Today marks the first anniversary of the February 22 earthquake, technically smaller than the 4 September one, but so much more destructive, being centred almost directly under the city. 185 people dead, countless injured, and most of the central city destroyed.
One year on, it feels like only yesterday yet also feels like we’ve been living with this “new normal” forever. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what the city used to be like – images of rubble (and now, of empty sections slowly growing over with weeds) overlay memories of buildings and streets. It’s hard to imagine that it’s less than 18 months ago that we could just pop into town to go shopping, or to a movie, or the library… But at other times something will trigger a memory of that terrible Tuesday, and I’ll be transported back, feeling just as sick now as I did when I heard the first reports of casualties come over the radio as we crept through the traffic trying to get home.
Naturally, today has been filled with memorials. There was the official one in Hagley Park, attended by the predictable politicians and (self-)important figures. The university also held its own service, and stopped lectures for a couple of hours to allow staff and students to attend either service. I instead chose to commemorate the moment in a more low-key way, attending one of the many unofficial community events, River of Flowers.
The nearest site was at Dean’s Bush, so I went down there at about 12.30 and joined the small group of people sitting quietly on the riverbank. The atmosphere was like a strangely subdued picnic – several people had brought blankets to sit on, a few had brought their lunch, and many were in groups, chatting quietly to each other as we all enjoyed the stillness of the gardens and the river (well, stillness apart from the ducks loudly demanding a handout). As more people gathered, one of the organisers handed out flowers to anyone who hadn’t brought their own, and explained a bell would be rung at 12.51 to mark the start of the two minute silence. As the time approached, everyone stood up, then the bell rang and silence fell.
I found myself not thinking of the earthquakes, but instead of the Christchurch of happier days – memories of crowding into the back room of Cafe Bleu for the pre-convention dinner, of Friday night movies in the Square when I was a student, of shopping expeditions to Scorpio’s when I’d come over from Westport desperate for books and culture, of graduation ceremonies in the town hall, of introducing MrPloppy to my favourite haunts. And I realised that although I always tell people I’m not a Cantabrian, deep down I’ve become one. I’ve spent more time living here than in any other town, and I’ve developed a deep connection to the city. Despite everything, I love Christchurch.
After the two minutes were up, we all threw our flowers into the Avon, as people were doing all along the length of the river.
A “tree of hope” had been created beside the river (and repeated at other sites further down stream), supplied with luggage tags and pens for people to write messages on. I’ve heard that the museum will be collecting the messages and storing them for posterity alongside the more official mementos of the day.
And all across the city, people had decorated the ubiquitous road cones (which have become such a symbol of the ongoing problems) with flowers.
These little gestures of community mean so much more than all the official ceremonies could ever do. I’m glad I chose to go to the river – it was exactly the sort of peaceful, thoughtful moment I needed today.