About the Author: David Huebner serves as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand.
It was one of those moments that makes your stomach churn. When my phone rang at about 4:40 a.m. last Saturday, I knew immediately that something was very wrong. My official home line doesn't usually ring unless there is a big problem on the other end.
In this case, it was particularly bad. A 7+ magnitude earthquake had just hit New Zealand's second largest city and the surrounding towns. The U.S. Geological Survey had immediately picked up the temblor on its instruments and triggered the series of calls that quickly relayed to the phone by my bed.
As a Californian, I know what earthquakes are all about. I've been tossed (literally) out of bed and onto the floor. I've heard the hillside beyond my bedroom wall tear and shriek. I've had shelving and dishes crash down around me. I've been at work in tall office buildings that pitched and then swayed like blades of grass. And I've helped friends retrieve personal belongings from severely damaged homes.
My immediate thought was about casualties. I have loved my visits to Christchurch in part because of the wonderful heritage architecture. But I have seen what falling bricks can do. Thankfully, and miraculously, the number of serious casualties on Saturday was much lower than one would expect from a quake this size.
Within five minutes of the call, my spouse and I were in our car heading toward the Embassy. While we were still in the car, and well before the sun dawned in New Zealand, my civilian and military colleagues in Wellington, Auckland, Washington, Hawaii, and Bangkok started to look for ways to help.
We simply set about doing what people do when their friends are in trouble. We started checking in with people to confirm if they were okay or needed assistance, and we began trying to work out if there was anything practical we could do to help the larger local effort.
Some of us quickly made contact with central and local government officials to see if there was anything the United States could usefully provide in the immediate aftermath of the quake in terms of search and rescue, potable water, logistical assistance, or emergency funds.
Others of us set about relaying the Civil Defence messages as and where we could. We contacted 8,000 American citizens known to be in the area to make sure they knew what to do and where to get help if they needed it.
We checked in with Canterbury and Lincoln Universities to make sure our friends and the facilities there were okay. I emailed some of the students in my Canterbury student group to ask them to check on the others, and I emailed or texted several other dozen of my friends in Christchurch including Jenny Harper of the Art Gallery, Margaret Austin, and Lady Stewart. Fortunately, all were safe and secure.
By 5:15 am there was a large team at work at the U.S. Embassy. Many of the staffers spontaneously came in without being called. It is a very human urge ... to do what you can to help even -- and perhaps especially -- when the situation is so unclear and enormous.
As the rebuilding effort proceeds we intend to stay in close contact. I had to travel up to Samoa two days after the quake for previously arranged commitments, but I have been closely monitoring emails and cables, and I call the Embassy twice daily to check status. We will provide whatever assistance is required and appropriate.
Again, I know quakes intimately. I know how big ones can mess with your head. I know that many people experience serious post-event effects. So, in the week since the quake, I have been struck -- but not surprised -- by the great resilience, stoicism, and generous spirit of New Zealanders. I've watched as the strong sense of community has asserted itself again and again in many ways large and small. We've seen everything from students mobilizing on Facebook to bipartisan political visits where the politicians don't just pop in briefly for staged photo ops but actually roll up their sleeves and dish up meals or help clear rubble. Good on the politicos for showing their human side.
In addition, the good people of Christchurch have let us know that they are still determined to commemorate 9/11 this Saturday. It would have been natural, expected, and wholly understandable if such ceremonies were postponed. But our Cantabrian friends, including our fire department friends, were certain and insistent that the event proceed. It is simply extraordinary that in the middle of tragedy in their own front parlor, Kiwis are taking time to remember a day nine years ago when, half a world away, others were suffering.
It is astounding generosity of spirit. It is deeply moving. And it is deeply appreciated.
Kia kaha, Canterbury -- stay strong.