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Monday, April 18, 2011

The City

There was a stillness, a quiet to the whole place, a little like a Zombie movie. The Christchurch airport is filled with the signs of a mass exodus; white tape lines the floors with arrows, as a way to tell people where to go. People in the airport talk in hushed tones and everyone is skittish.

Old friends I met looked shocked to see me but me showing up was just another odd occurrence in the bizzaro world that had become their lives. It feels like the world’s longest snow day; only with piles of rubble and silt everywhere.

I arrive in the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) promptly at 8 a.m. the next morning. Media flooded the outside of the art gallery and inside were hundreds of people, all wearing fluro or overalls or camo. Some looked calm, others shocked, others were very, very angry.

John (remember him?) gave me a big hug, a man of few words, but I think he was glad to see me. I was very glad to see him too.

I was put into a team of people I hadn’t worked with before and I was given some pretty gritty tasks to get underway. The work was beginning.

And I worked, just like everyone else. I had a week longer of rest than most everybody and I had spent the last four months in the Solomons, working at much more leisurely place. So I pushed myself pretty hard those first two weeks; which are still a blur to me.

I hate to think of our exact man hours put in; many of us worked 16 plus hour shifts. A thousand decisions
had to made every hour and each decision would have tremendous long term effects on lives and property. I was both invigorated and exhausted every night I went to bed.

Aftershocks become common place. I hadn’t spent the last six months getting use to the feeling of an aftershock; for me it felt like being on a train. People I worked with stopped, nervous at the shaking because they know that it might start off calm at first but then it just gets longer and the shaking gets worse. I don’t have the same memories, the same trauma, so I continue on my way.

I talk to people about it and some try to put on a brave face. Some people insist on repeating my least favorite phrase on earth, the ever popular catch all “everything happens for a reason”, is often repeated. To me, that’s total bullshit. Not EVERYTHING happens for a reason. There is no reason to people getting killed under piles of rubble or being washed away in a tsunami. There is no reason for good, kind, honest people to die needlessly. Sorry, but that phrase never made me ONCE feel slightly better.

Rather, random shit happens. The innocent suffer. The best people in life often suffer the most (it’s like some sort of bizarre mathematical equation). Kindness and charity towards others equals people being horrible to you and taking advantage.

So life can be pretty bleak at times. Things happen and it’s how to deal with what happens is what is important. And there is no rockstar way of dealing with grief; everyone deals with stuff differently and no one gets a gold medal for being particularly cool or awesome at it. Some of cry, some work like mad gerbils, some talk, some sit quietly and wait for things to pass. Some drink, some sleep around…sometimes we do all those things. We all deal with the chaos and the randomness of life in our own unique way and often with a variety of methods.

Clearly, anger is a part of my coping mechanism. So is ranting on my blog. Isn’t that fun?

So is working. After pushing myself to work an insane amount of hours and having no permanent abode to go to, I eventually got a New Zealand mum (thanks Esther), who did her best to look after me. She cheerfully gives me a bed to sleep in, a ute to drive (I named him Grant) and a warm, wonderful place to call home for six week. But some days I couldn’t face the prospect of being looked after; I just curled up somewhere in the arms on an old friend and went to sleep, often not coming home for four or five days.

I learn quickly not to talk about the have nots in the Solomon Islands. No one wants to hear that life without electricity, food, petrol or a running toilet are quite common in some parts of the world. See, that’s the thing, everybody gets that somewhere people are in a worse situation than them but they don’t want to know too much about it. Lots of people don’t want reminders right now of what I’ve seen back in the Sollies, so I oblige by staying quiet, after a couple of not some warm and fuzzy moments.

I go out to Rangiora to visit with my mentor and personal life inspiration, the fabulous Ms. Abbie. Abbie is one of the most amazing women I have had ever known; she served two tours of duty in Iraq as a sergeant. Her first marriage ended in a ball of rage and betrayal so spectacular that anything I went through pales in comparison. Her efficiency, command of organization and ability to get things done astounds me.

I sit down with her, tired but keen for a visit. I watch Abbie play with her delightful 10 month old girl, Emily. Abbie is the mother of three children and works full time and maintains a happy, successful second marriage. I find myself totally enchanted, watching the most competent woman I know playing gleefully with her little girl. In that moment I felt a surge of hope for my future; to have a life filled with adventure and a family, a career, a happy marriage and a beautiful home all seemed possible watching Abbie and Emily. Of course, I’m no Abbie, but someday I could be.

I leave feeling happy. Until the Grant’s bonnet starts to smoke. Grant is out of water and turns out, needs a new engine. I feel immediately guilty; I had killed him! Argh! I wait inside Grant just off the highway; several good Samaritans stop and give me water. It’s dark, cold and wet. I feel like an idiot. I am patient as I wait in the dark, thinking about what I would have to do if this was the Solomon Islands, land of no safety net. I don’t have to wait long, my beautiful friends show up, take me home and leave Grant beside the road. Grant will eventually need a new engine, sadly.

On my birthday, my friends sneak in a small gin and tonic and a few small gifts in the EOC.

My father sends me a text message that I have become an Aunt again. Little Sophia Marie, born on my birthday. It is the best gift anyone could give me. I smile at the text, tear up and go back to work.

I am 33 years old.

Mom calls up, worried that she hasn’t heard from me. I try to explain to her about how the emergency sucks the life out of you but she doesn’t understand. I know she wants to hear more from me but it is hard to talk to people from home right now, to get them to understand how bad it all is. She says she is going in for more tests about a lump in her breast and that it is probably cancer. Also, p.s. your uncle has cancer too. She gets shrill with me, like she was trying to figure out whether I cared or not. Of course I care. Dad says she will be fine and not to worry. Just keep up the good work. Dad turns out to be right; it turns out it’s not cancer after all.

I walk back into the office in a daze, not sure what to think about the news. But I follow Dad’s advice and just get back into work.

I find time, occasionally, to go for a few drinks at Pomeroys. This was a place I never visited before the quake but appears to be the last really nice brick pub standing. I like going there, it gives me a sense of normality.

Hene, my good friend from Auckland, has been there since the beginning and has been working her arse off. We spend an entire Saturday together in her hotel room, eating the worst junk food and watching worst junk television. We leave briefly to get some takeaway Thai. I think our lowest moment is when we watched Toddlers and Tiaras. Words cannot express the horror. It gets worse as we watch the Farmer Wants A Wife. Both of us at that point are drunk on bad food, worse wine and looking wistful at the easy/hard life on the farm in the arms of a hunky Australian farmer.

Clearly, it was a low point for both of us in this emergency.

Days blend into weeks. The Memorial Day, which I spend working, was particularly beautiful. I see Russell Crowe, Prince William and meet Ritchie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks. I leave before Prince William comes in, not wanting to start another Wallis-Simpson debacle…American divorcees and British royalty aren’t a good mix. No one wants to go there again.

Ritchie and I have a nice conversation and he seems like a good guy, even if he is from Kurow (my apologies to my readers from Kurow). I actually like Kurow; they certainly know how to fry their food…indeed we could not get anything from the bar there that was not fried.

I go to work every day in a building not intended for this purpose, but instead built to house priceless works of art. Occasionally I see a displaced Art Gallery person; worried looks abound amongst them. I can see they are calculating the days it will take to get their gallery back up and running. Truth be told, the Art Gallery makes for a tremendous facility to work in; I love walking up and down the large marble staircase and I like walking around its wooden floors.

One day, I pop outside with one of the hundreds of cups of coffee I must have drunk, just to look down the street and see the remnants of the cathedral. I watch as St. Elmo, a favorite pink building of mine, is quickly reduced to rubble with a wrecking ball.

Okay. So where the #&$^@& does anyone get a gigantic wrecking ball these days? It seems so…1930s depression era or like something from a Looney Toons cartoon. Seeing the wrecking ball slam through the walls of the pink building is so ludicrous, I almost chuckle nervously at the sight of it.

I see the look on the rescue teams as they go in each day. I want to go with them, desperately, but the work in the EOC is all consuming.

I go back inside to get another cup of milk with coffee. I ask the coffee makers how many they have made during the response.

“We lost count at 40,000 two weeks ago,” the barista says grimly.

(To be continued)…