By GRAHAM HAWKES, editor NZ Local Government magazine
With all due respect to the lyrics of one of the Finn brothers more famous songs, history does repeat.
I've found a couple of examples recently, and the more disturbing one stemmed from reading about the aftermath of the Canterbury quakes.
People in the province are learning a sad lesson that history has already taught us, that the ongoing effects of a major traumatic event will never fade completely from the memories of people who lived through it. To the contrary, the effects will fade very little over time.
While growing up in Hawke's Bay I was constantly in contact with people who lived through the 1931 quake, which took the lives of at least 256 people. I knew many people who carried the memories of that day to their graves and those memories were startlingly sharp in their minds.
Just recently, a remarkable article written for the Christchurch Pressby John McCone made it clear that the trauma of the Canterbury quakes is still seriously impacting locals. Inland Revenue statistics show that more than 1000 taxpayers left Canterbury every month for six consecutive months following the February 22 earthquake. Many of those people would be leaving to escape the aftershocks and no doubt trying to erase the trauma of the quakes, not simply leaving to find work elsewhere.
For his article, John McCone interviewed locals whose emotional reserves are empty, who are mentally and physically exhausted. People told him of a feeling of not want to get out of bed in the morning, of being stressed about relatively minor issues.
“It is not a diagnosable condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or generalised anxiety disorder,” McCone wrote, “just the sense that the appetite to cope is wearing thin.” He wrote that 'experts' are not surprised, because a natural disaster like an earthquake triggers a recognised sequence of psychological stages.
“First off is the shock of the event itself. Stunned, numb and unbelieving. Then the adrenaline- fuelled crisis mode, where everyone pitches in to respond. This is followed by the honeymoon and taking stock phase, where people are feeling thankful for what is being done. Energy levels and goodwill are not a problem. But about six months down the line, just as inevitably arrives the disillusionment phase. The true difficulties of the recovery process are becoming apparent. The wider world has moved on to its other problems, while locally, self- interest and old divisions are reasserting themselves.”
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker agreed that mentally the recovery has reached a tough stage. The “not finished” aspect is telling on people, he said to McCone.
“You have an oil spill: you pump the oil out of the ship, you clean the beaches, you move on. You have a bush fire: you rebuild the houses, you replant the trees, you move on.
“But we've had an event that is not yet completed. We can't escape the feeling that it might not be over, that in the next 30 minutes we might experience another violent earthquake.
And that uncertainty is the source of a lot of the frustrations that people are having,” said Parker, who told McCone of an associated loss of feelings of familiarity and control. He said the mass wiping out of cultural landmarks had taken away the sense of place people had grown up with and yet the demolition programme is only halfway through.
The Mayor also mentioned a factor that many people who lived through the Hawke's Bay quake also found difficult to cope with – the sense of powerlessness.
“That is where a lot of the discomfort comes from. When you look at the world, we try to control everything. We try to predict the weather, we try to predict the outcome of the Rugby World Cup. So when we're reminded we actually control very little, it's a very disconcerting message.”