About 36 hrs ago I awoke to snow blowing around town and soon discovered that it was the start of what was to be a two day storm. With a week of flights scheduled to get the remaining summer crew out of here everyone started thinking about how the weather was going to muck up the flight schedule. Roads were shut, the weather forecaster was going into overtime with predictions, flight schedules were posted tentatively. No one expected the flights schedule for today, wed, to actually make it in. The weather was just too bad.
What no one expected, what no one planned for, was a massive, devastating earthquake to strike in Christchurch New Zealand. All of our operations for the continent are based out of CHC. It's the city we all fly in and out of on our way to McMurdo. It's a city that I have come to love these past few years. Those sentiments are shared by many and so when news of the quake hit, when the gravity of the damage to life and property became apparent work around station came to a halt as people turned towards live coverage on the TVs and the news updates. We all have deep connections to this city.
The pictures and first hand reports were horrifying. There are currently over 500 people affiliated with the program in CHC right now, having reached the end of their season. Monday I said goodbye to a flight carrying over 100 passengers, many of whom I consider friends, some dear, dear friends. With each report of the damage, with each mention of the devastation in the city center my heart sank lower and lower. All of the hotels we use are based in the center.
It's a terrible feeling of powerlessness that one feels being down here. We have all the benefits of the news society we live in but that just makes it worse. Nothing makes you feel more helpless than knowing but not being able to do anything. We can just wait and hope for good news. It's interesting when stuff like this happens, when real life invades our bubble existence down here. I find that it hits me pretty hard, I find myself getting really emotional as I am reminded about all the things and people I love back in the "real" world.
But I am also reminded how much I love being a part of this Antarctic community and how proud I am of it when I see the care and concern folks in the program have exhibited. Within hours of the quake someone had set up a facebook group for people from down here to check in, to let the world (and us, us, us, trapped on the ice) know they were OK. 12 hours later there were almost 500 members, people with some connection to this program. Spreadsheets were developed to track everyone who has reported in so we can all know immediately if someone was OK.
There were a few harrowing hours last night that I spent on the computer constantly refreshing facebook waiting for news of friends. By this morning just about everyone I know has been accounted for (a pretty impressive accomplishment given how we ice people like to scatter as soon was we leave here). But safe doesn't mean sound.
By all accounts Christchurch is a warzone. Many of the hotels we use have been completely destroyed. Friends of mine have lost all of their luggage, their money, their passports. With no place to go they have been turning up at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC), which is the building that stores all of the cold weather gear we use and is also the terminal we use to fly to McMurdo. It's about 30 minutes by car from the center. People have been walking there, some without shoes. There are over 100 people there right now, living on cots, stranded until flights start happening. No one knows when that will happen.
Things down here are anything but normal. The whole end of the season has been thrown into disarray. The flight schedule is scrapped. There is talk of the summer season (which was supposed to end on Mar 5th) being scrapped and ending early with 2 back to back flights this weekend. The flights will be taking people to Auckland so they can avoid Christchurch. The weather continues to be bad: high winds, white out snow and drifts up to your waist. The open water, which has been so beautiful this past week, continues to expand and is feared to be getting closer to the roads we use to get to our airfield. If the roads wash out we could have problems.
The open water has also started attracting boats to the area. A few days ago the New Zealand warship Wellington was spotted in the "harbor" right outside of town. That was quite a sight. I watched them for a bit and watched the landing ship they launched head towards hut point, where members of the New Zealand Scott Base Station were waiting. More tragically, for the past week or so a sailboat has been hanging around the waters, about 20 miles from town. It was a Norwegian vessel. Yesterday afternoon we picked up a distress signal from the boat. By the time the Wellington was able to arrive at their last reported location there was no sign of the sailboat. The beacon had stopped and we lost contact. The boat is presumed lost with 3 souls on board. More troubling, we believe the boat landed 2 people on the continent who were attempting to setup caches for an overland traverse to the South Pole. Basically there are two people with limited, to no, provisions wandering around the area during a massive storm. This makes me angry beyond belief: they have no business being here so ill prepared.
There are things to be happy for. I am thrilled that all of my friends are safe and accounted for. I am thrilled that the only impact down here will be delays. I am thrilled to be a part of this community. We have problems right now but we will get through them like we always do.
But for now, the storm still lingers, a fog hangs over the water/ice shelf outside of the station and the white of the freshly fallen snow contrasts greatly with the dark, dark clouds in the sky. and in my heart.