a boy with him, about 10 or 11 years old. In a quiet voice, he said: I have come to seek assistance. I have lost my job and we need somewhere to stay. I only started work at the X Hotel on Tuesday, but now it is gone and so is my job. I knew the one he meant. Can we stay here tonight? We assured him they could, and that we could help them with food and water. In the morning he would be able to speak to the social agencies who, hopefully, would be able to help out.
And so it went on. Problem after problem, difficulty after difficulty, misery piled upon misery. When we handed over to the night shift, just after midnight, and I headed for my lodgings, I was emotionally and physically shattered.
Day two was just as grim. I saw the best of human behaviour and I saw the worst.
Throughout the afternoon people came in carrying fresh home-made baking; a painter dropped in a pile of unused paint buckets for anybody who needed a water container; couples would turn up at random intervals with offers of clothing, toys, and accommodation. A small Chinese woman appeared with a large cardboard carton filled with freshly-baked muffins.
This easy for me, she said. I got husband and five children. I used to work hard.
I’ll bet, I thought to myself. Five children, I asked. You like children?
She laughed. Last two accident. They twins.
You know what causes children? I asked. She looked at me for a moment as she translated to herself. Then she laughed.
You think we must stop now?
Might be an idea, I replied.
She went away giggling.
But there were the others, the ones who saw opportunity, who made every attempt to get something for nothing. The lies began. One well-dressed family arrived, the husband wearing a very expensive watch, in search of food and fuel vouchers from the social welfare agencies (the queues outside their offices had grown larger and larger as the days passed). We can give you a hot meal, a bed and water. When it became apparent to them that our assistance was concrete rather than monetary, they turned and walked away. There were others who appeared, attempting variations on the theme of monetary assistance.
Then there was the Turk who appeared late on the first night, and for some fresh air (or perhaps a cigarette). He was in bare feet.
Do you have any shoes? we asked.
No, he said, bare feet are fine. Anyway, he went on, they have just given me wonderful pants. He used a thumb and forefinger to tweak a shabby, heavily-pilled pair of cotton track pants.
But would not you like shoes? we asked. We have shoes.
Really? I can have shoes?
I suspected he was from the layer-above-the-street, or close to it. We sent him back. He reappeared about 15 min later, clad in a pair of white Nike trainers.
Look, he said, my new shoes. Beautiful white shoes. And, for the rest of my time on duty, whenever I saw him, there he was, striding proudly round in his white trainers.
Driving into Christchurch, and staying in the north-western suburbs, it was hard to see any damage at all. I decided that I needed to go to places I knew and loved and make comparisons with the pictures in my mind.
On Saturday morning I left early, eager to drive into the eastern suburbs and see for myself. Parklands had been had particularly badly hit. Heathglen Avenue, where I used to walk, a rather select street of modern houses, consisted of holes of various sizes knitted together in some sort of horrific crochet up most of the street. Vast piles of silt on the neighbouring streets huddled in grey stinking mounds. Wheeliebins had been pressed into service to hold the warning tape around the sinkholes in Radiata Avenue. Manholes lifted by the September earthquake had lifted still further, 150 mm in some places.
Queenspark Drive had become Four Wheel Drive.
I drove down Bowhill Road, expecting to see my beloved Kasbah in ruins. And it was. A shapeless mound of bricks and concrete slumped in death like some deceased prehistoric creature. A black wheeliebin and a discarded supermarket trolley, both warped out of shape, stood forlornly among the debris. As I wandered around it, photographing it, a man pulled up and went across to have a look. Wondering if he was some sort of looter, I went to have a look. He had picked up two bricks and was clearly about to leave. When he saw me looking, he explained.
You know, he said, I really love this place. I met my wife here, and we courted here, and we used to come and drink here. Back in the day they didn’t mind if we went out the back for a joint. It was always cool here.
I knew what he meant. On a sunny Sunday afternoon you could park yourself on the seats at the pointed end of the buliding and have an almost panoramic view, from the surf club across the road to the old swimming pool where generations learned to swim. The beer was always cold and the music loud. It was a great place to be. All the local identities, the Pirate and his crew, the Sandman, and lots of the other hippies who used to live in the area could all be seen down here, coming for a beer and company. Generally you could count on a few bikers and bikies turning up as well.
The two best places in town were the Blues Bar and here, he said. The September quake got the Blues Bar, and this one has got the Kasbah.
We introduced ourselves.
Do you mind if I make a photograph? I asked.
Not at all, he said.
So photographed him in front of the ruins, in front of the old side door at number 11. Then I made a photograph of him and Caleb, his son.
I drove on, weaving my way back into Aranui. Everywhere I went the road was buckled and warped and twisted and tortured. Every available dump truck seemed to have been pressed into service, and diggers large and small were hard at work. Homeowners beavered away, wheelbarrowing loads of heavy grey silt out to the kerbsides.
On Woodham Road, trying hard not to rubberneck, I stopped, close to the junction of Avonside Drive and Linwood Avenue to photograph a house in profile, horribly like one of those child’s doll’s houses where the side of the house is hinged, and when you open it you can see into every room at the same time. The house had broken its spine and was slumped brokenly across a pile of rubble. It seemed to me that this patient was beyond help. I talked briefly to the owner and his neighbour across the road who happily shared the stories of how he and his neighbours had all got together, how they were all sharing what they had and helping each other. Parklands had been the same. Those neighbours who had not fled the city had banded together to support each other, to shovel their vast mountains of silt out on to the road, to share water and food and community. That evening the remaining residents of Heath Glen Avenue and the surrounding streets were intending to have a street barbecue. For a time they would be communities and micro-communities, working together to put things right.
Rauamoko had thumped his fist on the table and his anger had made things jump.
He had delivered Christchurch a massive punch, but instead of knocking his opponent unconscious, he had merely dazed it. And while he was dancing in triumph around the ring, it was getting up off the canvas and preparing for a comeback.