We were rudely awoken this morning at 4.35 am by violent shaking. H was already leaping out of bed and heading for the safety of the doorway (all those stories I told him about the last big earthquake I was in obviously stuck), and I was right behind him. The shaking was strong enough that I had to hold onto the bedstead to be able to walk the couple of metres to the door without falling.
Standing in the doorway (and hanging onto it for dear life!) we could see the streetlights outside flickering on and off, and hear things falling all over the house, and the sound of breaking crockery. Each crash I heard I thought “there’s another insurance claim”. All the doors along the hallway were swinging wildly open and closed – really scary!
When the shaking finally stopped (according to the earthquake drums it lasted about a minute, but it felt *much* longer!) and we’d calmed down a bit we switched on the lights (the power was still on at that stage) to survey the damage. Surprisingly, there was very little. Most dramatic was that all the recipe books had fallen off their shelf in the kitchen, and were spread across the oven, bench, and floor:
A few things had fallen off shelves, all the pictures on the walls were crooked, and a couple of plates that were sitting in the sink were broken (accounting for the sound of breaking crockery I’d heard) – a heavy jar had fallen off the windowsill onto them – but there was surprisingly little actual damage. The really weird thing was the things that *hadn’t* fallen over – a delicate china vase H inherited from his grandmother had turned itself round 180 degrees but was still sitting safely on the shelf, the tea and coffee jars that sit on the shelf next to the recipe books were still there, despite all the recipe books falling down, and a glass was sitting precariously on the edge of the coffee table but hadn’t fallen. And weirdest of all, the cats seemed to have slept through it. George came wandering out (I think more to see why we were up so early (and more importantly whether it involved breakfast) than out of any fear), and Saffy was fast asleep in her beanbag and only woke up when we turned on the light to check she was ok.
While Christchurch gets earthquakes quite often, they’re usually tiny, and they’re usually not actually in Christchurch – we just feel the edge of earthquakes in other areas. So my first thought was that if it felt that big here, wherever the earthquake actually struck must be really bad. We turned on the radio to see if there was any news, but the announcer (in Wellington) was just commenting that she’d felt an earthquake, and wondering where it was. We were trying to re-tune to a local station when the first aftershock hit. It was quite a big one (though felt tiny compared to what we’d just been through!) and knocked the power out. Looking out the window, it was obvious the lights were out all across the city – we’re on the flat, so we can’t actually see the city lights from our place, but you always see a glow in the sky from the direction of the city centre, and there was nothing.
About now I started thinking what a good idea an emergency kit would be… 🙂 It was pitch black, so I found my cellphone, and used the torch on that to find the gas lamp and a real torch. The torch turned out to have corroded contacts, so I couldn’t get it to work, but at least there was a fresh canister for the gas lamp, so we had a decent source of light. No radio though – I found a pack of the right size batteries, but there weren’t enough.
The aftershocks kept coming, so going back to bed wasn’t really an option. H tried, but every time he started to drift off there’d be another aftershock which woke him up again. I didn’t even bother trying – I just got dressed, pulled the beanbag into the doorway and sat there with the lamp and a book and tried to read between the rumbles. Dawn took a really long time to come!
There was a lot of traffic for so early on a Saturday morning, which puzzled me for a while until I realised that with the power out, there’d be alarms going off all over the city, so of course all sorts of business owners (and IT people!) would be going to check on their businesses. Plus of course people would be checking on elderly relatives and so on.
When it was finally light we could properly check the house for damage. We found a few more things that had fallen over, but to our amazement still no real damage. I was starting to think maybe the earthquake hadn’t actually been as big as it’d seemed – maybe it was just the darkness that had made it seem bigger and scarier. But then, as everyone else in NZ started to wake up and turn on the news, my cellphone started getting messages from family and friends from all over checking if we were ok (thanks everyone by the way for thinking of us, and apologies if I couldn’t reply – the network got overloaded after a while and while messages were coming in, I couldn’t send any or phone anyone). That was when we realised that it was a lot more serious than we’d thought, and that Christchurch was the centre. We still didn’t know just how bad it was though – there’s very little damage around our area, so we assumed it would be similar across the rest of the city.
I dug out the camping stove so we could boil some water for a hot drink, and we settled down to wait for the power to come back on. And waited, and waited, and waited… Finally it came back at about 10ish, and we could turn on the radio and TV, which is when we saw just how badly the rest of Christchurch had been hit. We were so lucky! Even though the epicentre was to the west of the city (in Darfield), it was the city centre and the eastern suburbs that sustained the most damage. I assume it’s something to do with the underlying soil – we’re on reclaimed swampland on this side of town, whereas the east has much more sandy soil. Whatever the reason, somehow we got away with trivial damage while whole walls were collapsing in other parts of Christchurch.
The rest of the day was so weird. Everything seemed so normal out here (except there were no planes taking off and landing because the airport was closed – oh, and the street lights stayed on all day – their timers must have been messed up or something), but on TV we were seeing pictures of the destruction in the central city, just a few km away. It was hard to believe we were in the same city as the one on TV where a state of emergency had just been declared, and search and rescue teams were digging through rubble searching for victims. The radio was telling us to boil drinking water and not flush the toilet – hard to remember not to do when everything seemed so normal. It would be easy to think it was just like a normal lazy Saturday if it wasn’t for the aftershocks jolting us (quite literally!) back to reality every so often.
I still can’t believe it really. I think it won’t be until I’ve been into the city myself and seen the damage (all those beautiful old buildings gone! I glimpsed so many of my favourites on TV and on Stuff) that it will really sink in.
(Here we go again, just felt another aftershock…)
As far as work goes, it looks like I’ll have an unplanned holiday for the rest of the week. The university has been closed until probably the 13th while they check the buildings are safe. They’ve already found quite a bit of damage, though nowhere near as bad as it could be – they’re estimating about $1.5 million. Term was supposed to start on Monday, so they’re delaying it by a week, and in the meantime staff have been told to stay home unless senior management call you in to help with cleanup (which will mainly be technical staff, I’m guessing – there’s been chemical spills in labs and things like that that will need specialists to deal with them).
I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight – I’m utterly exhausted (I’ve
been up since 4.30 after all!), but there’s still aftershocks every couple of hours, so it’ll be hard to stay calm enough to sleep, or to stay asleep once I’m there.
But really, we were so lucky, both H and I and the city as a whole. Nobody died, there were very few serious injuries, and most buildings are still standing. When you consider that this was a similar sized earthquake to the one that hit Haiti, we got off so incredibly lightly. That’s the difference between an earthquake in a relatively wealthy country with building standards designed with earthquakes in mind, and a poor country with almost none.