thoughts, prayers, business, shit and jelly: the Christchurch earthquake

The jolt was felt as far away as Tauranga, which is an hour south of Auckland, and all over the South Island. But it was shallower and more localised than the last quake in Christchurch. The last measured 7.1, its epicentre 50 km out to sea and 10 km down, this one, 6.3, 10 km out and 5km down into the earth. Which representational coordinates register in experience, if you’ve lived in an earthquake-prone area for long enough.

Bodies have been shown being pulled out wreckage, officially numbering 75, expected to rise. A massive disaster for NZ. Another. And, as has become a familiar complaint from me, it is an event that has been responded to in terms of reflection … too soon. Footage set into tightly edited circular vignettes. Highlights revisited at increasing frequency. A stasis in the way media present and the way then the event comes to be represented in conversation.

We are already ‘pausing’ to consider the effects. Rather than suffering them, as affects, and communicating them, as affects. Among which effects number, naturally, those relating to economics, to the well-being of businesses, and business per se as an abstract entity, the business of the nation, and GDP. So an aspect, not the main one, but a notable element in our ‘thoughts and prayers’ is concern for the economics of the disaster. The business section of the paper talks about the old one, two. And he’s down! I am indicating a constructed, pointed characteristic to this soup of mediated reflections, cycling on pause. That in effect it has been spiked. Cost is being counted as we watch pain and destruction occurring.

A friend wrote that the footage showed more urgency among reporters than among rescue workers, comparing this to Haiti, where within 6 or so hours, bodies were being pulled from wreckage by the score. Contributing to this circumspection, there is also the regulated nature of our society’s understanding of itself, and self-regulation, stopping people who might from rushing in, to the extent that one man who tried to help was arrested. Obviously for endangering others.

I don’t think this pertained in Haiti’s case, since looting was a major problem, and given the impoverishment of the people. Here, we see traumatised office workers, the middle-classes prevailing, and men wearing hardhats and fluoro vests. All with that harried look of the firefighters in NY on September 11. But I have to admit to being perturbed to see what looks like a public service attitude despite the harriedness of its officials, rescue-workers in throngs, standing around, as if leaning on spades, over photocopiers, around the water-cooler, you might say, while one guy wields a hammer.

We are a careful nation it seems. Not wanting to be disturbed or disturb each other. This earthquake is called an ‘aftershock,’ despite being more devastating than the preceding quake. TV news precedes cycles of footage with warnings about its ‘graphic’ nature that ‘may disturb some viewers.’ Another acquaintance was told by someone he knew to ‘tone down’ his language on facebook. To which he responded, I will not fucking tone it down. Sometimes an aftershock is not a toned down version of an earthquake.

What fascinates me most is actually the fact of ongoing aftershocks. Over several thousand from the quake in September last year. But watching the responses of reporters and by-standers in live coverage to the hourly-or-so shocks and rumbles and jolts. How doubt in the solidity of the ground affects people at the moment the ground moves. They don’t necessarily all reach for something onto which to hold. More frequently the talking face of the journo or the background faces will withdraw into itself, into themselves. A far-away look – not just wishful thinking – moves across the face. One guy could not concentrate on the question coming from his earpiece while in every physical respect he responded with nonchalance to the aftershock. It made him listen to his inner ear. Perhaps to find balance.

Another under-reported aspect to the quake is the smell coming from the ground. It’s not simply shaking like jelly, it’s smelling like shit. ‘Liquefaction’ is the word, if not the fact, on everybody’s lips. The oscillations in the ground having reorganised the strata underneath, sorting them so that lighter particles rise, liquefying to the extent that rock and sand begins to act like liquid and percolate up to and through and onto the surface. Along with broken liquid flows already underground. In Christchurch’s case, acquifers, multiple subterranean rivers – the city is built on a vast alluvial plane – and sewage and water mains.