– Belfast, Christchurch, New Zealand

(Written October 2010, prior to the more devastating February quake)

I’m from Wellington, you see – I should have expected it. I should have remembered that earthquakes are no respecters of sleep or readiness. I should have remembered the quiet times are just in between. But after nine years in the quiet flatlands of Christchurch I had become complacent. After all, earthquakes were Wellington’s curse; the ground never moved here.

Or more truthfully, I can remember perhaps two or three earthquakes since I arrived, all of which were pointed out by other people, since they were so small I failed to notice them. It wasn’t like the many trembles a year (or sometimes month) that goes with living in Wellington. So to be shunted out of a deep 4.30am sleep by a magnitude 7.1 came as a genuine shock.

Six years ago, when my husband and I bought our turn-of-the-century worker’s cottage in Belfast in north-western Christchurch, I was still alert to the possibility of earthquake. I stored a dozen milk bottles’ worth of clean water. I remembered to wire a heavy bookcase to doorframes either side of its hallway spot. I remembered not to hang pictures over beds. I thought about blu-tacking our heavy ornaments – vases, figurines – to their shelves, but never quite got to it.

But I had never discussed a disaster plan with my husband, let alone rehearsed what to do.
Under great stress, people lose their ability to think clearly: perhaps as much as eighty percent of what our rational mind has learned can disappear at once, leaving only our baser instincts for dealing with immediate dangers. My father-in-law had the presence of mind to turn off the water mains and the appliances, but in this he was unusual. Other people ran out into their yard because they had heard that open ground was the safest place to be. Not one person I’ve spoken to had a disaster plan.

——-

The violence of the quake woke me immediately. I bolted out of bed, heading straight for our children. I expected my husband to be right behind me, so we could grab a child each and find a doorframe to cower in. But, thinking slightly differently (as he does), he headed straight for a doorframe and stayed there, wanting to be as alive as possible to look after everyone else when it was over.

I’m told the quake lasted forty seconds, although I’m sure it was three quarters of forever. The roaring was enormous. Our children share a room, and from it I could see their door and the dining room door opposite swinging wildly open and closed. It’s hard to say now exactly how frightened I was, but I think “badly” covers it.

Without my husband right behind me, I froze. I could not think clearly enough to decide which child to go to first, or how to get them both into a safe position. I defaulted to holding onto our five-year-old son, simply because he was sitting up when I got there. I didn’t do any of the things I’ve heard keep you safe. I didn’t take him to the doorframe; I didn’t duck and cover; I didn’t lie down with him beside or under the bed. I have taught him nothing of use about surviving an earthquake.

Our two-year-old daughter woke after several seconds of shaking and sat up, and I couldn’t move to get her. Like her big brother, she sat calmly until the shaking stopped. One of our many good fortunes has been the resilience of our kids; Miss Two hardly seems to know anything unusual has happened; Master Five thinks it’s all an adventure to be welcomed, even if “the storm” was a bit scary and lots of buildings are “broken”.

We even retained our electricity initially. In checking for damage after the first quake, we opened the front door to find the whole street alive with house lights, and half the city’s car alarms blaring. (We laughed. As you do when you’ve just escaped possible annihilation. For a moment, it was hard not to feel like we were in a blockbuster movie just after an explosion or a superhero chase.)

The second or third aftershock took the power out, and we had to improvise a nightlight for the kids. Miss Two fussed and cried with each aftershock until she fell asleep; Master Five tried to comfort her each time by calling out “it’s ok, bubba, it’s just a little one.” He surprised us with his calmness, as the earthquake house in Te Papa had scared him when we’d visited some months previously, and he was determined not to go back to Wellington because of it.

My husband, lucky man, was able to go back to sleep. Anxious, I lay in the total darkness, listening to the approaching rumble of each new aftershock until the sun came up, and then I got up to clear the mess.

——

Another of our good fortunes has been the lack of damage we’ve suffered. Sum total of items broken inside the house: one spice jar. Sum total of items broken outside the house: two chimneys. And we had to take those down ourselves, after discovering we could see daylight through them. Amazingly, given they were held together with the old sand and limewash mortar, only one brick fell down.

As my husband and his father climbed up to the roof and tossed bricks onto the lawn, something of the house’s hundred-year-old charm disappeared too. The stumps left behind seem amputated, bandaged in polythene to keep the weather out.

To begin with, we did our best not to rubberneck. We took a walk around our neighbourhood on the Saturday morning, checking on those we knew and having a sneaky look around for damage. There wasn’t much to be seen. By Sunday we’d driven a bit further afield, finding at least one road that had acquired some interesting ructions in the tarmac.

My husband was able to return to work on Monday, and discovered that their warehouse, stacked full of pumps and pump parts, had suffered amazingly little damage. He cycled there and back for the rest of the week, as road closures caused lengthy traffic jams along his usual route.

By Thursday, the bad weather had given us all cabin fever, but this wasn’t the reason we started driving around to find the damage we’d heard about. We were now part of a major historical event; it was weaving into our personal histories, and we needed to hear other stories, see other buildings, move the bruised landscape of Christchurch city from our imaginings into the recordings of our senses. We would have no compelling stories to offer, either now or to future listeners, without contextualising our own tiny experience into the fullest picture we could manage.

And, besides, we didn’t want to have seen the damage only through media coverage.
We were reluctant to intrude on anyone’s privacy, though, so we looked around the public buildings. These belong to all of us; once they have been fenced off and the debris swept or bulldozed aside, once public safety is assured, we all have a right to look and grieve over them in our own way.

—-

I’ve learned a lot from this disaster. I’ve learned that the soil structure can strongly affect the outcome for the people living on top of it. I’ve learned about liquefaction and sand geysers. I’ve discovered that the disturbance of the earth’s plates can affect the inner ear; for days I have felt like I’m walking on a boat, and it seems I’m not the only one.

I’ve learned that pets are not necessarily the quake predictors they are said to be. My sister-in-law’s young Labrador woke up as each quake hit, then just went back to sleep. (Clearly this is much less important to him than the arrival of his dinner.)

I’ve learned about miracles. Haiti’s quake killed an estimated two hundred and thirty thousand; Christchurch’s killed none. Parts of the Port Hills shed rocks ranging in size from “ouch” to house-sized; not a single home was touched. Most of our beautiful heritage buildings have suffered damage, but many will be able to be fully restored. And we’ve gone from rescue to recovery in just one week.

I’ve learned that human reserves of fortitude are deep but not unlimited; the continuing aftershocks have for many been harder to cope with than the initial quake. Fear, hyper-vigilance and sleep deprivation have stretched many people’s inner resources to paper thinness (my husband is only half-joking when he refers to it as “the natural disaster that keeps on giving”).

Another thing I’ve learned about, and this one has been especially important, is the community of survivors. We have all been through a terrible and terrifying event, and we find a particular kind of comfort in listening to each other’s stories of destruction and loss. Strangers chat freely, overhear, join in. Most listen openly to each other and interruptions are few. And no matter how dreadful the loss we discuss, we come away relieved all over again that we are still alive.

As you might expect during difficult times, there has been a lot of bad behaviour. The number of domestic violence incidents has risen drastically, as has the number of burglaries. Stress is causing many to verbally lash out at others over small irritations. Some are using the quakes as cover for taking time off work to play or party.

But greater kindness is present too. After the first quake, neighbours checked on or rescued each other, or offered blankets or company to keep away the cold. Many whose houses are still intact are offering rooms and door keys to friends, or sometimes strangers. A good friend in Wellington sent us a “ration pack for the soul,” and I can say for certain that chocolate biscuits have never tasted so good.

Another dear friend in the Waikato said she thought this would be a great wake-up call for the rest of the country, that more people might now stock up with emergency supplies and equipment. I don’t feel quite so hopeful. Memory is short. Gisborne was rocked in 2007 and suffered both damage and casualties; Edgecumbe’s big shake in 1987 was seriously destructive. How many of us who can remember these were properly prepared for this one?

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