Former Congressman Jim Kolbe represented the Tucson, Arizona area in the US House of Representatives for 22 years, from 1985-2007. Along with Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher of California, he was a founding co-chair of the Friends of New Zealand Congressional Caucus. He is currently a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and serves on the US Trade Representative’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.

Congressman Kolbe was in Christchurch on February 22, 2011 as part of the American delegation at the US-New Zealand Partnership Forum. At 12:51 pm that day he was thrown out of his chair at lunch at Canterbury University, and ended up leaving the city on foot. The Congressman looks back on that day, one year later.

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Jim Kolbe

Jim Kolbe.

JK: Some events trigger a life time of memories, but rarely does this happen when the event only takes a few seconds. Such was the case, however, with the earthquake in Christchurch on February 22, 2011.

Most natural disasters either come with some warning or the ability to take steps to avoid or mitigate the danger. But an earthquake is instantaneous, and one feels completely helpless in its midst.

Midday February 22nd found me at the Canterbury University Faculty Club, enjoying a plate of salmon with nearly a dozen other members of the United States-New Zealand Partnership Forum, which was completing its final day of meetings in Christchurch.

Our group included former Prime Minister Jim Bolger. When the shockwave hit us, we all dove under the table until the earth stopped shaking. Then we quickly moved outdoors with, I might add, our plate of salmon in hand. The young woman who was serving us wisely advised that we couldn’t be sure after this event when we might get another meal.

It quickly became apparent that there would be no transportation to reunite us with our larger group, so we began the long trek to the center of Christchurch, a distance of about four miles. As we got to the city center, it became apparent that this quake was far more damaging than the one the previous September, even though it registered less on the Richter scale.

I soon learned that the Richter scale is only one measurement of the intensity of a quake, and that its closeness to the surface and consequent “acceleration rate” has just as much impact. An informal briefing with civil defense personnel who had set up their headquarters at the Christchurch Art Gallery confirmed our worst fears about the damage and the casualties sustained in the city.

As we milled around, not sure what to do next, a former member of Mr Bolger’s cabinet came by, walking home from a dental appointment. In one of the stranger coincidences of the day, it turned out he was very close friends with my own friends from a sheep and cattle station in Canterbury. I was supposed to have dinner with them that evening in Christchurch, but since that wasn’t going to happen, and since his apartment was hopelessly damaged, he offered to drive both of us out to Canterbury for a reunion with our mutual friends.

Among the lasting impressions I have of this day were these:

• The initial, immediate sense of bewilderment and fright and the feeling of complete helplessness when the earth moves so violently.

• The calm and amazing professionalism of rescue workers. They had been through another such earthquake only months before, so their training quite naturally kicked in. Nonetheless, even not knowing the fate of their own families, they acted with total professionalism.

• A feeling of warmth and camaraderie with the people of Christchurch who, even when faced with such devastating losses, displayed an infinite amount of hospitality and friendliness to all of us who were there as visitors.

• And finally, a great sense of sadness about this beautiful city for the damage it suffered and continues to suffer in the wake of nearly continuous aftershocks.

What will be the future of Christchurch? We don’t know, but given the courage on display by New Zealanders that day, I have no doubt the city will rise again. I certainly know that I will visit again.

– Jim Kolbe

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Congressman Kolbe, thank you for your contribution to our commemoration of the anniversary of the February 22nd earthquake. Tomorrow we will hear from my FEMA colleague Tim Manning, a disaster management specialist who worked around the clock in Christchurch for days after the quake.