Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Quaked Up

Yesterday morning one of my cats was behaving in a non-standard manner. There had been a minor aftershock, nothing unusual, but he became very alarmed - shooting out onto the deck and then staring accusingly back at the catflap. I'm sure the cats think there is something very wrong with that shaky house. He then started this weird routine of meowing at the door (rather than just entering via the catflap) but refusing to come in when I opened it. He followed me to the office for a repeat performance. He did it for about 10 minutes before disappearing. Weird, I thought to myself, I wonder if we are going to have a big aftershock like the Moon Man predicted? Then I got busy and forgot about Monty's odd behaviour.

Just before lunch I got a pallet of Psyllium delivered and the delivery company inconveniently parked it right behind my car. So, I delayed plans to head into the centre of town to do my banking and Google Talked the Programmer into coming home for lunch to help me move it all. I was also waiting for a Trade Me customer pick up. All of this is relevant because of what happened next. We had just finished lunch and were standing at the bench when the earth gave a mighty growl and the house shook violently, like a bone in the jaws of an angry bull terrier. Driven by the flight-or-fight response, we instinctively raced for the door, which was open, and then stood on the deck trying to keep our balance and watching the house flex (quite a sight!). The quake was not long, about 20 seconds, followed by those few seconds of stillness+car alarm noises that comes between the quake and the first aftershock. I had enough time to yell an expletive-laden question to my neighbours to the right - something like 'Oh my holy fuck! Are you ok over there?' and receive an answer: 'Fuck! That was awful! fine thanks, and you?' - before we braced our feet and rode out the swaying of another big rumble.

I then leaned over the fence to check on our neighbour on the left who was emerging from her doorway looking stunned, holding her baby. We decompressed by speculating about whether that could really be considered an "aftershock" and concluding that it must surely be a new and huge quake, almost certainly bigger than 'Quake#1' on September the 4th last year. While we were talking, the sound of sirens and helicopters started. We determined that the power was out and saw people beginning to congregate in the street, too scared to be inside. The guy across the road got his car radio going and the street gathered around, hungry for news. For some reason, just like when a baby is born, the first thing everyone wants to know is 'how big??'. I suppose it's human nature to want to quantify things. I think perhaps we wanted a number that seemed big enough to justify the experience - say.. 7.2, then we could say it was definitively and categorically more bad-ass than Quake#1.

Finally we learned that this was only a '6.3', a number which resulted in an outburst of disbelieving huffs and which proves that the richter scale is 100% not useful for indicating how a quake feels or how destructive it will be. What matters is location and depth. This one was a magnitude smaller than Quake#1, but the epicentre was in Lyttelton, only about 10kms away from the city and was shallow - 5kms deep. Regardless, I didn't need to know anything about the numbers, I just needed to look up and down the street and see the rearrangement - cracks and bumps in the road and dirty water spouting up from the sewers. I just needed to do a quick tour of my house and office to doubly confirm to myself that this was much, much worse than Quake#1.

The computer cupboard was completely upsetting because these computers contain all of my university work and the Sana Direct website and database. The Programmer gently informed me that if the hard-drives were damaged, the site could be down for weeks.

Once I'd seen the internal state of our house, I started to seriously consider the possibility of injuries and fatalities 'out there'. This did not occur to me immediately because in Quake#1, despite many near misses, Christchurch experienced the miracle of only one fatality - and that was from a heart attack. I think, like many, I'd begun to think Cantabrians are basically indestructible - we eat earthquakes for breakfast, grrrr! Apart from The Programmer being slightly unhappy on the Programming front (due to being separated from his laptop and camera, which he'd left at work), we were both relieved beyond belief to be together. I can't imagine the panic and frustration of the people trying to track down their significant other in the chaos. The landlines were out but cellphones were working, randomly, and we did our best to contact family - mum was having an interesting time dealing with a carpark full of freaked out preschoolers, but was otherwise ok - then sat on the deck trying to breathe through the adrenaline shakes and listening to the radio.

The news coming through sounded surreal, as if someone were watching a disaster movie and describing the scenes. The thing which finally made my mind understand the extent of the damage was this statement: 'the tower came off the Cathedral'. This was something I could actually visualise - remember, we had not seen any pictures at all - no TV, no internet, no power. Dean Peter Beck was on the radio saying unbelievable things, like he thought people had died in the church part of the Cathedral and that there were probably people in the tower when it came down. I started to feel very uneasy, upset and somewhat guilty and selfish for my earlier happiness that me and mine were all ok. You can click here to see what the Cathedral used to look like, along with other landmark buildings.

A guy from the fire service was encouraging people to check their neighbourhood for trapped people, so we went for a walk to see if we could be of assistance anywhere. Thankfully, most, but not all, of the houses seem to be intact - their people standing on the street, talking with each other, hugging, strangers connecting. The streets themselves were telling a dramatic tale about what lies beneath.

Some people were standing on the street, anxiously watching the slow moving, banked up traffic, waiting for loved ones to come home. We stopped to talk to a woman that works at the pool; she pointed out her car, flattened by a concrete pole. All the while the earth continued to rumble and sway and we wondered aloud about how many might have died; numbers again, how many died? what is the scale of the disaster? Everything else seems so fixable compared to death. Death leaves a permanent stain.

I was hoping, probably expecting, that there would be few casualties, but back beside the radio we started to hear some horror stories - collapsed office buildings, squashed buses, people trapped, bodies in the street, a makeshift morgue in Latimer Square, horrifying things that I never imagined would happen here. For a start, you think after a big earthquake, that you have had the worst of it and now it's about rebuilding. Nobody thought that a so-called aftershock could be so much more devastating. Once again, the experts held forth with reassuring statements about this being an unexpected but not unprecedented part of the process. That the usual pattern is for the biggest aftershock to be about 1 magnitude less that the original quake, that this is just the earth doing what it does and has done for millennia. As the evening darkened, and we barbequed our dinner on the deck and located all our candles and torches, other stories started filtering through of people rescued, emotional reunions, near misses. Finally at about 9pm the power came on.

To my great relief all of the computers came through like troopers and a little Programmerish tweaking allowed me to access the net using my laptop (yayyyy!). The TV is well busted but The Programmer hooked the freeview thingy to a large monitor, ran it through the speakers and we were connected to the world. The freaky world of Christchurch as we didn't know it 24 hours ago. Over and over again, we saw images of distraught people, injured people, and destroyed old buildings which were once the jewels of Christchurch - places which have been part of our lives and histories for as long as we can remember, and which connect us to the people of Christchurch past. It's going to be a different Christchurch once the rebuilding happens, and I'd expect it to be a while before we get to that point this time. But it's not just the city that is different. We are different. The very definition of what it means to be a Christchurch person has changed and will never be what it was - by order of that sometimes cranky beast, mother nature. That part can't be avoided. It's up to us take up the challenge and come out of it stronger and better and more awesome than ever.

Today the aftershocks are dying off, although last night was quite brutal - they are much stronger than after Quake#1 and seem more frequent. We have been warned that we will be reliant on bottled water for some time. Luckily, I've always been somewhat of a water hoarder (who's laughing at that crazy Sara habit now, hey?). My cats are slowly coming home, which is a fairly accurate 'normality is returning' barometer. Razzy finally turned up about 15 minutes ago. I haven't seen Monty since he took off after his strange morning behaviour. Once he makes an appearance I'll know that things are really improving. If he starts acting strange again, I'll leave town. Should have listened the first time.
The best site for earthquake coverage seem to be The Herald.


  1. I am so, SO glad you're ok. Someone was looking after you guys, making sure you were together and NOT in the City when the quake hit.

    Don't bother buying lottery tickets ever again - you've used up all your good luck. ;)

  2. Soooo glad you are okay yet sooo sorry you had that experience! WOW!!!! I dont think I ever want to experience that - soooo glad you are safe! Praying here in PA for all the losses from that disaster!


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