New Zealand earthquake memorial services draw Prince William – and criticism

Memorial services were held today for those killed in the Feb. 22 New Zealand earthquake. With dozens of bodies still unidentified and businesses closed, some said it came 'too soon.'

Ross Setford/NZPA/AP
Prince William, center, delivers a speech during the Earthquake Memorial Service at Hagley Park, in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 18. A sign language interpreter is at right.

Bells rang out today through major urban centers in this small South Pacific nation still reeling from an earthquake that wreaked havoc on what was one of New Zealand's most tranquil destinations.

Christchurch, the country's second-largest city, bore the brunt last month of an unusually shallow 6.3-magnitude tremor that left swaths of the downtown and eastern suburbs uninhabitable and caused 182 casualties.

But alongside the sound of national mourning came a chorus of criticism over the government's decision to hold a memorial so soon after New Zealand's worst natural calamity in at least 80 years. Dozens of bodies remain unidentified, homes are still without water or sewage lines, and stores are indefinitely closed.

Tens of thousands of mourners, including Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Britain's Prince William, gathered Friday in the city's Hagley Park for the first of the day's major national memorial services. Prime Minister John Key led the lamentation for an event that he said "left scars that will never be erased from our land and from our hearts."

A two-minute silence was held at 12:51 p.m. to mark the moment the temblor struck Feb. 22.

Similar services were held in Dunedin, Auckland, and here in the capital of Wellington, where leaders have been preoccupied with assessing the damage and estimating the cost of rebuilding. Damages are currently estimated at almost $11 billion.

Christchurch's major newspaper, The Press, whose landmark building was partly demolished by the quake, devoted prominent space in its paper Thursday for a blistering editorial railing against not only the government's rebuilding efforts, but the "grandiose, empty gesture" of the memorial service and its retinue of political leaders, local entertainers brought in from out of town, and "other assorted boring people in suits."

With funerals for some of those killed in the earthquake still to come and many people still homeless or lacking basic utilities, today's events were at the very least poorly timed, argued Vicki Anderson, the staff writer who penned the opinion piece and whose writing has helped define the aftermath.

Karen Scott, a commercial insurance broker whose company only completed its relocation to a new office this past week, agrees.

"Too soon," says Ms. Scott.

Just yesterday, business owners marched on Christchurch's civil defense headquarters demanding that their buildings not be demolished without consent.

The government said today's services were an effort to rally New Zealanders to rebuild their nation. The recently appointed earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, struck the official view that carried today's commemorative interlude.

"For most," Mr. Brownlee told reporters, "there's a chance to park up these feelings of grief into a day where everyone acknowledges everyone is suffering. We're all in this together."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.