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The Kiwi Quake


BUSAN, South Korea. Early last Saturday morning an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand. New Zealand is a particularly earthquake prone nation, perched as it is on the so called Pacific Ring of Fire, upon which volcanic centres such as Japan and the Philippines also sit. The last major earthquake to hit a significant population centre was the one that destroyed the city of Napier in 1931, claiming 236 lives.

But of course, there is really only one earthquake that is still in the forefront of humanity’s collective consciousness (besides the people of Christchurch), and it certainly isn’t Napier. The Christchurch earthquake was marginally stronger than the earthquake that brought untold suffering on the populace of Haiti. As the devastation and loss of life in Haiti is to this day still being recorded – tragically – in estimates, we already know how many Kiwis lost their lives on Saturday morning: a grand total of zero.

As much as I am assured (and thankful) that this is true, looking at the photos of the city in which I grew up, I can’t help but have some doubts. The inner city was the worst hit. Much of it still consists (well, since Saturday, sort of) of the beautiful neo-gothic architecture constructed by the English colonists. Being, as they were, oblivious to New Zealand’s propensity to occasionally shake and explode, the architects populated much of the city with great stone buildings highly susceptible to crumbling. And crumble a lot of them did; crushing cars, shops, dwellings and anything else that was unlucky enough to be in the path of falling debris. Incredibly, considering it was just after closing time, no people were this unlucky. The cost of the cleanup is being estimated at 2 billion dollars, which, as some of the more cynical journalists are already pointing out, might be enough to create to the many jobs that New Zealand needs to try and prop up its floundering economy.

Which brings me to the point of this little diatribe. Running the risk of sounding ungrateful (I’m not), it seems so inherently unfair that a country like New Zealand can survive an earthquake of this magnitude with zero fatalities, minor injuries, and an outlook that it might even be for the best in the long run (of course, if there had been only one death, no one could’ve been callous enough to suggest this). When an earthquake of a less severe magnitude hit Haiti, the tragedy that unfolded there was, and still is, truly heartbreaking. That the only real difference between what happened in Haiti and in Christchurch was the wealth of the people and hence the strength of the infrastructure dictates in the clearest possible terms what an insidious injustice poverty is and how undeservingly lucky those of us who call the first world our home are.

New Zealanders are generally a fairly easy-going people, and it is pleasing to see that the media’s coverage hasn’t been swollen by hyperbole, although the earthquake has brought down some of our most prized architecture and temporarily shut businesses. We are often led to believe that nature’s random acts of violence are one of the world’s great levellers, but it seems they are not. The true sum of the destruction can only be found if you multiply the original disaster by human complicity. Christchurch escaped lightly, but Haiti, having suffered from years of political malfeasance and extreme economic hardship, tragically did not. I know that it doesn’t take events like these to be grateful of where you are from, but the contrast between the two events is certainly a very stark reminder.




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