Mega-enormous apologies for not posting in so long. You may be aware that on Tuesday 22nd February the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Well, that's my home town.
...hence the non-contact for a little while (for almost two weeks we didn't even have the power on at home).
My family and friends and I have been absolutely blessed, in that we all survived, as did our friends and neighbours. However, almost 200 people were killed, and in a city of only 400,000, that number feels huge.
The earthquake hit at 12:51pm, and I was at home, having just fixed lunch. As I walked around the dining table, a huge jolt hit the house. If you haven’t experienced a large earthquake, imagine that someone was shaking the house from side to side, as if a giant child was shaking a wrapped gift to see what was inside.
At the first sharp jolt, I dropped my plate and dove (with, I'm sure, oodles of dignity) under the dining table. It is an old-fashioned, wooden table, and – I now know – incredibly stable. However, at the time I would have leapt to safety under a cheap Ikea side table, for all the thought I put into it. Living on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" we were drilled as school children to get under a desk or table at the first sign of a violent earthquake. Little did I know how automatic the response had become!
The initial shock lasted about one minute – a relatively short amount of time in retrospect, but when you are crouched under a table, listening to the terrifying rumble of the earth and waiting for the roof to fall in, it’s an eternity. The thing about disasters is, of course, that when you’re told about them later, you know the person telling you about it survived. So it’s hard to express, without melodrama, the very real and immediate feeling of danger that you get in the moment: the increasing belief that you will shortly be dead. (Actually, I truly hope that you all will never really understand this feeling!)
There were three reasons that the earthquake in Christchurch inflicted so much damage and killed so many. Firstly, the city was hit by a sharp P wave. There are two kinds of earthquake waves: S waves and P waves. S waves are undulating ones; they’re spooky and lasting but tend to do minimal damage. P waves, on the other hand, are the sharp jolting ones – over fairly quickly but inflicting maximum damage.
The second was that it was fairly shallow – it originated just five kilometres below the surface. That meant that there was very little land between the originating point and the ground under our feet – virtually nothing to dampen the killer blow.
Thirdly, it hit during lunch hour on a work day – a time when most people in the central business district were out and about: office workers getting lunch, tourists visiting our old churches, mothers pushing strollers while they did their shopping. It was the kind of scene that Hollywood loves to throw an asteroid or a Cloverfeld-esque monster at – except that our natural disaster was real.
My husband, a University lecturer, was on the fifth floor of the University Law School building – a building built one dampers and designed to sway its way through any earth movement. The University, like most of the city was evacuated. However, for several hours I had no idea what had happened to him, and he had no idea whether I was alive or dead, because the city was basically incommunicado for most of the day: Many cell phone towers were knocked out during the quake, and the flurry of calls and texts after the quake meant that the system almost immediately became unviable. (Services were so stretched that once rescue efforts started, citizens were asked not to use our cell phones, so that the minimal residual network could be used to communicate with people trapped in buildings. And it was worth it - there were some trapped people, who were found only because they were able to send text messages to the Search and Rescue teams.)
So it was three harrowing hours, until he got home, before I knew that hubby was alive. In the meantime, I was sitting in the car, listening to the radio to hear anything I could about the effects of the earthquake. During that time there were several large aftershocks. Although I was happy to be out of the house, sitting in a bucking and rocking car is no cup of tea either! The radio station had very little substantial news in the immediate aftermath of the quake – it was relying on Christchurch people calling in. I can tell you, it’s pretty surreal to hear a panic-stricken radio caller say, “Oh my god – it’s another one!” as you yourself are gripping, white knuckled, on to your seat, and wondering whether this one is going to be the biggest one yet.
By the time my husband had finally gotten home, I had established that my immediate family and close friends were safe, thanks to the sporadic text messages that got through. We relaxed a little, but it was the bliss of ignorance – with no electricity, we had no way of seeing the devastation that had swept through our city.
In fact it was only the next day, after we had navigated the ripped-up roads to Rangiora (a satellite town where my brother lives), that we realised how bad the city was. The first TV pictures we saw seemed like shots of a war zone. Churches were ripped down. Large office buildings had crumbled, trapping workers in their rubble. Multi level parking buildings had collapsed, sandwiching cars and people. Hills had slid and crumbled, throwing van-sized boulders though houses and killing hikers. Our beautiful cathedral, a beloved icon of the city, had lost its tower, crumbling onto parishioners and visitors.
Emblematic of the terror and loss were two multi-storey buildings which had pancaked, crushing and trapping hundreds of people inside. Although the heroic Urban Search and Rescue teams rescued dozens of people from the rubble, even weeks afterward there were many more bodies still to be recovered - and some may never be recovered.
A week later, we were back in our house, albeit with no power or water. It wasn't until two weeks after the quake that we got our power back on. Of course, I consider that we have little to complain about: our house is still standing. My loved ones are still alive. This is such a blessing, considering that the number of dead and missing is more than 200, and that thousands are now living in welfare centres because their homes are so badly damaged they are unlivable.
What I have been most impressed by – overwhelmed by, even – is the strength of humanity alice in the city. Our neighbours have rallied together. Total strangers are helping one another. Restaurants – those that are still able to function – are offering free food and water. Thirteen thousand people have joined the University-run “Army”, doing everything from clearing silt to bringing around baked goods to people in need. This disaster has brought out people’s love for their city, their sense of community, and a good dose of humour.
Christchurch people were still recovering from the shock of our disaster when we heard about the huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Our hearts break for our North Pacific neighbours, who also live on the "Ring of Fire" and have paid such a huge price. We grieve especially for the brave Japanese Search and Rescue teams, who came to Christchurch to help rescue our loved ones from the rubble, only to return to much worse devastation in their own country.
Back home, it's been almost a month since our quake. Today the city came together on a public holiday for a memorial to the dead, injured, and those who have been left behind to carry on. The service was attended by HRH William, Prince of Wales, as well as other heads of state, church leaders and dignitaries. It was an emotional and moving ceremony. I think I'm not alone in saying that it helped me to feel that we can finally begin to move on, and rebuild our city. We'll never forget the people who were killed, and it will be a long time before our beautiful city recovers from her scars. But if there's one thing I've discovered about my fellow citizens, it's that they're strong. Resilient. Resourceful. Kind.
Today, I am extremely proud to live in Christchurch. Watch this space - something wonderful will rise from the ashes of our city.
PS There are many, many pictures online of the Christchurch earthquake aftermath, but this feature I especially recommend. The "Before/After" feature shows the damage to our beloved heritage buildings...