– North New Brighton, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

4 September 2010. I remember vaguely thinking that the noise on our roof sounded like hundreds of heavy footed birds landing on the corrugated iron. Then there was a roaring sound, and terrible shaking which got progressively worse and worse. Canterbury’s 7.1M earthquake at 4.35am was in top two most frightening experiences of my life (the other being the London bombings of July 2005). Remarkably my husband Steve, and myself, have come through both experiences unhurt.

My brain switched to automatic. I remember thinking immediately about my 4 year old daughter in the next room, simultaneously yelling, “GET UNDER THE BED! GET UNDER THE BED! IT’S AN EARTHQUAKE” as everything around us pitched and rolled and crashed, and thinking, “you can’t help her if the ceiling falls on you”. It took an interminable time for the violence to end, and was strangely reminiscent of an awful bone shaking night train we’d taken in Europe – freezing cold, confined space, ear splittingly roaring sounds, and the sensation of tearing down hill at a tremendous and terrifying speed. As soon as the initial shock stopped I was on my feet, “I’m going to get Iris”, and said to Steve, “get some clothes, grab your phone.” Our girl’s room is right next to ours, but it felt like an eternity to get there. It was black as pitch in the hall. I remember that as I passed the light switch in the hall, I flicked it. The power was out. “The power’s out”, I said, “the water’s probably out too.” The quake had pulled her sticky door completely shut. There was silence within. When I found her in the dark, she was sitting up in her bed, completely quiet. She said, “What’s going on Mummy?”, and once my arms were around her, she started to cry.

We were unprepared with no batteries for a radio, no emergency ‘get through’ kit to lay hands on. Remarkably the house was fine. We went to the kitchen to shelter under the oak table and to be near the door. Thank goodness for Twitter and Steve’s iPhone. Once we discovered the quake lay inland we relaxed about the possibility of a tsunami (living near the beach as we do). We didn’t think to sit in the car to listen to the radio. We couldn’t get the car out anyway because the manual override failed (he used his iphone to search for an online manual). My parents were en route to the airport at 4.35am. Neither of them had organised global roaming for their phones, I knew they didn’t have them in pocket, but sent texts anyway.

Running on nerves I started filling bottles with water from the taps until it ran out. I immediately felt terribly thirsty. When it was light we BBQed bagels for breakfast. Steve walked to the local shops to see if the BP was open so we could buy batteries. It was closed but he chatted with a couple of neighbours. Our landline relied on electricity too, so that wasn’t working. Then Steve remembered the old phone in the garage, which was when my Mum called. They were ok. We set up an emergency loo. Solids went in a pit outside away from the vege garden. There was no flushing inside.

We headed to Mum and Dad’s about 10.30am with a water tank to fill from their artisian well. It was dirty but we’d use it if we had to. They said they didn’t hear the quake as they were in an airport shuttle at 4.35am, but the shuttle swerved all over the road and the didn’t know what was going on. Then there was an incredible light arcing through the sky. They thought it was a transformer blowing up. Apparently it was earthquake lightening.

Steve and I had only arrived home 3.5 hours prior to the quake, having been out at a friends for dinner. Strangely we’d been talking about emergency situations. On our arrival at home I looked up at the incredibly clear, warm, heavy sky and wondered aloud at how long it had been since we’d seen a brilliant sky like that. Mum and Dad told us the moon had appeared pink in the sky at 4am when they stopped to pick up a friend on their way to the airport. As they approached the door, an audio sensor activated and played a Beach Boys song, “Good Vibrations”.

By the time we got home from Mum and Dad’s our water was back on but I couldn’t sit still. I kept going to the loo and constantly moved around the house collecting bits and pieces together for an emergency box; a bag full of blankets, sleeping bags, towels and jackets; a chiller bag full of non perishable food. The jug was constantly boiling water and I filled every storage vessel I could find. By god we were going to be prepared if it got worse.

At 3pm I headed out in the car to find an open supermarket. It was incredibly strange seeing people out doing normal things, like running and walking their dogs. I found it upsetting driving over cracked roads. Something about the earth opening up has always made me feel disturbed and nauseous. Parklands was only accepting cash. Pak ‘n Save Wainoni was cordoned off by large men in high vis’ gear. They weren’t letting people into the carpark. I ended up in Brighton where the Countdown had just re-opened. People were dazed but in good spirits. I stocked up on things we didn’t need, but that the emergency box did.

I don’t remember much of the evening except being scared to go to bed, and getting more and more tense as the evening wore on. I was huddling on the couch when I realised I hurt. My knees were sore, my left shoulder and right arm. I had carpet burns on my knees and my shoulder and arm were quite bruised. I had no memory of it happening.

The following days and few weeks were really emotionally harrowing for everyone. I felt quakes when there were none – like many other people, our internal equilibrium having been shaken. It felt like being constantly at sea. Our daughter’s kindy was one of three damaged and closed for a couple of weeks. Iris drew a couple of pictures, and told me that when she’d woken up that morning, she’d “thought a big monster was coming down the hall.”

One day I was at a coffee shop, Jungle Patrol, with a friend and our kids. None of us had had a decent sleep in 3 weeks, and we were feeling fragile. I could see how tired and worn out the owner of the shop was. Everyone was just trying to keep going and to be as calm and considerate as they could. My friend and I both ended up having a good cry. The constant state of fright and flight was exhausting and draining. It’s not an experience I ever want to go through again. But it has been amazing. We found other people’s company a comfort and enjoyed the comraderie of the Twitter community. We’ve a sense of awe for our City and our Regional Councils for their incredible resilience, and pride at the way the community has got out there an helped each other.

Six weeks later we’re still having aftershocks, some over 4M which is disconcerting. There have been over 1900 aftershocks, it’s almost unbelieveable, I had no idea it was normal to experience so many.

On the 19th October at 11.32am we had a large, violent 5M aftershock only it was 10km closer and only 9km deep. As I sat at the kitchen table the whole house wobbled around me.

On the 24th October at 3.13pm there was a aftershock of the coast of Waimari Beach, very close to where we live. To me this was the strongest quake since the 7.1M. We lost power at home for about a half hour. I was home by myself, the family were in Dunedin, so I thought if there was going to be a tsunami I might need to get the ladder out of the garage and climb on the roof. I’ve since discovered that a tsunami would probably need at least a 7M quake to be activated :D

The date for EQC claims from the 7.1M quake closed 2 days ago on the 4th December. Everyone in CHCH has been encouraged to make a claim. We’ve put in ours, for what it’s worth. Our 1940s stuccoed weatherboard bach has held up to the battering of over 3500 aftershocks remarkably well.

As a librarian, it’s heartening to see people sharing their stories, via the Christchurch City Library, Canterbury Earthquake Kete, or via the Press’s Canterbury Earthquake 2010 Crowdsourcing Project, and Earthquake map. It gives people a opportunity to download their experiences and feelings, to really feel part of the community in a real and virtual way. Hopefully it’ll help, in a small way, for everyone to get past this, and for us all to remember how this affected us.

[First published here: http://sarahlibrarina.tumblr.com/post/2110761787/shook-up-in-north-new-brighton-4-september-2010]

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