Christchurch Quake, 10 years on

My 9 and 10-year-old students filed into the room today. 

“Where’s William?” one asked.

“He’s gone to the earthquake memorial,” I answered.

“What earthquake?”

I explained about the series of quakes Canterbury had endured, starting in September 2010 and including the one on 22 February 2011 that killed 185 people. These children had been babies at the time, or not even born yet.

“People died?” Fear shone in the girl’s eyes.

“Was it scary?” asked another child.

I paused, the memory of that day and the days after it playing through my mind.

“Yes. It was scary.”

“Even more scary than Covid? More scary than lockdown?”

Well … different.

These children were born into a quake-damaged city. A broken Christchurch is all they’ve ever known. They do not understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’ we adults do. They grew up in a landscape slowly settling into quiescence, and don’t know the sudden rupture of the solid foundation of life beneath them.

Or perhaps they do. Covid has shaken their world as much as the Canterbury quakes shook ours ten years ago. Perhaps they are not as physically rattled as we were, but their lives are disrupted, and life as they knew it is gone.

Ten years on from the quakes, the city’s scars are still visible. Empty lots remain where buildings once stood; the cathedral stands half-collapsed; in some places, shipping containers still protect passersby from the risk of building collapse.

But the quakes gave us opportunities to rethink the city. We now have more green space along the river. We have a spectacular central library that serves as a community hub. We have the Margaret Mahy playground, the High Street eateries, pocket parks, art and community spaces that didn’t exist pre-quake. We’ve got the Dance-O-Mat!

Covid hasn’t brought down our physical structures, but it has devastated social structures worldwide. It has shone a light on our ‘essential’ workers, highlighting that many are the most underpaid and overexploited people in society. It has emphasised the critical roles played by schools and preschools, whose staff are historically underpaid and poorly supported. It has highlighted the importance of local communities, science-based decision making, and disaster planning. It has reminded us painfully of the imbalance in gender roles and expectations in our society.

We need to allow Covid to change us as much as the earthquakes did. We need to let it drive us to rethink our values, our society, our expectations. Encourage us to find new ways to live our lives, to reflect upon those things we should be valuing more.

In the days and weeks after the February quake, help poured into Christchurch, much of it grassroots efforts by individuals or small groups. As a community, we remembered what we had perhaps forgotten in our daily rush and bustle. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata! The people, the people, the people.

Disaster allows us to rise again, remade. Let us remember the lessons of the past as we move forward and envision a post-Covid world in which we remember what is most important. 

A Shaky Decade

Today marks 10 years since we were shaken out of bed at 4.35 am by the M7.1 earthquake that started the Canterbury earthquake series. Those quakes ultimately took 185 lives and changed downtown Christchurch forever.

A decade on, the scars remain—half-crumbled buildings, hastily repaired roads, a generation of anxious children …

At the time of the first quake, I knew my relationship with the earth below my feet had changed, but I couldn’t know how lasting that change would be.

Ten years later, I’m still primed for earthquakes, sensitive to every vibration. If a big truck rumbles down the road, I have to pause until I’m sure it’s not a quake. Every distant train is a quake until proven otherwise. And large construction works set me on edge.

I have no trust in buildings any more, especially multi-storey ones. Just three days ago I was in Christchurch’s new central library, Tūranga, when I felt a tremor through my feet. Tūranga was constructed post-quake and includes the latest technology for earthquake resistance. Any vibrations I was feeling were likely coming from inside the building, not outside—someone running down the stairs, probably. I knew this, but it didn’t prevent the spike of adrenaline that zipped through my body.

I don’t trust my new house, either. The old one proved itself through quake after quake, riding the waves like a sturdy ship, coming through every quake virtually unscathed. The new house, though certainly scoring higher on any quake-worthiness measure than our 135 year-old villa did—is untested. Its foundation may crack, its bricks will almost certainly tumble in any large shake. Until I know for certain how it fares, I cannot trust it.

Any building I enter, I scan for earthquake hazards, safe places, and exits. Every track we hike, I consider rocks that could be shaken loose, hillsides likely to collapse. Anywhere I drive, I take note of power poles that could fall across my route home and waterways whose banks might slump, taking the road with them.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of another large quake—I know one will happen, and I’m okay with that—but I am still more on edge than I was ten years ago. I’m more aware of the earth underfoot, more wary of the danger of living on the Pacific Ring of Fire where Earth flexes her joints, more observant, more in-tune with the planet.

That’s not a bad thing.

So today I’ll listen for the pulse of the planet, double check I am prepared for another quake, and simply enjoy life in this beautiful place.

Kia kaha, Christchurch. 

Quake Cities

The old hall, post-quake.

It’s September 4. The daffodils are in full bloom, and I feel compelled to talk about earthquakes.

Eight years on from our M7.1 quake, the local hall is finally under re-construction. Its brick walls cracked and bowed in the quake, and it spent several years propped up by timber, then was razed completely. The site sat empty until about two months ago, when the walls began to rise again.

It’s a common refrain here. The damage done by the M7.1 on 4 September 2010 and the M6.3 on 22 February 2011, and the 15,000 or so lesser quakes in between and after is still visible. In the city, the Christchurch Cathedral still sits behind ‘temporary’ security fencing, it’s face crumbled away, weeds growing along the tops of jagged walls. A block of High Street remains closed, broken buildings frozen as they were when the shaking stopped. Throughout the region, churches remain truncated, their spires still gone. One church is still operating from a large tent. Houses are still undergoing repairs, and bare sections abound.

On a recent visit to Wellington, my son commented that Wellington seemed like such an older city than Christchurch, though they are nearly the same age. But Wellington hasn’t had a big quake since 1855. In that 1855 quake, many buildings were destroyed, and after that, most homes were rebuilt using timber, in the Victorian style popular at the time. Those Victorian houses give many Wellington neighbourhoods the quaint atmosphere they have, even today.

In Napier, the city-defining quake struck in 1931. The rebuild of that city followed the art-deco style popular at the time. The city retains the art-deco character today, and has become a popular tourist destination for its architecture.

Christchurch’s look has been affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, just as Wellington and Napier have been. Brick and stone have been replaced by wood, steel and glass. The new Christchurch includes more art, more open space (though some of those open spaces are slated to be filled with new buildings … eventually). Perhaps some day, visitors to Christchurch will view it as a product of the architectural styles of the 2010s.

Geek 1: Fear 0

I was in Christchurch for an all-day workshop on Saturday. The closest all-day parking was in the Art Gallery carpark. I resisted the idea of parking there. I never liked basement carparks, even before the 2010-2011 earthquakes, and I like them even less now.

Stupid, I thought. Time to get over this fear. Thousands of people park in multi-storey and basement carparks every day in this city. I can do it for one day.

I dove into the carpark, leapt out of my car, and practically sprinted to the exit. I was dismayed to find the pedestrian exit was through a couple of doors, down a corridor, and up a flight of stairs.

But just as I was about to climb the stairs, I noticed one of the seismic base isolators the building is equipped with. The geek in me overrode the scaredy cat, and I had to stop to snap a photo.

These isolation units are a cool piece of technology. They essentially decouple the building from the ground, so that when the earth shakes, the building stays still. In a quake, the top and bottom plates of the unit slide contrary to one another—the building’s inertia keeps the top plate relatively still while the lower plate jiggles around.

The isolation units were retrofitted to the art gallery (along with lots of other repairs) after the 2010-2011 earthquakes.

According to the manufacturer’s website, the Triple Pendulum Bearings like those installed in the Art Gallery are designed to dampen the wide range of lateral vibrations from small, medium, and large quakes. They don’t make the building completely quake-proof, but they did make me more comfortable leaving my car there for the day.

Dancing in the Moonlight

Damage from the 2010 quake.

Damage from the 2010 quake.

It seems strange, on a day we were shaken out of bed by another major earthquake, to blog about food or the garden. But I also feel like I’ve blogged about earthquakes so many times in the last six years, that I have little more to say about the experience.

However, every quake has its own character, and I find each one affects me differently.

This one struck around midnight last night. I must have been half awake, because I remember anticipating it, as though I was listening to it rumble across the plains. It started as they all do, with the jolt of the first shock wave. It built to a powerful roll, then stayed there, rocking the house like ocean swells, for almost two minutes.

I had no need to get out of bed; bed is, after all, one of the safest places to be. But as the shaking continued, my curiosity got the better of me.

It wasn’t enough to experience the quake in bed. I needed to feel it more. To know it better, if it was going to hang around so long. I stood in the bedroom doorway, gazing into the moonlit living room. The door frame swayed under my hand, and I felt as though I were on a ship, a hand on the railing, riding the waves.

There was time to feel each wave as it rolled through the house. Time to anticipate the next roll. I fell into rhythm with the swaying house.

And still the waves came. The house and I moved gracefully with each one, dancing in the moonlight.

And because the quake was distant enough, the S-waves came separately, like the gentle sloshing of a bathtub after you’ve stepped out. Like a long, quiet coda fading into silence.

After the thousands of quakes we’ve experienced in the past six years, we knew that the quake was huge, and farther away than previous ones. We knew that somewhere, people’s lives had just been torn apart. Somewhere, that gentle rocking had been a fierce shaking.

But for me, there had been no fear in that quake. We met, we danced in the moonlight, and then it was gone.

In the morning light, we assessed the damage—there was little. Our water is brown, but that will settle when the aftershocks end. But morning brought the news reports and photos of devastation. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost a home, business or loved one. To everyone stuck in towns surrounded by landslides and broken bridges. To everyone who spent the night shivering on a hilltop listening to the tsunami sirens. To everyone who worked through the night and through the day to clear the mess, help neighbours, and rescue those trapped. To everyone who will spend the next five or ten years clawing their way back to a normal life.

Kia kaha.

22 February 2011

100_0076 smToday is the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people and brought life as we knew it to a grinding halt.

It was the day my husband insisted we get cell phones.

It was the day I started posting details of my whereabouts on the fridge every morning, just in case I didn’t make it home.

Our house was fine (anything vulnerable to quakes had been destroyed by the September 2010 quake), and we watched in dismay as news of the destruction and death in town trickled out to us. We watched the rescue helicopters fly over, ferrying patients to Dunedin.

When we loaded the car with tools and food and drove to the eastern suburbs two days later to do what we could to help, we were stunned by the destruction.

Five years later, those eastern suburbs are still struggling, and life for all of us is fundamentally changed.

New Zealand sits on the Ring of Fire. It was built by the Ring of Fire. Earthquakes and volcanoes are simply what happens here.

Do earthquakes frighten me? I don’t know if frighten is the right word, but I will admit to a surge of adrenaline with every tremor. I admit that whenever I enter a new room or building now, I immediately assess earthquake hazards, shelter, and exits. I’ve lost my love of cliffs and caves, replaced by wariness and visions of falling rocks. I still pause at the sound of a loud rumble, poised to dive under the table until it resolves into the sound of a truck.

I suppose we could leave New Zealand. We could move back to the U.S., to live on firmer ground.

But, much as I hate to admit it about my homeland, there is an ugly culture of fear in the U.S. When a presidential candidate can preach a doctrine of hatred, misogyny, and racism and gain in the polls, that feels like a betrayal. When schools are patrolled by armed guards, it is an outrage. When violence against each other is considered normal, there has been a failure of humanity and society.

But in an earthquake, there is no malice. Though it may cause great destruction, it is impersonal. It is simply the earth doing what the earth does. An earthquake is not a betrayal. It is not an outrage. It is not a failure of humanity and society.

Not that bad people don’t do bad things in New Zealand—there is racism, sexism, and violence here, too. But here I need not wonder who is packing heat on the street. Children walk to school. Fear of each other does not pervade life.

And so I choose earthquakes. I choose the destruction and stress, the uncertainty, and the inconvenience. And if someday the earth should shrug me off as it shifts to a more comfortable position, I’m okay with that.



Five Years on…remembering the 2010 quake

100_0076 sm“Good, good, good, good vibrations…” The sound of the Beach Boys emanating from the wind-up emergency radio made me smile. I bopped to the music, learning then that the best way to weather the aftershocks was to keep moving. Knowing then that my relationship with the earth had fundamentally changed.

I was sitting on the floor in the middle of my dark living room. Just a few minutes earlier, at 4.35 am. We had all been jolted out of bed by a M7.1 earthquake centred about 20 km away. The rest of the family had all gone back to bed, but I knew I couldn’t. I would have been up at five anyway, and the excitement of such a large quake wouldn’t let me sleep.

And so, when National Radio broadcast the Beach Boys minutes after the quake, I was there to hear it and smile.

Memories of the first quake and the nearly 15,000 aftershocks since are still fresh. Just the other day, one of my daughter’s friends was recounting how they had had little food in the house when the quake struck. With power out and shops closed, they subsisted on Weet-bix for four days.

We were more fortunate. It had been a good winter garden, and though it was only early spring, there were plenty of vegetables to eat. And with a gas stove, we were able to cook those vegetables in spite of no electricity.

As for water, we might have been worried, if we’d known what the quake had done to our well. But until the power came back on, we were blissfully unaware that the well had filled with black silt. We confidently used the many litres of water I had stored for this very possibility—a week’s worth of drinking and cooking water. More, if we were frugal with it. The rain barrel behind the shed provided water for the toilet.

We circled the wagons and waited. The family was together. It was spring, and there was much to do in the garden. We spent the days outside in the sun, and the nights eating by candlelight, and riding out the aftershocks. What little we knew of the extent of the damage came through the wind-up radio, which we listened to eagerly. It was an oddly peaceful time—the aftershocks were frightening through the nights, but the sun shone during the day, and we went for walks as a family and played board games.

I am by no means a “survivalist”, but I do believe in being prepared. Though we had no idea what a major earthquake was like, we were prepared. And being prepared, we weathered it well, even when we did discover that our well was destroyed, and when it was another five months before we had regular, reliable water. Even when we were subjected to thousands of aftershocks, some even more destructive than the first quake.

Life has changed since the quakes. I cannot enter a room without assessing safe areas, hazards, and exits. I store even more water, and make sure I always have over a quarter tank of petrol in the car. I keep a torch by the bedside. I expect to get lost every time I venture into the centre city—another building will have been demolished, another will have sprung up, another road will be closed for repairs. More fundamentally, I now understand, in an intimate and visceral way, the dynamic nature of the planet. I know the vast power of the earth, and how insignificant my own is by comparison. I am in awe. I am in love. I am honoured to be allowed to live on this amazing world.