“What’s all this talk about an earthquake?” says Mum.
That was my 86-year-old mother’s question for me when I arrived at her home a few days ago. I was astounded that she didn’t know. It was pretty much ‘the’ topic here in the past week.
Today is the 3rd anniversary of the deadly earthquake that struck my city of Christchurch at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011. Naturally the anniversary has been in the news this week, but Mum couldn’t remember an earthquake being at this time of year. Actually, I was really thankful. This woman had lost so much in that earthquake. More than most. She deserved to have it lifted from her memory for a bit. I was glad, for once, that she had no idea what I was talking about.
As we then talked, her memories came back, but we had over 12,000 earthquakes over a period of about 18 months so it wasn’t surprising that she couldn’t remember one of them. Then she was confused as to which quake she had fallen over in. I assured her that in that quake, thankfully, she had already been sitting down when it struck and she managed to remain in her chair as her home fell to pieces around her. My father though, was thrown to the floor. So was I.
As part of a range of commemoration events in the city, there is one that I find draws me each year. The River of Flowers is an opportunity for the public to share their experiences and hopes for the future by throwing a flower into one of the two rivers that flows through the city, and by writing a message of hope and tying it to a tree as various points. Throwing my flower into the river which has always been important in my life, is for me, letting go for a few moments of the sadness, trauma, loss, and worries about the future. It feels healthy to me, and I like that.
Natural disasters, like our quakes, happen across the world all the time. Something that had never occurred to me until I lived through this, was that the aftermath goes on for years to come after a disaster. When the media and their cameras have all gone away, and the rest of the world isn’t hearing anymore, the sad reality is that people go on suffering.
Three years on and my life is still unsettled (to say the least). I now have a chronic illness (fibromyalgia) which is attributed to the trauma of the quakes. I live in a severely damaged house and still have no idea how that will be fixed. My house is pretty cold in winter because of the damage, but aside from that, I’m simply used to the damage. That said, don’t suppose for a minute that I like living in a house that is now tilted on a bit of an angle. Or the curtains blowing in the breeze even though no windows are open. But it’s just life here in Christchurch and I know there are people here worse off than me.
I know full well that mental health is a major issue in my city. Children are still badly traumatised, as well as many adults. Free counselling sessions just don’t go far enough. Three sessions per person is not enough. The use of anti-depressants has risen significantly. The psychiatric hospital is overflowing and they’re talking of putting inpatients into caravans out on the lawn. Suicide statistics tend to run behind by a few years, but I understand the numbers are sadly picking up in my city. Let’s not forget too, that there is a major housing shortage here now as well as significant poverty. These both contribute to the state of mental well being.
But this is what really disturbs me…
A year before our deadly earthquake, Haiti (Port-au-Prince) suffered a quake too. 220,000 people are estimated to have died on 12 January 2010. In Christchurch, there were officially 185 people died. At the height of the Haiti quake, one and a half million people were displaced and sheltering in tent villages. That’s just huge. And it makes me say “what have I got to complain about?”.
While I wonder about the ongoing mental health of those who lived through the quakes here in Christchurch, I wonder even more what is being done for the people of Haiti. Do they get access to free counselling like we have? Are the children getting the resources that are being pumped into Christchurch. It is so difficult to know what is being done for victims of natural disasters when the lights go off on the media bandwagons. That said, I have a fair idea of the answers to my questions.
Whether it is an earthquake (or 12,000), a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, a bush fire or any other devastating event somehow we need to remember that life afterward is changed and will probably never be the same again. Not just the physical welfare of victims matters, not just the infrastructure and buildings that have to be rebuilt, the mental health of victims will continue to be a major issue for years to come.
Somehow I think we forget, once the media have gone, and even more so we forget when the media never really got there. It seems to me that third world countries recovering from disaster, do it very much on their own.
While today, I remember a day I never want to experience ever again, I want to remember people in other countries doing similar recoveries. I have been fortunate to have access to welfare, Red Cross funding and the like. I never ended up in a tent city. I have insurance cover to rebuild my home (when they finally get to it). But for so many people there is none of this, and those people are the ones I have on my mind today.
“How strange it (the earthquake) must all have seemed to them, here where they lived so safely always! They thought such a dreadful thing could happen to others, but not to them. That is the way!”
― William Dean Howells, A Sleep and a Forgetting