– Linwood, Canterbury, New Zealand

This is a story my husband, Philip Broderick Willis, wrote in the days after the February Earthquake for our friends and family back home in our native Louisiana. I thought it was such a detailed and beautifully written account of the 4 or so hours that followed the quake that it really needed to be submitted for public memory (with his permission). To provide a context, we live in Linwood. My name is Michelle and our three children are Rose (then 5), Ian (then 4) and River (then 9 months). Chris and Ian are my parents in law who live in Timaru.

I was sitting on my couch yesterday, reading “The Plot Against America.” I was trying to psych myself up to getting up and getting hard to work, knocking some things off the to-do list before having to get Rose from school and before Michelle got home to a house that would (hopefully) be clean.

We’d had a couple small seismic rumbles that day; very tiny aftershocks from last September’s Darfield earthquake, or so I thought. As I sat on the sofa, my sensitive ears detected those deepest of bass notes that announce another aftershock, but within less than a second the vibrations had undergone a massive crescendo, and the house began roaring around me. I put my feet on the floor and braced my arms as the house was violently shaken, and this time things were different. It wasn’t like riding big waves, or being blown around in a high wind. It was the sharpest, most violent kind of shaking; as though the house sat on some giant mechanism of limitless force that was snapping it back and forth, up and down, however it liked. That the house stood up to it at all was pretty incredible. It seemed like just the shaking itself was physically painful, and the noise was incredible, deafening, like nothing I’ve heard or could compare it to. This time it was clear there would be damage, and it started right away as everything in the kitchen was hurled from benches and shelves onto the floor.

I sat there, not knowing quite what to do, as is always the case with these earthquakes. My immediate position was safe, or seemed safe enough. Ian was in the kids’ lounge, River in the opposite direction in her cot. I suppose the safest thing would have been to run to both and bring them into the hallway, but at the moment all I could think to do was wait things out. It seemed like walking would have been impossible, and carrying children more dangerous than letting them stay where they were or come to me.

I sat there shouting “Oh God, oh God!” partly because of the obvious danger and partly because I didn’t know what to do to help the small people who needed my help. It was only an expression of “Oh shit!” though, not a sudden moment of religiosity. Curiously, even in that moment—as with the earthquake before, and the hurricane before that—I felt no belief in God, nor a desire for his help.

I remember looking up at the ceiling, hoping not to see it come crashing down on me, looking straight ahead of me as the hall wardrobe smashed against the doorframe, and just waiting and hoping; hoping the kids were ok, that Michelle’s workplace wasn’t getting it any worse than we were, that Rose was all right at her little school.

Finally the shaking stopped, and I heard Ian screaming in complete terror from the kids’ lounge. I ran to him saying “Get outside, get outside!” scooping him up and opening the door. The first glance outside confirmed what I had experienced inside, that this was a far more serious incident than the September quake.

There was a thick cloud of dust in the air; whether from smashed building, buckling roads, or the building site next door, I don’t know. But between the clouds of dust, the dazed people on the street, and the silence except for alarms, it felt as though we’d been bombed. The short jog to the mailbox gave some indication of the fury we’d experienced; the neighbor’s front ground-level wall was missing, the driveway and streets were buckled. I told Ian to hold the mailbox and stay outside as I went back inside for his baby sister, but as I looked around for hazards I saw that he would be standing nearly underneath the phone and power lines. Still, the outdoors seemed safer than what we’d just experienced inside, so when I spotted a plastic chair, I sat it in the middle of our front lawn and asked Ian to sit there and wait for me. Between his calming down and his comically myopic four-year-old sense of perspective, he began to complain (in a mild way) that the chair was wet. I reassured him that the wet chair would be ok and we had more important things to worry about, and asked him to sit in the chair and wait, while I sprinted back inside to River.

She was lying on her back in her cot, looking at the ceiling, not showing any obvious distress. She’d been having a nap when it hit, so she must have only been tumbled about a bit in her cot, obviously not thrown against the sides or there would have been crying. I grabbed her and again ran for the door, and for Ian outside.

Standing on the sidewalk, Ian and I had a look around. Ian was quiet; maybe still crying, but I couldn’t say, most of my attention was for our surroundings and our family members whose situation wasn’t yet known. People were beginning to walk around the corner onto our street, and some were stopped in the middle of Cashel street. A few were crying, but most were asking each other and us if everyone was ok. A young red-headed man in mechanics’ overalls asked if there had been anyone in the house, and I fumbled out something about how I didn’t know, but I thought the house belonged to an older man. He jogged over to check on things and soon came out leading an old woman who he put in a wheelchair on the curb.

The ground continued to occasionally thump underneath us, unless it was just my legs wanting to shake and give way. I experienced that a lot throughout the day, the feeling of trembles in my legs that I didn’t know if I could fully attribute to seismic activity. I stood watching others on the street, and at some point realized hey, there’s prrrrroobably not any more class going on today at Rose’s school, and we should go get her. I knew I’d have to go in the house and get the pram and a few other things, but didn’t feel at all safe entering the house, especially with children. I asked Ian to keep sitting in the chair, and if he’d been just a little bit older I would have asked him to hold his sister as well. As it was, there was nothing for it but to go into the house with River on my hip.

Going in I was able to see what I had earlier ignored in favour of more important things, like whether or not everyone was alive and well. Entering the kids’ lounge, it was clear that wee Ian had had quite a close shave. The big heavy TV had fallen onto the picnic mat where he’d been eating his lunch not long before, coming to rest face-down against the cup of baked beans Ian had been eating. The big wardrobe in the corner had somehow fallen diagonally across the room. Where Ian was at the big moment I have no idea; I can’t even remember where he was when I picked him up. But I have the feeling, or at least the hope, that he was on the couch.

The hallway wardrobe had fallen across and smashed against the wall, and stood leaning in front of the bathroom. The heavy wardrobe in the kids’ bedroom had fallen forward and stopped itself by gouging a corner into the wall, rather than falling fully across the top half of Ian’s bed. It gave me chills to imagine what could have happened had the kids been sleeping in their room, although as it turned out, the situation for Ian had still been pretty hairy.

River’s stuff was already mostly together, so I quickly got the rest into her baby bag and stuck it in the pram. The water wasn’t working so I couldn’t get any more for her bottles; thankfully she had a mostly full one to work on for the time being.

I hustled the pram outside, and strapped River in.

I realized that what we had to do—indeed, all we could do—was go get Rose. Our phone wasn’t working, and Michelle had forgotten her cell phone at home that day, so getting hold of her wasn’t an option. And while I still entertained the idea (in a way which demonstrates just how little the reality of things had set in) that I could go inside and get the house cleaned up for us to stay there tonight, I certainly had to get Rose first.

Ian and I set off down the street with the pram, River, and her baby supplies. At this point all the water we had was the half a bottle of formula that River had leftover from her nap not long before. That was a grim reality. I snatched an empty bottle on my way out the door in case we should find a place with water, but with out own water knocked completely out, with the obvious general damage that I could already see just from my front door, and with the ground still ringing beneath our feet (in the frightening way that it seems to do after the really big ones), it should have been obvious that water, like a lot of the normal and rational things that we take for granted in our everyday lives, would be hard to find. I had to quickly kick myself mentally for not getting properly prepared after the last disaster. Perhaps, like a lot of people, I assumed that September’s unlikely event made any further unlikely events even less likely.

As we set off and turned the corner on Cashel street, we passed the builders on the lot next door, who were quickly packing their things away. In passing we enquired whether each other was ok, which was what everyone was doing at this point, mostly with complete strangers on the street. While we were still passing the building site, a child wearing the uniform of Rose’s school walked up with her parents. I asked them if the school was ok, and they said yes without even stopping; but seeing that I was headed that way, they told me to avoid the petrol station because it was “gonna blow up soon.” I didn’t know whether to trust this or not, since rumours can fly pretty far pretty fast, but I thought safer would be better so I started trying to think of a way around the petrol station.

We kept walking down Cashel for the time being. We saw someone we’d spoken to before, a very fit and rather attractive older woman with gray hair in a boyish cut, so we stopped to see if she was ok, and to see if she knew anything about the petrol station or ways to get around it. She and her neighbor talked to us for a little while, and her neighbor (whose name turned out to be Margaret) cautioned me further about walking down Cashel because of the flooding that was already beginning to be apparent.

I had been texting my father-in-law Ian, and also got a text from a random number saying that Michelle was ok. Seeing me using my phone, Margaret asked if I could text her husband and ask him to pick the kids up because she would be unable. As a dad in a similar boat she had my full sympathy, plus I could see in her face that she was badly shaken, so of course I texted the number and then tried to wait around for the response. While we waited, we talked about how I could safely get to Rose’s school and back, although truthfully my head was too scattered and my local geography was too crap for much of it to sink in. Eventually I felt time pressing down too hard on us and told Margaret that I’d have to keep walking, and wished her luck getting her kids.

Ian and I continued on our way, passing the Seventh Day Adventist church on the corner. That building is now a ruin, and I’m kind of frightened retrospectively to know that we crossed the street right there at the bus stop, and that I can’t remember how badly damaged it was at that point, meaning that I must not have been fully paying attention to that brick structure when I decided to walk us past it. Yikes. (That thing gives me the willies even now, since it’s still largely standing and you can see that it’s ready to go at the next good shake. Ready to fall down on top of the bus stop, probably. :/ )

Ian and I had to cross streams of silty water that were already flowing down the sides of the street, and further up ahead, as predicted by Margaret, there was pretty bad flooding going on. Ian was scared about jumping over the water, so the only time we crossed I had to lift him over. It suddenly occured to me that this water flowing in the streets might well be sewage, and some of it smelled that way. I felt suddenly leery of pushing the pram through it.

Confronted by flooding and the possibility of a gas explosion further up, we struck out through the neighborhood a bit to see if we could find another way to Rose’s school. It didn’t look promising, with streets going in unexpected directions or coming to dead ends, and I was beginning to feel my focus start to unravel into fear and uncertainty. At that moment I got some direction back, when I received a text from Margaret’s husband saying that he could get the kids.

As it turns out, we hadn’t gotten far; we could still see Margaret from where we stood. So I walked back over there to give her the news, and she was really relieved and grateful. Like other people that day, it seemed like her emotions (other than a basic sense of anxiety and focus) had been put away for the moment until she had some kind of certainty about her family, at which point relief let some of those other feelings out. I watched her body relax and sag as she no longer had to figure out how to get her children (and hopefully she also knew that they were ok where they were.)

I told her that we’d be on our way again, and this time made a bit of a plea for water, hoping that she might have some. I asked her if she had running water or knew of anywhere to get some water, since all I had for the baby was an empty coke bottle and I didn’t know what to do. She said she thought she had two bottles in the freezer, and she would go check for me. I went with her to her flat and she brought out one of her two frozen coke bottles for me; giving me half her entire supply out of gratitude, or pity, or just a desire to help someone. I nearly cried when she gave it to me. At that moment, it was the only water we had, and my family’s only resource other than our feet and a pram. Who knew when our situation would get any better than that, either.

We set off again, and this time I decided to take a longer route that would at least get us to Rose’s school for sure. Ian and I walked along, all of us quiet. I didn’t pay much attention to Ian, looking mostly at our surroundings, texting (grandad) Ian, and trying to plan what we would do. We passed by flooding, liquefaction, sand volcanoes, cracked pavements and sidewalks, collapsed garden walls, countless downed chimneys, and in the worst cases, houses with entire sides missing. There was no thought of stopping to help anyone, nor any immediate needs for that that I could see. People were wandering around their properties, most just looking around, nobody really setting to work at anything useful. I think we were all in a pretty unique mental state at that moment, and it didn’t leave a lot of room for caring about the everyday stuff. Others were driving down the streets, mostly much too fast. Having driven those streets since, I can see that a lot of those people (and their poor vehicles) probably had some pretty nasty surprises before too long. The roads received the kind of damage that I never could have imagined before.

Getting closer to the school, Ian said “My socks got three holes, my socks got three holes.” During normal times, Ian will say something, then repeat it endlessly (usually with different experimental inflections) until he is acknowledged, and I remember that this time it took a while to acknowledge him because I was paying attention to avoiding flooding and fallen cinderblocks. When I finally listened to Ian and looked down at his feet, I saw that the little guy had been walking for better than an hour in nothing but his socks. He never had his shoes on when we left the house, and I never thought to get them! Poor little trooper. Kind of chokes me up now to think about how he quietly and stoically made the long journey with us that day without any shoes or any complaints. What a great kid.

As we got to Aldwins Rd, traffic was beginning to stack up badly already. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would have been both because the traffic lights were out and because Eastgate and the shopping centers around it had been hit pretty hard, with entire facades fallen into the road.

Another family crossed our path coming from Rose’s school, so again I asked if things were ok there, and also asked if they knew how best to get there at the moment. They reassured me that the kids and teachers were all right, out in the courtyard, and told me a route to get there.

Ian and I eventually crossed into Linwood Park, since I remembered that there was a back entrance from there into the school. We had to cross some more liquefaction and flooding, and I was now even more concerned about the quality of that water since I knew that Ian had no shoes, so those road crossings had to be done with Ian on my hip as I steered the pram one-handed. The park was an ugly sight. The soccer field was half silt, which was the most impressive liquefaction I’d yet seen out of any of our earthquake experiences of the preceding months.

We got to Rose’s school ok, and didn’t take long to find her and her teacher. She seemed to be the only one of her class left, and sure enough, it had taken us nearly two hours to get to her (where it normally takes 20 minutes or so.) Rather than run up screaming delightedly, or crying with fear and relief, instead Rose jogged up with a little smile on her face. The kind she struggles with a little when she’s trying not to smile, such as when she’s proud of herself for something. I picked her up and gave her a big hug, which seemed to surprise her, but at that point it was as much for me as it was for her, so I just went ahead and squeezed away while she acted a bit awkward.

When I returned Rose to the ground, she told me right away that “There was a scary earthquake, and I was really brave. I did what the teacher said and went under my desk, and I did cry a little, but then I was brave and stopped crying.” I chatted briefly to her teacher, asking (among other things) if there was any working water on the campus. We tried a fountain and the answer was sadly no. Using the one bottle we had was out of the question since it was still frozen solid.

As we walked back through the park, we passed the back fence of a nursery school that was open, with all the kids and teachers out back in the garden. I spoke to them briefly—the same “Everybody ok?” that we’d heard and said so many times already that morning—and asked them if they had any water and could make us a bottle. They said sure, they had some emergency water, and I gave them River’s bottle to take away and fill. When they came back, not only had they done that for us, but they also had a cup of water and a biscuit each for Rose and Ian. Needless to say, we were very grateful.

I can’t say much about the trip home. Out biggest objectives had been attained—Rose was with us, and we had enough water to survive. Michelle was apparently on her way home, so all that was left was to get home and endure until we knew what to do. I think I sort of mentally took a vacation at that point, or at least I have no memory of doing, saying, or thinking much on that walk home.

When we got to the house, my first idea was to put the port-a-cot out back so that River could play in there and the older kids could keep her company—so that I could clean up indoors, as I first thought. I put that plan into action, but it was clear once I was indoors that staying in there to clean just could not happen. The aftershocks were so strong that it was difficult to even stay upright; as strong as the 7.1 in September, by my (and many others’) estimation. Even if it had been safe to stay indoors with that going on, or if it hadn’t scared the absolute crap out of me, it was clear that the kind of cleaning that would be required would take a lot more time and energy than I could spare with the kids on board. So instead, I grabbed a bit of available food from indoors and headed out back to wait with the kids until Michelle could come home.

The kids acted more or less normal once we were all home. Rose and Ian chatted to River and played with each other, only showing any fear when we were rocked by several sizeable aftershocks. I reassured them that we were ok and safe outside, and they believed me enough to be calm and keep playing happily. I felt a bit lost myself, and now had all my faculties free for worrying about Michelle, so that is what I did. It was hard not to picture her being caught in the worst scenarios possible. It felt like hours that we had to wait in the back yard.

Finally, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I got the kids together and moved them to the front yard so that I could keep an eye out for Michelle. Thankfully, at that very moment (or very soon thereafter) I saw Michelle come around the corner on foot. What a relief that was.

Traffic had backed up to a complete standstill outiside our house, like some kind of single-file car park. So when Michelle came around the corner on foot, besides being relieved and happy to see her, I remember thinking that she must have parked the car around the corner to get to us.

It was so good to see her. I’d been worried the whole time about her, and unable to communicate with her. The sight of her walking up in her uniform is one I’ll never forget. I said to the kids “Look, there’s mummy! Mummy’s here!” and they both shouted their glee and ran down the sidewalk to see her.

I think it was Ian who got to her first, and I remember her getting down on one knee and embracing the kids with tears in her eyes. I had tears in my eyes as well, for the first time that day. I remember guessing that hers were probably due to the same feelings that I was having; that we were ok, and we were together, and how only luck and the sturdiness of our respective buildings had ensured that any of us made it here. I think for both of us it was a moment where we let down for a second the survival-mode focus that we had both worn since the initial event, allowing us to feel some of the things we had been putting aside in favor of more pressing concerns.

Michelle and I were quick to embrace and catch up as well, each trying to fill the other in quickly on what had been going on. It turned out that Michelle hadn’t parked the car around the corner; she’d had to abandon the car 3km away and walk the rest in her work shoes over cracked roads and bridges, through silt and mud, past ruined structures and badly injured people. I immediately felt two things—admiration and disappointment. Admiration for Michelle’s feat and clearheadedness, and disappointment that the car, our salvation, was abandoned far away in the city.

Michelle will write more about her own experiences, so I won’t say much about them here. But suffice it to say, she painted a pretty grim picture of things. As I said earlier, I could tell straight away that this was a much worse event, when there were things like liquefaction and buckled roads in our neighborhood which last time had seen comparatively little destruction. Michelle’s report of what she’d heard on the radio and witnessed on her route home was far worse; major structures in the CBD collapsed and some on fire, multiple fatalities already with masonry having fallen on buses (among other things), broken bridges over the Avon not allowing traffic in or out of our part of the city, shops and homes totally collapsed or leaning dangerously over the road, bodies visible under rubble, and hundreds of severely wounded patients being operated on right in the streets and car parks around the Bealy Ave medical centres.

I was again in awe of what had driven Michelle to get home to us through such harrowing circumstances, and glad to have her safely with us.

Michelle only went in the house with me very briefly, as I recall. I quickly showed her the damage, and also showed her the lounge (pictures of which are in Michelle’s photos) where our son Ian had had a pretty narrow escape. It was clear that we couldn’t and wouldn’t stay in the house, since there was no power, water, or phones. Our belongings were strewn everywhere, many of them broken, especially in the kitchen where shattered glass and ceramic would take longer than we had to clean up. On top of the state of our house and its utilities, there were also violent aftershocks throughout the afternoon, the kind where you struggled to keep your feet and wondered if it was another Big One. In fact, we all agreed later that the strongest aftershocks of that day felt more severe than the 7.1 Darfield quake in September that had caused such widespread damage.

I had been in contact with Chris and Ian throughout the day (when the overloaded network allowed for it,) and they had offered to let our family stay with them in Timaru. When Michelle got home she got on our phones and started making more concrete plans with them, keeping the kids company in the back yard while I quickly got together the few things we’d be able to take, as well as making one last futile search for the cat who appeared to have run away.

There were several difficulties to our evacuation. Besides having to walk, we would have to walk with children, over broken and flooded streets and liquefaction, past scenes of horror (from what Michelle described.) We quickly decided to take the two prams so that we could just push the kids the whole way, saving us time and sparing them the physical effort. But the difficulty then became how we would get any of our possessions with us. We weren’t worried so much about valuables, although in the end we did take my clarinets. More pressing concerns were things like clothes for us and the kids, the bulky car seat that we would have to take with us, the port-a-cot that River would need to sleep in, etc. With both prams full of children, there’d be precious little room for any of the stuff that we would normally need to make a long journey with kids.

Michelle made the call that she and I should just leave with the kids, the clothes on our backs, my clarinets, and what little food and water we had that was portable. She didn’t want to waste even a second in leaving the house that seemed to menacing, or to get on the roads while it was still perhaps possible to exit the city. And the “perhaps” was something we registered right away; with the roads in the condition they were in, and traffic as it was, and the fact that we had almost no petrol and weren’t likely to find any, it seemed quite possible that we wouldn’t be able to leave. Having to then sleep five people in a car that only just barely fit us sitting up would have been difficult, but we wanted to at least try to get out of Christchurch and get to the safety of Timaru, even if we failed. And failing would only mean riding out the night in the car, or so we hoped; at least it wouldn’t mean having a building fall down on us.

In the end, all we brought were the two prams, the kids (obviously,) my clarinets, the baby’s bag, our coke bottle of water (now partly thawed), and some bread and buns that were handy after my trip to the shops that morning. Before leaving the house and locking it, I cleared out the fridge and freezer and left it open. I knew there was a chance that power would be restored quickly, but after events like Hurricane Ike I also knew there was a chance that we might not get into the house for days or weeks, and that the power could take that long to return, rendering any food in there (especially meat) so rotten that the house would be uninhabitable just because of the smell, and the whole fridge might need to be thrown away. We had just stocked up at the butcher’s so we were really sad to have to throw away all the meat that was supposed to have gotten us through at least another week, but I figured it was a smaller price to pay than the alternative.

After quickly sweeping our things and our kids together into the prams, we set off down the street. I had to admire Michelle again for her determination, taking to the sidewalks once again in her broken shoes on her sore feet and injured ankles without a second thought, headed for a car whose wheels may or may not be stuck in liquefaction, across bridges that were cracked earlier and now might no longer be standing. Michelle always shines the brightest when things are darkest for us. She looks at things like moving across the world with no money, or evacuating a ruined city, like achievable challenges where many of the rest of us would only see danger and chaos. I was as grateful for her strength on that day as I have ever been.

Turning the first corner, onto Hereford St., it was very clear that all was not well. Dust still lingered in the air, and further away we could see thick smoke billowing north from somewhere dead ahead in the CBD. A helicopter was buzzing buckets of water back and forth to the site.

Along our route I saw more of the broken streets and sidewalks that I had seen on my walk to get Rose, and even more of the sand volcanoes and liquefied soil. It is a strange feeling to have something that you have always taken for granted, like passable sidewalks, be suddenly taken away or thrown into question. The worst was yet to come, but just the unusual difficulty of pushing the prams along routes that had always been easy before suggested how much the city had changed in the 20 brutal seconds of a few hours before.

Having the family together, and enacting a plan that seemed achievable allowed my brain some free time to think past the immediate for the first time that day. I began to wonder, will Christchurch ever recover? How many of us will leave and never come back? How many businesses? Will the quakes never end? Will anything here ever be safe again, especially safe enough to operate and be insured and do all the things we need in a modern economy? Some of the possible answers were pretty grim. Many of the final answers are still far-off now, a month later.

Those thoughts no doubt sprung partly from the heightened state of alertness that we all had, following the quake. My general awareness of other things was sharpened too, especially what I guess you’d call social or emotional intelligence. It was like I was seeing people more clearly than before, every detail of their outer appearance as well as the cues that spoke about their inner life. Some sitting on their lawn chairs, smiling and drinking beer while people like us made our way out of the city, were more clearly idiotic than usual, laughing and grinning as though the chaos and destruction were just a great excuse for a barbecue. The worried, empty faces of people walking briskly and mostly staring fixedly ahead spoke clearly of the anxiety that all of us with separated families shared until our situations were known and we were reunited. The red teary eyes of the elderly trio drinking wine beside their car showed their fear and sense of loss, even though when the spoke to us (because we had to stop to get the prams through some thick silty sludge) their concerned voices were calmer than you’d expect.

To be continued..maybe.

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