x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Observing Life: Standing strong in New Zealand

What I miss in Abu Dhabi is contributing to the extraordinary community reaction in which everyday people have banded together to help those affected by natural disasters.

Many Emiratis must be mystified by some of the activities their expatriate acquaintances say they have a hankering to do in their home countries at this time of year.

I have friends from Canada whose eyes go all misty as they recall ploughing snow from their driveways; from England who talk with genuine fondness about walking in drizzle; and from Australia who talk wistfully of the need to check for snakes on the track leading to the beach.

And me? I wish I were shovelling a toxic mix of mud, sand and sewage in New Zealand.

It's all part of the new normal in Christchurch since a hitherto unsuspected fault line near the city let loose with a 7.1-magnitude quake in September last year.

Many people heard of that one and nearly everyone heard of the 6.3 the following February - the epicentre for which was much shallower and closer to the city and thus far more deadly, killing 181 people. But after that, the forward march of the news cycle and the much deadlier quake and tsunami in Japan meant Christ-church faded from view.

Unlike Japan, though, Christ-church kept getting hammered by earthquakes. At the time I write this, Christchurch and the surrounding area have withstood 9,428 earthquakes, including a 6.4 in June and then a 6.0 on Friday and countless at the 5.0 level and above in between those times. (By comparison, Japan had about 1,300 aftershocks.)

These Christchurch quakes barely make the news but every time there's a decent jolt, there's a new burst of liquefaction where mud geysers appear spontaneously and spew out a mix of mud, sand and, frequently, sewage from broken pipes. It leaves behind a toxic mix up to 50cm deep.

That might seem like an odd thing to wish to witness, but what I'm really missing when I'm in Abu Dhabi is the ability to contribute to the extraordinary community reaction in which everyday people have banded together to help those affected.

University students formed a Student Volunteer Army, which mobilised thousands to dig out the homes of those affected by liquefaction. The agricultural sector followed suit, with the so-called Farmy Army also organising to lend a hand.

When I was tucking into a late turkey dinner on Christmas Day, I was wishing I was in a pair of gum boots, shovelling the toxic mix unleashed by Friday's quake from a stranger's home. Instead, I had to make do with admiring from afar the efforts of others who remind everyone in Christchurch and around the world that no matter what mother nature throws our way, the people here will always "kia kaha", a Maori phrase that means "stand strong".

jhenzell@thenational.ae