Our story began, like so many others, in the early hours of 4th September 2010. At around 4.30 I was shaken awake by an earthquake, the forerunner to what was to come. As it subsided a stronger, much more powerful earthquake hit, so severe that I held onto the sides of my bed so as not to be thrown out of the bed. I could hear the loud clanging of the gas canister banging against the side of the gas heater enclosing it and the constant chiming of the grandfather clock as it rocked from side-to-side. To this day it is those sounds that I remember most clearly when I think of the September earthquake.
That earthquake also subsided and my 80 year old mother called out from the adjoining room, asking if I was all right. I reached for the bedside light, intending to go to see how she was. There was no power and the room was pitch black, no light, of course, from the street outside. Getting out of bed, I could not find my bearings, nothing in the room was where I expected it to be. Eventually as my eyes adjusted I could make out where the window was and from there I was able to find the door. A small bookcase had fallen across it, I pushed the fallen books out of the way, put the bookcase in the upright position, and went to check on mum. Outside we heard our neighbour calling out to ask if we were okay.
Having had the good sense to stay in bed, mum was fine. As our congregation elders were always stressing that we needed to be prepared for an emergency, she had a transistor radio and a torch beside her bed. We listened to the national programme and to our surprise learnt that the quake was centred near Christchurch. Taking the torch I went to check on the house. In the lounge the grandfather clock had toppled over, breaking an old sound system. The clock, sound system and one plate on the Welsh dresser were all the damage sustained.
Outside there was a hissing sound, the garden was swamped and I thought it had been raining hard and a pipe had burst. I work for solicitors, I was very familiar with liquefaction, I knew what it was, but when I saw it, I didn’t recognise it. It didn’t even occur to me.
The 4th September was a beautiful day, as were many of the days when a major earthquake occurred. In mid morning my two younger nieces and their husbands arrived, and helped me clear the liquefaction. We suffered much less liquefaction than our neighbours – on a small part of the eastern side of the property (nearest Horseshoe Lake) only. We cleared it within a few hours, although remnants remained for some time, but it was the only time we experienced liquefaction or ground cracking. However the street, and our neighbours, did experience liquefaction several times.
On Sunday, 5th September, a candidate for the forthcoming local elections called. She told me that EQC were in the area and there would be a meeting on the corner of Queensbury and Liggins Streets at 3 pm that day. I went and on that day, one day after the first earthquake, I learnt what would ultimately be our fate.
Present at that meeting was our local MP, Lianne Dalziel, who was to work tirelessly on our behalf in the coming months and years. As they told the story, Lianne had pulled into a local petrol station and been told by staff there that our neighbouring street, Kingsford Street, was a disgrace and nobody had been to see them. She went there, said she “thought she was in Bosnia” and notified the EQC. They came immediately, and held the impromptu meeting that day. The EQC man told us that in cases of major earthquakes, entire blocks might be written off, your house might be fine and your neighbour’s not, but the remediation process would involve writing off the entire block. At first, he said, talking of experiences elsewhere, people stayed, not wanting to leave, then gradually people would go, until only those with nowhere to go remained. Looking at us, he said, there did not appear to be many who would have nowhere to go. It was a shock to us, something that we struggled to absorb, and never again, until we were red zoned, would anyone in authority admit that our area might go. Subsequently at a more formal meeting the mayor, Bob Parker, would refuse to commit himself, refuse to even discuss the possibility, and other EQC people would say when challenged “we don’t know, some of your homes may be saved”, but ultimately none of them were.
We received another hint of what was to come when our house was inspected by a representative of our insurance company, who at that time were still supportive of policy holders. EQC accessed damage to our house and comments after September at under $9000. I asked the representative from Stream, acting for our insurer, how his own home had fared. He told me that it had been completely destroyed. It felt dreadful that he was out inspected our relatively undamaged house while his own home was gone. When he left, I wished him all the best, he thanked me and wished me the same. Something in his expression told me he did not think things would go well for us.
In Horseshoe Lake we received help after the September earthquake, and even more so after the February quake, from so many organisations – from the Salvation Army, Student Army, “Farmy Army”, Red Cross, the Rangiora Express, Ngai Tahu, Presbyterian Support, St Margaret’s College. We did not have water, power or sewage for weeks, or even months after February 2011. Nevertheless we coped well – artesian wells sprang up all over the Horseshoe Lake. Neighbours had them tested and they were found to be pure. Portaloos appeared quite quickly both in September and February. We all had our little gas fires for camping. A dairy at the end of the street stayed open. We checked in on our neighbours at least once a day. Later we would have block parties to farewell those of our number as one by one left.
My sister and brother-in-law lived in Bexley, which was less badly affected than Horseshoe Lake in September, but hit hard in February. Bexley did not receive the help we did, they had little contact with the aid organisations. Later, Bexley would have its facilities cut off very quickly – the mail would arrive weeks late – bills would be overdue before they were even delivered, policing was non-existent. A work colleague moved out of her undamaged home in Bexley over a year before we left our area, not as she said, because of the condition of her home, but because the area no longer felt safe and she feared for her husband’s mental health. In many cases, it seemed to be the men who suffered more, possibly because they felt they had failed to protect and provide.
My sister, brother-in-law and mother stayed with my youngest niece and her husband in Redwood for several months. They would move back just before the 13th June earthquakes, only to return to Redwood almost immediately after when their badly damaged house was finally written off.
But for us the major destruction in June 2011 did not come on the 13th June, it arrived on the 22nd June. On that day the government announced that it would not just write off blocks of property, as the EQC representative had warned on the 5th September 2010. It would write off entire suburbs, or large parts thereof. My sister and I watched the announcement together at her home in Bexley, but were unable to get on the CERA website to see whether our homes were safe. My sister believed both our areas would be written off, I feared hers would be but as our home had sustained very little damage, and our surrounding areas, although more damaged, were still in much better condition than Bexley, I felt our area would survive. My brother-in-law, who had got onto the CERA website before it crashed, telephoned with the news – “our house in Bexley – gone, your house in Horseshoe Lake – gone”.
We knew almost immediately we had to go, certainly as soon as the red zone offer document arrived – it posed the question what would happen if we did not accept the offer. Services may be cut off, it said – we could go off grid, use solar power, we thought, use post office boxes, septic tanks – we would be okay. We might not get insurance the offer document said – well the insurance companies decided as soon as the red zones were announced that they had no red zone clients – phone calls, letters, all went unanswered. The insurance companies’ policy was to ignore us as much as possible, bully us when they did have to communicate, all in an effort to “encourage” us to accept the government offer. As Lianne Dalziel mentioned in parliament in regard to her own situation, the insurance companies now knew our bottom line. Finally the offer said the government might compulsorily acquire our properties at a later date at the then market value – could we afford to do that, unfortunately in our case we could not. Reluctantly, we had to accept the offer.
As we prepared to leave our home, in times of black humour I would sing “Anatevka” from “Fidler on the Roof” – a musical set against a Russian pogrom where the Russian authorities drive Jews from their home village. As they leave Anatevka the Jews talk about where they would go – to Jerusalem, to America. So it was with us – “we have a daughter in Nelson, we’re going there”; “I grew up in the Bay of Plenty, we have family there, we’re going there”; “our son has a farm near Rangiora, he is having a house built for us on his land”; we are building in Lincoln, in West Melton, in Rangiora, and for many of us – our house was undamaged, we will go where we can afford. I asked my mother where she wanted to go – Burwood, she said. We had lived in Burwood since we moved down to Christchurch 40 years ago so my mother could be near her own parents. But Burwood was no longer in our price range. We too moved away. If we stayed in Christchurch, I wanted to stay in the east – the east needed support, it needed visionaries – and while I was not one, at least I could support those that were – it needed goodwill, and financial support, and it does still. Like many red zoners, we moved to within 5 kms of our former home.
I think for most of us our new neighbourhoods have welcomed us. We have grown to like and appreciate our new homes, our new environments, and we are grateful for the welcome. But we remember and mourn our old homes, and so we should. So many people invested their dreams and their hard work in the area – the Liberal politician who lived there in the final years of the 19th century, the early farmers, the young men who went to World War I and died before reaching the age of 20, whose names are remembered in the street names that will soon, also, be no more; those who came to the area after the second world war when houses were being built for heroes, and then again the further influx when the market gardens were sold off in the 1970’s and more houses built – the time when we arrived. We remember our neighbours – teachers, nurses, small businessmen, young, middle aged and elderly. We remember you all, and this is not just my quake story, it’s our quake story.