At the supermarket in Timaru, I’m wondering if I stand out like a sore thumb in borrowed men’s cargo pants and pink girlie op shop t-shirt. My new earthquake Refugee image. I’m still in a daze nearly two weeks later. I overhear two women. “But how do you get rid of them when you’ve had enough?” says one. “They might never want to leave!” the other agrees.
This is the new me. A Quake evacuee. A Refugee. My son Oscar, 7, is a Quake Kid.
Few of us foresaw the disaster, or the exodus of 70,000 that would follow. Timaru and other parts of New Zealand have welcomed us. The reception I get when I phone Barton Rural School to temporarily enroll Oscar is kind.
I am one of the lucky ones. At home when the earthquake struck, just another aftershock, but morphing into a terrifying shudder with two violent sideways shunts that knocked me to my knees. I was powerless except to hold on to the doorway and ride it out. I prayed out loud.
I thought of all the people in town. I knew this time there would be death.
Still, as I ran outside on shaking legs, I couldn’t imagine the scale of it. My neighbour, a young mother was sitting on the ground, crying out in terror. I tried to comfort her. “Don’t worry it’s over now, it won’t happen again.”
Even as I said it, I knew the mantra I’d repeated to myself and my son after September 4 no longer worked.
Days 2-5: I’ve moved back into our empty but fully furnished Timaru house with Oscar and his brother, Finnegan, 15, who goes to Roncalli. My Christchurch friend Justine and her crew – partner, two kids, and Pluto the dog – have moved in for a few days, en route to Queenstown. Justine talks about leaving Christchurch for good. Leaving behind the death, destruction and dust for life on more solid ground. I’m having the same thoughts. It’s hard to have clarity. The adrenalin is still pumping, the shock making it hard to grasp, to absorb the numbers – the missing, the dead. It’s a disaster happening somewhere else, but it’s not – it’s Christchurch. It hurts to think any further ahead than half a day.
My street, near Beckenham School, is much closer to the epicenter this time.
My house is structurally OK, although a lot more stuff is broken than on September 4. But we are safe and one neighbour, Bernie, is a survivalist. He has everything for a civil emergency. Every day he wears desert coloured vintage army gear and drives his vintage army jeep. He rallies the neighbourhood troops over for a cup of tea.
I hurry to school to find Oscar. On the way my car wheels start to buckle. I see the power lines waving overhead. The first big aftershock.
At school, the children are on the big field where large patches of liquefaction bubble to the surface. Oscar is fine, just overly excited. He tells me he was going up the steps into his classroom when the quake happened. He held on tight to the steps.
Pupils huddle with teachers on the grass. A little girl is crying, shivering. I wrap my arms around her to keep her warm. Her parents have not arrived yet and numbers are dwindling. I find warm clothes in my car. We find out her mother was in hospital with her sister when the quake struck. Her father has gone in to find them.
Mothers come and go, some faces fearful. It’s dawning that things have gone terribly wrong. Word begins to filter through. The Cathedral is down. Two buses are crushed. Fatalities.
Day 7: I turn the television on and sit alone in my two minutes silence. Tears flow but my mind is still numb.
Day 9: Brother in law Dan takes me back to Christchurch to clean up my house. The fridge is a forest of green mould. The water and power are back on. We clear up the broken glass and liquefaction, pack clothes and put the bikes, which I don’t want stolen, on his truck. Half the neighbours I met on the night have left town.
Ninety minutes after the earthquake, back at my street, Bernie has set up a gigantic kettle on a gas stove and a tepid cup of Earl Grey comes my way. It tastes great. A teepee style dune coloured tent has been erected in Bernie’s front yard with camping chairs set around a transistor radio.
The ground bucks, often. About ten people from the neighbourhood are gathered, including a baby, a toddler, some older children and three dogs. On the radio, the gravity of the earthquake is emerging. The CTV building is down. The PGG building is down. I know of someone in the CTV building. And a job I applied for before Christmas was to have been based there. I hold my head in my hands, rubbing my eyes, trying to grasp the enormity. The adrenalin is pumping, and won’t subside for days. It’s a surreal state suspended between unreality and dawning realization. Knowing how life can take one turn or another heightens my state of shock.
Helicopters fly overhead, ambulance, fire and police sirens wail, regular aftershocks shake the power poles. I text my Timaru sisters asking for someone to come and get Oscar and me. I have no petrol and don’t know where I’d get any.
While inside checking the damage, a big aftershock shakes my house like 40 devils – chasing me outside. On September 4 I’d felt safe in my house. This time, not.
We set up a BBQ and pool the food from our defrosting freezers. Bernie’s response to the emergency – having failed to find a local civil defence unit to join – is humour. He defrosts the chicken in hot water, then jokes how it was bath water. Not coq au vin but coq au bath he quips. This goes down like a lead balloon among the women.
By now people are filtering back from town, corporate suited men walk by in bare feet. It’s taking three hours to drive what would normally take 20 minutes. Bernie’s wife arrives safely home from town in a taxi at 5pm. Strangers passing in the street swap news.
We discuss where we’ll spend the night. In tents? Our empty house in Timaru has water, electricity, even the phone. If need be Oscar and I will sleep in the car on the road. The overhead power lines look threatening but as Bernie said, they haven’t fallen yet.
Day 13: Justine is back in Christchurch, her children at schools in Queenstown and Nelson. Keeping daily contact, we assess the viability of staying in Christchurch. She’s studying at the Jazz school which is inside the red zone, and unlikely to reopen there. Another friend has already moved to Dunedin.
En masse, peoples’ dreams have been dismantled. A pall of death and destruction hangs over the future. The prospect is of picking up the pieces and hobbling on in a city landscape riddled with holes.
Those for whom Christchurch is their home town, with extended family and deep roots, will probably stay. Others, with new fragile roots, or facing too big a hurdle, might cut their losses and leave. Some have fled in fear, but most will weigh up the options. For some it will be a business decision, about jobs. Anecdotally, some recent English immigrants are going home.
For me, with one son already at school in Timaru, it’s a dilemma. It helps to know that if I leave Christchurch, a family who needs a house to rent will find one.
At the campsite, after tea, there are spots of rain. I pack a bag outside dashing in to grab random clothes, valuables. I give my solar torch and analogue phone to neighbours.
Fudge the cat, is terrified, hiding under the house, but comes out whenever I call.
My brothers in law get on the road to pick us up. They will bring water and an emergency stash of cigarettes for neighbours. Not the time to give up smoking.
Day 14: Christchurch has been my home on and off since the 1980s. My Madras Street student flat was round the corner from Piko Wholefoods, a charming two storey, 1900s red brick building. I read that Piko staff found out the building was being demolished as the demo crew moved in. Like many I worry there will be rash decisions and no heritage buildings left. Much of the death toll came from modern buildings. I turn off the lights this night and think of Piko. It’s one of many corners of Christchurch, along with the monumental ones like the Catholic Basilica, which I love. Another wave of grief hits me.
What’s hardest to reconcile about living in Christchurch is not more aftershocks, but the heartache I will feel each time I find another landmark vanished.
Seven hours after the earthquake, the rain is pouring down. Oscar’s uncles, Dale and Dan, find us in the wet and dark. They’ve stopped for water in Ashburton but the town is out. Water is now more precious than gold.
We pack Fudge into my car, which Dan drives, and join the steady flow of traffic heading south in the rain. Fleets of emergency vehicles from towns further south pass us heading for Christchurch. I keep repeating, “Got the Kid, Got the Cat. My Refugee travel list. Kid, Tick. Cat, Tick.”
Day 15: My dilemma intensifies with Beckenham School ready to reopen. Sharing the problem with friends and family there are two lines of thought. One, it’s a no-brainer to stay in Timaru. The other, maybe you would regret it. One says, there’s no hurry. I agree. I decide to stay on until March 30.
Oscar has begun expressing fear. He is having bad dreams. So am I – every night. I dream often of aftershocks. Normally a sound sleeper, every night I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.
After September 4 I would suddenly imagine the ground was moving and feel off balance. The ground in Timaru feels solid. In Christchurch, a new sense of community will soften the blow. New bars, cafes and restaurants will open. There will be an insider’s camaraderie.
I work on the top floor of a major, mostly modern two storey building. It rattled frighteningly in a major aftershock post September 4. No doorways or desks to leap under, no easy way to get outside. It’s normal to check the huge pillars and high overhead ceiling, looking for cracks. We’ve noted new cracks on the stairs after the 7.1 and laughed. What alternative is there? We have to trust the engineers. You have to trust that a big earthquake won’t happen again.
Over ten hours after the 6.3, we stop in Ashburton. Still no appetite but I have to eat. The only place open is McDonalds. Inside, there are 40 or 50 evacuees. An elderly lady in the line seems confused over the trays, waiting empty for hamburger orders. A distressed girl from Invercargill says, “Hey! She’s stealing our receipt!” The older woman steps back and says, “I’m not used to all this.” I wonder what her story is, alone in McDonalds in Ashburton at 10.30pm.
We get to Timaru at 11.30pm, meeting Justine there. We turn on the TV news and talk about people we know are in the CTV building. I barely sleep that first night. I constantly wake thinking about the people trapped in buildings. I think of one I recently met. In my mind I hold his hand all night, as if that can help.
On February 22, two words came to me. Apocalyptic. Doomed. I thought of the majestic Catholic Basilica with its fallen domes, the Cathedral with its spire on the ground. I understood how in Haiti, why people cried out in terror: “It’s the end of the world!”
Apocalyptic? For anyone in the earthquake, it describes the moment. But earthquakes give birth to new landscapes. The Port Hills are nearly half a metre higher in places since the earthquake. The earth has its own agenda, and it’s not personal.
Doomed? No. Ancient cities have come and gone, suffered war, flood, fire and earthquake. Damascus, thought to be the oldest continually inhabited city on earth, has weathered the ups and downs of millennia, earthquakes included. People carry on.
Day 17: An 8.9 earthquake and terrifying Tsunami strike Japan. Christchurch is off the front page. In my dreams, it’s Japan.