Bridge St looking towards South Brighton

UPDATE October 4, 2010 10.35pm: We’ve just been hit by the 2nd largest aftershock since the main quake, and it has been a full month since the initial rattle. A 5.0 hit 30km east of Darfield (971-999 Springs Rd, Weedon to be exact), 12km deep, at 10.21pm. The house swayed like a 6 year old who had had one too many fantas, and I was downstairs so imagine it was worse upstairs. It was followed shortly after by a 4.0. There don’t seem to be any immediate reports of danger but according to Twitter sources (always first) sirens have been heard. I hate to think what it’s done to already weakened homes and building around the place – glad I got my EQC claim in last night.

At 4.35am on Saturday morning, September 4th 2010, a 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand with the epicentre located around 30km south-west of the central city and around 10km deep. To highlight what a major quake this was, the devastating quake that killed almost a quarter of million people in Haiti was only 7.0 so this was actually bigger. Fortunately, buildings are a little stronger round here. But despite there being no casualties (aside from a Lemur at the local zoo and an elderly man who had a cardiac arrest) it has still been a devastating quake, and we’re only starting to understand the full extent of the damage.

Of course, all 430,000 residents of Christchurch will have their own unique yet oddly similar tale to tell of the events that unfolded on Saturday morning, and many of them have been related in the media. My story is probably not a lot different from many others and you’re welcome to add your comments below to add some diversity to this experience that will no doubt be retold often over the months to come.

Early start

I guess one thing about earthquakes is that they don’t run to a timetable. You don’t get to choose when it arrives. So 4.35am probably seemed like a good a time as any for the tectonic plates when they got their groove on. We were up in a hurry but then I froze thinking ‘now what?’ Like a deer in the headlights all that school training counted for nothing, mostly because I had no desk to dive under. I didn’t even remember the ‘triangle of life‘ so just stood there thinking ‘will it stop’ or ‘will I soon be falling through to the lounge below with the house falling on top of me’. It was the scariest few seconds, with the house swaying like a drunken sailor, feeling completely helpless and at the mercy of the elements. You quickly realise you’re a speck of dust in the great scheme of things. It’s very humbling.

Fortunately it stopped soon enough and we dashed downstairs, and it was about this point it started to dawn on us that we were unprepared for a major disaster. Because the power had gone out, it was essentially pitch black so there we were desperately scratching around for a torch, only to find cases containing dead batteries. Typical. Fortunately cellphones were close at hand providing light and a link to the outside world. We couldn’t remember where we’d hidden the emergency go box (it’s actually really hard to think straight when you’ve just been shaken like a monkey up a tree!) and discovered we didn’t have a radio, which would have been very useful. Someone texted me about evacuating due to a tsunami risk but we felt that it was most likely too close to create any waves, and listened to the radio in the car to have that confirmed. However there was a steady stream of cars heading out across the estuary who obviously wanted to err on the side of caution.

So there we were, dazed and confused, not really sure what to do next, sitting in the car trying to keep warm and wondering what the ensuing days would have in store.

Soothing sunshine

Like a silver lining, the day soon dawned, warm and clear blue skies, a welcome relief. Still without power or water there wasn’t much we could do apart from text family and friends to check in and let them know we were ok. After some breakfast and coffee (still had gas cooking – yay) we decided to take the dogs for a walk and survey the damage in the area. After a beautiful stroll along the beach we headed up Bridge St, where the force of the earthquake was evident, rendering the bridge (and main exit for Southshore residents) unpassable. Blocked off to traffic, we ambled down the middle of the road along with lots of other sightseers, keeping an eye on the little dogs to make sure they didn’t fall down the cracks.

Crystal got called in to work (part of the official civil defence CCC response team) so she ventured into the city centre, where damage was extensive, particularly to older brick buildings. Claims of looting were greatly exaggerated but I guess the media need a story so without any fatalities, looting probably seemed like the next most exciting thing. To the media’s credit they were probably the best place to go for the latest information, even if it was dramatised.

More quake photos

I spent the day making contact with everyone else and got together in the afternoon with friends to make sure everyone’s needs were being looked after. It seemed like everyone, apart from a few, had got off quite lightly and were in good spirits. Personally I was a little jaded and grumpy from being woken up so early, but my problems were minor in comparison to others. I did a quick reconnaissance around the neighbourhood to survey the damage and headed home to start thinking about how we were going to cope without water or power. Fortunately by the time I got home, water had been restored so that was one less thing to worry about. Power would still be a whole day away.

Cold nights

At night the loss of power is definitely a lot more noticeable (so were the stars) but fortunately the warm sunny day meant the house had a bit of stored heat. Extra clothes, blankets and hot water bottles kept us cosy until the next day, and I had been able to recharge all our batteries at mums place earlier in the day so we had plenty of torches and camping lanterns.

Even though the constant aftershocks were unsettling I found I was able to sleep through most of the night, and well into the morning. Crystal very nicely cooked omelettes, made coffee and we sat in bed listening to some Nat King Cole – all necessary elements of the coping mechanism. I heard of one guy mowing his lawns shortly after the earthquake – strange as it may seem it’s possible it was how he coped with stressful situations, trying to return life to normalcy as soon as possible.

Actually I didn’t do a lot on Sunday, I was so tired I slept most of the day. I really wanted to do something and make use of the downtime but just couldn’t think what, or even how without power. Ventured out mid-afternoon and traffic was bad, which was half-expected and half-not. Sure there’s now only one exit out of New Brighton but on the other hand where was everyone going?

Returning to normal

Life in this modern society does seem to come to a crashing halt without electricity, so I was particularly grateful when the power came back on around 1.30pm on Sunday, about 36 hours after the blackout. Everything swung back into action and the heatpumps were returning the house to ‘room’ temperature. Phew. The only thing now was the warning about water being possibly contaminated and supermarkets being overwhelmed by panicking and ill-prepared residents. I think I can cope with that. Aside from that, everything was returning to normal. Except for those darn aftershocks. They’re still going as I write this, many around 4 on the Richter scale. I thought they were supposed to finish 48 hours after the first jolt. Obviously not.

But I think going forward the key will be trying to get things back to normal as much as possible. That will be easier for some than others but I think everyone no matter how bad their situation can get some routines back in place, even if it’s just for the sake of the kids.

Lessons learned

  • Be prepared is an overused expression but one that hits you over the head when a disaster actually hits. We will be making sure the kit is not only fully stocked but somewhere very accessible.
  • Having a radio is really important, and preferably one that doesn’t rely on batteries (which are often dead flat in an emergency!). The car radio covered us this time but that might not always be an option.
  • While there are official organisations like the civil defence operating, the best sources of information are the media, who seem to make more of an effort to find out what’s going on rather than waiting for something to be ‘official’. Twitter is always a ready source of information, but not always reliable. Apparently it’s best if you use the official hashtag: #eqnz. At least now you know.
  • Emergency services are just as confused as us – Sure they’ll be standing around in high-vis vests and looking official but the truth is they often know as little as we do and are just as scared and confused, so don’t expect they’ll be your knight in shining armour the next time there’s a disaster.
  • Be patient – Of course we all want power and water to be restored NOW but the reality is that so does everyone else and there are only so many hours in the day. We just have to trust they’re doing the best they can to restore services as fast as possible – although it would be nice if they had someone updating an official website with up-to-date ETAs.
  • Here are a few lessons someone else got out of the quake…

Looking back it has been an adventurous and scary rollercoaster and it’s not over yet. At least next time we might be a little better prepared.

I survived the Christchurch Earthquake 2010

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