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Can-do army lifts Christchurch from quake

by Staff Writers
Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Feb 28, 2011
Tanks and trucks may roll through their earthquake-shattered city but the people of Christchurch are blessed with a ragtag army all of their own.

Armed with spades, shovels and tonnes of goodwill, more than 3,000 volunteers fan out daily across New Zealand's largest city to dig silt, clean homes and let people know they are not alone.

"You sit there and you look at the television, you feel bloody hopeless and you know you've got to do something and this is a way of doing it," said farmer John Hartnell.

"People are sitting in their houses just feeling bloody depressed and they see the army marching out of the street and they come out of their houses, some had baking, it was fantastic. And when they left the street people were smiling again and thought 'somebody cares'."

Some 180,000 tonnes of sand, clay and earth are estimated to have welled up into yards and streets during last Tuesday's devastating 6.3-scale quake in a process called liquefaction, in which the earth is squeezed to a paste.

Compared with the devastation to buildings and lives -- one-third of the central city's buildings face demolition and more than 200 people are feared dead -- the silt doesn't seem much.

But for someone without power or water facing the prospect of losing their home the appearance of two dozen friendly faces offering to shovel out their garden or sweep up glass and move furniture is an overwhelming gesture.

Ann-Marie Foley's home is just one of two still inhabited in her Avondale street after September's 7.0-magnitude earthquake and Thursday's violent tremor. It's on such a lean she feels seasick walking down the hall.

"They just worked tirelessly, you just wouldn't believe what they have done," said Foley of the 22 volunteer farmers who shovelled out her garden Sunday in three hours -- a job she had considered "all too much" for herself.

"I feel very humbled, I know it sounds silly, you want to cry but you have no tears left. I can't put into words how I feel."

Hundreds have travelled from across New Zealand to join the clean-up effort, flying from as far as Wellington, 400 kilometres (250 miles) away, or driving across the South Island and sleeping in tents and stables at the agricultural showground so they can lend a hand.

About 20,000 people have joined Canterbury University's Student Volunteer Army, a group that started on Facebook with just 160 members after the September quake and has since ballooned into an integral part of the Civil Defence recovery operation.

Founder Sam Johnson, a politics and law student, said he could never have imagined that his humble idea could have bloomed into something so massive, tasking about 1,500 people every day into the city's worst-hit areas.

"With the numbers that have died at the moment every single person in Christchurch is going to be affected by it and we need to help, we want to pull together to help and that's a beautiful thing," said Johnson, 22.

Johnson's army has set up a site where residents can log requests for help and volunteers can register to join the clean-up, and he said social media was a "very powerful tool" in mobilising the community after disasters.

Farmers and the local rugby clubs have also rallied numbers for the recovery, with close to 1,000 turning up with machinery and equipment on Sunday.

"There's a funny little feeling of guilt among people who haven't been affected and I think in a strange sort of way inspires people to get out and do something," said farmer army co-ordinator Michael Morrow.

"We were stunned at the response."

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said the volunteers were crucial, not only in easing the workload, but in boosting the devastated city's morale.

"It's immensely moving, it's incredibly strengthening for us in the heart of this operation to know that for every citizen potentially there is a civil defence volunteer and that's what's happening out there," he said.

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