Eight years on: My Christchurch earthquake story, part 1

On this day, eight years ago, Christchurch, New Zealand was struck by a magnitude 7 earthquake. This disaster, along with the earthquake of February 2011, stand as defining moments in New Zealand’s recent history. Their effects are still being felt today.

Many residents of Christchurch have shared their stories through projects such as Quake Stories, as well as countless news pieces and books. (For a poetic take on the first few years, I can recommend The Villa at the Edge of the Empire by Fiona Farrell.) But there are many stories yet to be told.

Like mine.

Until now.

This is my Christchurch Earthquake story. Well, the start of it. This turned out longer than I expected!

Disclaimer: Human memory is fallible. This happened eight years ago!

Saturday, 4 September 2010. 4:35am.

This date and time are permanently etched in my memory. Like the clock towers in the city that stopped at 4:35, there’s a little clock in my mind that’s stuck on this time, even now.

I’ve been based in Wellington for 4½ of these eight years, but Christchurch is my hometown. I wasn’t born there (as my parents like to point out during Crusaders vs Highlanders games), but it’s where I went through school, University, and my first job. So, yes, I was there when it all happened.

 

Plates they will shift

Houses will shake

Fences will drift

We will awake

Only to find

Nothing’s the same

– Death Cab for Cutie, Home is a Fire

 

It’s hard to describe the experience of a strong earthquake, because there’s nothing else like it. The best analogy I can think of is, it’s like being in the boot of a car as it plows through a series of judder bars at full speed. Each one subjects you to a deafening rattle and a rapid up-and-down motion. And you can’t see out so you don’t know when you’ll hit the next one or how big it will be.

Since it was dark at the time, I was spared the visual aspect of the contents rearranging themselves, but rearrange they did. The sight of the wardrobe and draws hanging open still haunts me.

I knew straight away it was an earthquake, even in my dazed stupor. (Remember, 4:35am!) But it felt so unfair. I’d seen the earthquake risk maps. This was supposed to happen in Wellington, not here. Why me? I went straight into denial. This can’t be happening. This isn’t real. It’s just a horrible dream. No, no, NO!

 

Declare this an emergency

Come on and spread a sense of urgency

And pull us through

And this is the end

This is the end

Of the world

– Muse, Apocalypse Please

 

Pretty quickly, it occurred to me that my room wasn’t the best place to be if another big shake hit. The family home (yes, I was 20 and still living with my parents) was a 1½ storey building: bedrooms upstairs, lounge downstairs on the single-storey side. Realising the upper floor might be at risk of collapsing, we migrated to the lounge. By torchlight we hurried up and down a few times to grab blankets and other essentials, then settled on the couch where we sat in stunned silence. It would be a few days before I dared to venture upstairs again.

As I often do in difficult times, I turned to music to help me process the situation. I put my earphones in and, reflecting my tastes at the time, I cued up Muse’s Absolution. The album’s opener, Apocalypse Please, is an absolute cracker – and perfectly fitting of the mood. It honestly felt like the end of the world. I thought the city had been destroyed and I’d have to leave. (To be fair, this wasn’t so far from the truth!) And sure enough, a state of emergency was promptly declared.

 

Waiting for the end to come

Wishing I had strength to stand

This is not what I had planned

It’s out of my control

– Linkin Park, Waiting for the End

(Fun fact: this song/album came out just four days after the earthquake!)

 

If I had to design a torture device, it would feature an earthquake machine, set to reproduce the sequence from Christchurch. (The data’s out there, if you’re so inclined…) I’d have spilled the deepest state secrets that day, if I’d had any.

Earthquakes are a unique form of psychological torture because:

  1. You’re in constant danger, and
  2. There’s not much you can do.

You’re basically trapped in fear for several days. Everything you know has changed, or might have. The power’s out. The water might be contaminated. The pipes might be broken. The building might be unstable. And an aftershock could hit at any moment – or, heaven forbid, an even bigger earthquake. When you can’t trust the ground under your feet, what hope is there?

And yet, in between shakes, it’s actually really boring. When you’re still in the dark, it feels dangerous to do anything, and your “safe” options are taken away.

  • You don’t want to go out in case you get stranded far from home.
  • You don’t want to exercise in case you need to conserve food and water.
  • You can’t read because you can’t concentrate.
  • You can’t game or watch TV because the power’s out.
  • You can’t sleep, obviously, because you’ll just wake up with the next rattle.

So you wait, anxiously, for the next aftershock. Which just starts the cycle of panic over again.

It’s a living nightmare. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

 

I wanted to walk through the empty streets

And feel something constant under my feet

But all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors

– The Postal Service, We Will Become Silhouettes

 

The first thing we noticed outside when daylight broke was that our swimming pool had half emptied itself. Miraculously, it had all sloshed out on the driveway side and not towards the house, lawn, or fence. It carved out an impressive channel in our gravel driveway!

Later in the morning we decided to grab our bicycles and explore the neighbourhood. We were delighted to discover that you don’t feel aftershocks on a bicycle. They get lost in the bumps and wobbles you always get while cycling. So if you’re in an earthquake and need a break from the aftershocks, get out on your bike – just stay away from tall objects!

Surveying the suburbs was like entering a bizarre alternate dimension: normal for the most part, but with glaring exceptions. A fallen fence here, a toppled chimney there, the occasional broken window.

Also, bricks. Many piles of bricks. This, it turns out, was a recurring theme throughout the region. Brick houses, chimneys and fences were built by folks (likely British) who’d never dealt with earthquakes before. Unfortunately, these structures tend to fall apart when subjected to shaking, sending bricks tumbling to the earth. Or, in the case of chimneys, through the roof.

The power came on at home just in time for the 6 o’clock news. The bulletins confirmed our worst fears, and more. Our inland suburb got off lightly. It was a different story in the city centre. I’ll spare you the shocking images – chances are you’ve seen them before, but feel free to google if you’re curious. Let’s just say the old cliché “like a bomb hit” was a reasonable description of the damage.

 

As my memory rests

But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when September ends

– Green Day, Wake Me Up When September Ends

 

The following weeks are a blur of depressing news, half-hearted attempts to study math, and more rattles, sprinkled with the false sense of security that “maybe they’ve finally stopped”. Oh, and traffic cones. Whoever makes those things must have been rolling in money.

At 20 years of age, I was in my third year of study at Canterbury. They shut the campus for a week while they checked the buildings. Good thing, too, because I was in no way ready to go back.

Life during that week wasn’t exactly dignified. We slept (or tried to) in the lounge, which now resembled an emergency shelter. We dug a long-drop out the back. We did what we could to pass the time – for me, that meant gaming. After a few days, we got sick of living like this and tentatively tested the taps, loos, and upstairs floorboards (still intact, but a lot more creaky). We gave them the all clear, migrated upstairs, fixed the messes in our rooms, and nervously crawled into bed.

On my return to uni I was greeted with good news: all our courses had to be cut short because they couldn’t move the exams! Fewer assignments? Less content to revise? Still full credit? Heck yes! I’m so glad they did this – it softened the blow so much, and I honestly don’t know if I’d have carried on studying otherwise.

Beyond that? Basically, life went on as ever. I quickly got used to the sight of cordons, cones, and cracked walls. We had a building inspector come over and stick us in the lengthy queue for minor repairs. We refilled the pool. I passed my courses, enrolled in Honours, and enjoyed a more-or-less ordinary family Christmas.

The threat of aftershocks lingered, of course. We had a rude reminder of this on Boxing Day – a nasty surprise for our visiting relatives! – but after that, it seemed like the worst was finally over.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Not even close.

Coming up in part 2: Tuesday, 22 February 2011, 12:51pm.

Do you have an earthquake story you’d like to share? Let me know! Or, if it happened in New Zealand, you can head over to Quake Stories to share it with the world!



Image credit: BeckerFraserPhotos (Ceismic)

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