23 February 2011

New Zealand's darkest day

In the initial aftermath of the serious Christchurch earthquake the New Zealand emergency services have hurried into action, with civilian and military personnel doing their utmost to rescue those survivors who have been trapped in collapsed buildings.  The September 2010 earthquake in the same city fortunately did not result in any deaths because it occurred in the early morning, but yesterday's quake was much more damaging because it occurred during a weekday lunchtime in which the city centre was fully populated with locals and visitors.  At the time of writing, the unofficial death toll stands at 75 with a likelihood of a substantial increase in the figure as more bodies are uncovered.  

In the early reaction to the disaster commentators including the Prime Minister have suggested that this earthquake might be New Zealand's worst disaster, with the John Key quoted as saying 'This may be New Zealand's darkest day'.  The scale of the Christchurch disaster is unquestionably huge for a country as small as New Zealand, and the effects on those at the scene or waiting for news of friends and loved ones will be powerful and lasting.  But that doesn't mean this event, serious though it is, is the lowest ebb of the national psyche, or the worst disaster to befall the country.

Ever since the founding of the nation, part of the New Zealand national identity has been forged in the trials posed by disasters, both natural and man-made.  In the 21st century we often forget that as a young, growing country, New Zealand was a considerably more dangerous place to live in that it is today, with our modern health system and advanced disaster response techniques offering much greater protection than our ancestors enjoyed.  As our population has grown New Zealand has become a safer place, and with the shift in mass transport from ships to aircraft the frequency of major disasters seems to have decreased.  The comprehensive list at NZ History Online shows a multitude of major and minor disasters, with several taking more than 100 lives:

  • 1863: HMS Orpheus shipwreck, Manukau Heads, 189 dead
  • 1874: Cospatrick shipwreck, Cape of Good Hope (en route to NZ), 470 dead
  • 1881: Tararua shipwreck, Southland, 131 dead
  • 1886: Tarawera eruption, near Rotorua, c.120 dead
  • 1894: Wairarapa shipwreck, Great Barrier Island, 121 dead
  • 1931: Hawke's Bay earthquake, 256 dead
  • 1953: Tangiwai rail disaster, Mt Ruapehu, 151 dead
  • 1979: Mt Erebus air crash, Antarctica, 257 dead
The scale of these disasters is even more serious when you consider that for much of the period covered by the list, New Zealand's population was tiny.  For example, in 1874, the year of the Cospatrick disaster, the national population was only 345,000, and by 1886, the year of the Tarawera eruption, that figure had only risen to 620,000.  

Also, without wishing to diminish the significance of the terrible events in Christchurch, I think another day holds a much stronger claim to be 'New Zealand's darkest', and not just because one of my relatives died in that event.  On 12 October 1917, the first day of the doomed and ultimately futile Passchendaele Offensive on the Western Front in Belgium, New Zealand troops suffered a colossal 2700 casualties in a single day, of which approximately 845 were killed.  Given that New Zealand's population during World War I was only 1.1 million, a mere quarter of today's population, the dreadful impact of that bleak day is hard to imagine.  But it would take the deaths of over three thousand people to achieve a similar impact on today's New Zealand.  Of course we must fervently hope that nothing of the sort ever happens, because any major loss of life is a desperate waste that affects so many lives beyond those who are direct casualties.  

Perhaps if we take another look at our brief and sometimes troubled history we might gain solace from the fact that disasters like these are a part of every nation's history, and that with luck and dedication we might stand a better chance of mitigating future disasters.   
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