Tuesday, September 14, 2010

There is no song lyric to express what I am feeling.

So, I've been trying to wrap my head around the Christchurch earthquake for over a week now. It's amazing. I've never been anywhere near earthquakes, so I've never seen anything like it. The ground is literally ripped open. Rivers and railroad tracks completely re-routed. Brick buildings have utterly collapsed. The others are leaning. Liquefaction (best word ever, btw) has caused the streets to run muddy with a mixture of silt and sewage. Homes and businesses destroyed, tens of thousands displaced from their homes.

What I'm most struck by, though, is the extent to which, and the speed at which, Christchurch is recovering. And I have been seriously thinking about the role that socialism has had to play in that.

Now, New Zealand is not purely socialist any more than the United States is purely capitalist. However, I think we'd all agree that New Zealand is on the socialist end of the continuum.

Case in point, the government-run Accident Compensation Corporation means that every individual physically located in New Zealand (and every New Zealand resident traveling overseas) is completely covered for "accidental" physical injury. This means, basically, unforeseen. Whether or not it is that person's fault. Fall on the ice? Covered. Injury while skiing? Covered. Fall down drunk and break your own nose? Covered. It is awesome. I'm actually thinking about taking a dive one day to get that nose job I've always wanted.

It also means there is virtually no personal injury litigation in this country and that, by extension, the courts are able to process other civil disputes much more quickly. That is also awesome.

But I digress. With respect to the earthquake, it means that every individual with personal home and contents insurance on their home (owned or rental) is covered by government-sponsored earthquake insurance. It's automatic. It means that a record number of claims have been submitted in the last week and are already starting to be paid. It means insurance companies aren't in there trying to make a profit by splitting hairs. It means one entity is responsible for the payouts that will rebuild Christchurch. And that rebuilding is already underway.

So that is the concrete part of it. And that's just one part. It goes so much deeper. The more stringent building codes in this socialist-leaning government meant that the damage was not as bad as it could have been. The public run facilities meant that power was back on in hours or days and water is now safe to drink throughout Canterbury. Given the aforementioned liquefaction where the streets ran with poo, that alone is amazing.

But there is also something intangible. A socialist-leaning government understands the obligation of the government to look after its people. Within one day, the government had designated a Minister Responsible for Earthquake Recovery. Not a minor player, either. The third ranking member of the government, the Leader of the House. The Prime Minister said, "you have a bigger job to do; we'll take care of the House for you. Look after Christchurch."

This very evening, the House is sitting in something called "extraordinary urgency" to pass legislation to enable Christchurch to rebuild outside the normal red tape that would usually be required. Including tonight, extraordinary urgency has only been used a handful of times in recent memory.

All members of Parliament elected from the region have been given extended leave to tend to their constituencies. To be on the ground to give advice and form a bridge between the citizen and the government, so that they can help people get what they need both to get back on track, but also to move on.

Specialist counselors have been deployed from all over the country to handle psychological trauma; doctors and nurses have been deployed to patch up the injured; caregivers have been deployed to care for the young and the elderly.

And I am absolutely struck by the difference between this and Katrina. Both cities of comparable size. One left to rot by its government, who deemed the problem too hard; the other extended a sturdy, helping hand by the government.

That is the thing about socialism, really. It's not about higher taxes and greater public services. It's about a different attitude: a government that says, "you, citizen, are my responsibility. I take, but I also give."

It is extraordinary.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where were you when the world stopped turning

Nine years ago today, my starkest memory is of being huddled in my downtown DC apartment waiting for the unaccounted plane to crash into the big, white house four blocks away from me. And trying to get a phone line to call my mother.

Later, I went to the Front Page to gather with the other DC loners who didn't have family and were, like me, trapped inside the city center. We silently watched the news and patted the shoulders of complete strangers and wondered what it all meant.

I do not, and cannot, know what it was like for those in New York who went through much worse that day.

But I can say this: for me, it was hell. It was terrifying and it was life-changing.

And I did not then, and do not now, hold hate in my heart for the people who happen to follow the same religion as those who committed these acts.

None of us did that day. None of us were hating anyone. We were patching together the shreds of hope and compassion our frazzled nerves still had left, and we didn't have the time to hate anyone.

I, for one, still don't.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Shake it up baby, now (shake it up baby)

I went to the grocery store today and everybody was freaking out, buying mass quantities of bottled water and batteries. Never mind how far Wellington is from Christchurch (though reports are that the quake was felt up here).

I guess these things just bring home how unprepared we all are for the 'big one' and how it could happen to any one of us. This latter point is not just hypothetical or sympathetic. New Zealand sits on a bajillion fault lines. It really could happen to any one of us.

(This does not phase me, by the way. I used to live in one of the safest cities in the United States for natural disasters and then some jackasses flew a plane into the Pentagon. Which is to say, you never know what's coming for you.)

For me, the earthquake just reminds me that I am out here all alone. Not lonely, mind. Those are two different things. But alone. A maverick. An explorer.

All of the people in the world who would take a bullet for me live 10,000 miles away. And really, it all boils down to this: If the 'big one' hit Wellington tomorrow, there is not a single person who would think about me first.

Oh, I have friends. Don't get me wrong. But when the worst happens, and instinct kicks in and the first thing you think of is, "Oh my God, I hope ______ is okay".... well I don't fill in that blank for anyone in New Zealand.

And that's just life. When disaster hits, people think about their partners and their children. About their mothers and fathers. About their brothers and their sisters.

And I have no problem with that. It is the trade off for this life lived a-wanderin'. All it means is that I've learned how to save myself. And though I would be lying if I didn't say that I wished for that go-to person who'd think about me first here, there is something to be said for the ability to save oneself.

These people that populate my life here, they will think of me eventually. Once they and their own are safe and provided for.

And by then, I will sharing my bottled water with the woman down the street with the sick baby, whom I have never met, but I always notice as she's trying to settle him into his stroller without tangling the tubes on his oxygen tank.

And I'll be sharing my first aid supplies to patch up the boys on the next block who try to run me over on their skateboards, but always call me ma'am.

And I'll be giving my canned food to the neighbours who infuriatingly park so badly they block my garage on a daily basis, but who came to retrieve the dead mouse from my house when I showed up unannounced on their doorstep in tears.

In short, I'll be fine. And I'll be doing what I can in the community I am in.

Nobody's getting my dusty vodka stash, though. I'm going to need that in the post-apocalyptic barter economy.