A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Human Resilience in the Face of Natural Disaster

Michael Pender

by Michael Pender

4.35 am on the morning of Saturday September 04, 2010 was significant for New Zealand; we experienced the most powerful earthquake affecting a major city since the Napier event of 1931.

Our present lifestyle verges on being completely dependent on technological wizardry, which we take for granted and embrace the illusion of human self-sufficiency it engenders. Natural disasters of all kinds remind us of human insignificance when confronted with the power of nature.

Collective lessons are one thing, but what of the people who were directly affected by the earthquake? My professional work as a geotechnical engineer had me in Christchurch the day after the earthquake, gathering information that would eventually help develop more robust facilities better able to survive earthquakes. Much of the information we were seeking disappears during the clean-up, hence the need to move quickly. Even so, we became aware of making a small contribution in enabling people to tell us of their experiences which seemed to be kind of therapy for them; often we were thanked for our interest. Quite amazing was the calmness of people who had no water supply, no waste disposal facilities and whose houses and gardens had, in many cases, been wrecked.

We heard over and over the refrain: “… at least nobody was killed …” In the next few days they worked doggedly with shovel and wheel barrow at the task of clearing sand and silt from their properties. And then on February 22 an even more severe earthquake struck, this time with multiple fatalities. Liquefaction was more widespread but all the areas affected after September 04 were again visited with vast volumes of sand. As before the people set to work with shovels and wheel barrows and moved the new piles of sand - a remarkable demonstration of human resilience. Again they were willing to tell us of their experiences and thanked us for our interest.

However, these disasters were not all bad news. The wonderful way the whole community responded is a precious insight. Neighbours cared for each other and worked together whilst an army of students and many others appeared to help shifting the sand. After the second earthquake I visited the Halswell school, the grounds of which were again covered with ejected sand. An enormous working bee was underway involving the whole school community – teachers, parents, pupils and local farmers with tractors and trailers - collecting sand and piling it at the kerbside outside the school. Others provided food and organised ingenious ways of getting it to those in need. There was also an international response with help coming from several countries after both earthquakes. A heightened sense of community togetherness seems to be a feature of the response after natural disasters.  I have personal experience of this after three earthquakes – Edgecumbe in New Zealand in 1987, Loma Prieta in California in 1989, and now Canterbury in 2010 and 2011. News reports from Japan after their triple disaster of March 11 also suggested a similar communal coming together.

The notion of Common Good is sometimes invoked when discussing Church social teaching. The response of the local and international communities to these earthquakes suggests to me that we have within us an innate sense of the common good which is unleashed when natural disaster snaps us out of our day to day routine. A tiny glimpse, perhaps, of a different way of living.


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