5 things I learned from the Christchurch earthquakes
Earthquakes were fun when I was a child. The one that hit when I was 10 or 11 had us all talking about it for days. “Did you feel it?” was the question on everyone’s lips, and it was exciting!
Back then we didn’t know any different. It’s easy to be excited by an earthquake when it’s big enough to be felt but small enough that it doesn’t do any damage.
2010 and 2011 changed that. The first big earthquake to hit Christchurch in that time was considered a lucky break. It hit at 4:35am on the weekend. It damaged a few buildings in the central city and near the town where it was centred, broke a few vases and left houses with a few cracks, but didn’t do too much more than that.
No one was killed. The clean up didn’t take long. The government was prepared. We’d all been paying in to an earthquake fund for years, so we had enough money to pay for the repairs. We were ok.
Unfortunately, the earthquakes kept coming. For almost 18 months earthquakes were occurring on a daily basis, and we had a number of big quakes. The biggest wrecked the city and killed 185 people. The city lost its centre, businesses lost their premises, houses were damaged, infrastructure was damaged, roads, bridges, and railway lines were out of alignment, and the repair bill just kept going up.
We could afford to repair the damage done by one big earthquake, and the second big one, and maybe even the third big one, the one that killed all those people and took out our city, but we struggled when it came to affording the other 5 as well. Repairs that had been completed had to be done again, existing damage kept getting worse, and as insurance companies started to feel the cost, people had to start fighting for what they were entitled to.
I tell you this simply to try and paint a picture for you. When people talk about ‘the Christchurch earthquake’, what they mean by that is the deadly one that hit us on February 22, 2011, at 12:51pm, right when the city centre was at its busiest, and the buildings were already weakened by hundreds of significant shakes.
The reality is though, that Christchurch experienced not just one quake, but thousands of them. In fact the last count I heard was over 13,000 of them.
And the shaking was only one part of the problems the city was facing. Imagine your city centre being there one morning and being gone that afternoon, cordoned off because it’s just too dangerous to go in to - half eaten lunch still sitting on the tables of cafes, groceries slowly rotting in the stores, and half completed work still sitting on people’s desks. Imagine how many people’s jobs disappeared with the city centre. Some never got them back. And imagine the potholes, the roadworks, the detours, still happening even now, 9 years later, as the roads and infrastructure beneath them get repaired.
As you can imagine, this is a pretty unique environment to live in, and a pretty challenging one. Living in a situation like that shapes people, and changes lives and perspectives permanently. And working with people one on one in the years following the quakes means I got to hear a lot of stories, and see beyond the surface into people’s struggles, successes, resilience and creativity.
In this article I want to share some of my key learnings from the quakes - learnings that I think apply to traumatic or stressful situations in general, and learnings that say a lot about the power and resilience of the human spirit. Hopefully these learnings will make you think, and perhaps they can even help or inspire you in some way.
Learning #1. Just because worse things happened to other people, it doesn’t mean what happened to you wasn’t significant
I often hear people comparing their situation to that of others. “I’m lucky. Worse things happened to others.”
And it’s true, worse things did happen to others, and they continue to do so. People are living through wars, famine and illness. There will always be people who are worse off than you. It’s good to remind ourselves of that sometimes, but some people think that because the plights of others are worse, that means they’re not allowed to struggle, and that there’s something wrong with them because they’re having a hard time.
I remember working with a woman after the quakes who felt guilty about the depth of emotion she still had from the February 22nd earthquake. Other people lost loved ones, their homes or their jobs, but she was ok. She’d spent the afternoon enduring the continuing aftershocks on a mattress under her dining table with her children looking up at her with wide eyes, silently begging her to make it stop. She felt completely helpless, and all she’d wanted was to be able to look up into someone else’s eyes, and silently beg them to make it stop.
Remembering it a couple of years later was still very emotional, and clearing the emotions around the trauma she’d experienced was a great relief to her.
Yes, her experience was nowhere near as bad as that of many others, but it bothered her greatly, and I’m really pleased that she asked for help with it. There was no reason for her to be carrying that emotion with her any longer.
Learning #2. Layers of stress can compound each other
One stressful event is hard. Multiple stressful events are really really challenging. And what’s worse is that they don’t just pile on top of each other, they compound each other, making it more and more challenging to deal with them all resourcefully.
The stressors created by the earthquakes kept piling on. Aftershocks, job losses, job insecurity, new work premises, earthquake repairs, moving out, moving back in, insurance battles, more big earthquakes, things taking years longer than they’re supposed to, potholes, roadworks and detours all added to the normal stressors of daily life, and for many it was just too much.
That came out in a variety of ways - anxiety, depression, despair and short tempers, as well as people isolating themselves, spending time in the relative safety of their home rather than getting out and about as they used to.
A real positive of all of this though, was that it became ok to admit things were tough. It also made it ok to ask for help. Kiwis pride themselves on being staunch. We have a ‘she’ll be right’ kind of attitude. But some things are too much, and it’s good to ask for help. That’s something I’d like people worldwide to be able to learn, but without having such a challenging environment as the teacher.
Learning #3. The first thing people forget when stressful events occur is actually the most important
Having our city so badly damaged and the entire city centre cordoned off overnight changed things. Routines were completely disrupted overnight, once-secure jobs were now uncertain, familiar places were inaccessible, buildings could be shut down in hours if their safety was in doubt, and many places were unusable while undergoing or waiting for repairs.
That meant a great deal of uncertainty. People immediately stopped going places and tightened their belts in case they lost their source of income.
What that also means is that people stopped looking after themselves and doing things they enjoyed. They stopped going to the gym, going out for dinner, and getting their massages or beauty treatments. All luxury items ceased, and with them, the things that helped people get out and about, interact with others, and do things that helped them feel good.
And with the focus more on what they couldn’t do and the need to stay safe, they often didn’t replace those things with other, cheaper, but equally healthy or enjoyable activities. Over time this contributed to them putting on weight, doing less, going out less, and socialising less with others. This in turn lowered their levels of happiness and resilience to the continued stress of what was going on.
When stressful things happen, it’s important to look after ourselves, and that’s something I wish we had all realised the importance of at the time.
Learning #4. Heroes are everywhere
One of the beautiful things to come out of the earthquakes was the way people rallied around to help each other.
Ordinary people risked their lives helping people who were injured or trapped in collapsed buildings. Crane drivers rescued people trapped in a high rise building where the stairwell had collapsed. People cleared bricks and debris from the centre of the roads so emergency vehicles could make it through.
These individual acts of heroism were seen all over the place, both big and small - a husband giving up his shoes for his pregnant wife so she wouldn’t have to walk an hour home in her heels, a bus driver who crammed 2 busloads of school children in to her bus as the other couldn’t make it through, and spent hours navigating the roads to return them to their school and their anxious parents.
And in the following days, people all over New Zealand found ways to help. People opened their homes to those who needed it, meals were sent from surrounding towns and cities, people baked muffins for work crews, volunteers joined civil defence crews helping those in need, and health professionals and therapists gave free sessions to anyone who needed them.
A large group of university students, the ‘student army’, also turned out in force with spades and shovels to help people clear liquefaction from their homes and gardens, followed by the ‘farmy army’ who came from their local farms with their tractors to take away the liquefaction piled up in the streets.
And in the ensuing months, the resourcefulness of people really shone through. Empty lots were planted with flowers and petanque pitches were set up for people to enjoy. Businesses found ways to reopen, with some opening up their premises to fellow business owners to help them get back on their feet, and others using shipping containers to quickly and safely reopen their businesses in quirky and creative premises.
Even in the face of tragedy, people can be incredibly altruistic, resilient and creative. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Learning #5. Things don’t matter as much as people do
Earthquakes are a great leveller. They make you look at what is really important in life. It’s great to love your house and your car, but chances are, the people in your life are more important than your possessions.
People lost so much in the earthquakes, including their homes, livelihoods and irreplaceable treasures like the collection of china they inherited from their grandmother. But those items are meaningless when compared with the people who lost their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, colleagues and friends.
It’s a good reminder that life is precious, and so are the people in it. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we’ve got. And it’s a good reminder to notice all the things that are good in our lives, because we never know when those things may be gone.