Random things

First, proof that my trip down to Alexandra was constructive as well as being restful – I spent a very enjoyable day playing in Mum’s craft room again:

I kind of cheated with these ones, because I relied on stickers a lot, but they’re still fun, I reckon.

There’s another batch as well, but they hadn’t dried properly when I left, so Mum’s going to post them up to me before I leave for DC (which is less than a month away now!!!).

Speaking of post – we have postal services again!!! We got our first delivery yesterday, a week after the earthquake. And it was worth waiting for – a parcel of books from Lytteltonwitch: Room by Emma Donoghue, Well-Versed Cats by Lance Percival, A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron, and Longitude by Dava Sobel.

We also had a visitor yesterday – someone from Search and Rescue knocked on the door (don’t worry, I checked his ID!) asking if we needed any help. They said on the news the other day that they’d be going round houses checking everyone was ok, but I assumed they only meant in the badly affected suburbs. But no, they’re doing the entire city!

I did promise a description of the earthquake, didn’t I? Seeing as it’s now 8 days later, I suppose I should do that now, before I forget the details (not that I think I will – I’m sure that day will stay with me for a long time!).

The morning was a pretty ordinary one. The students had only started back the day before, so I’d spent most of it answering questions and directing lost first-years. Normally on a day like that I would have escaped at lunchtime to make sure I got a proper break, but it was drizzling, so I decided to eat lunch at my desk and put up with the interruptions.

I hadn’t quite finished eating when the shaking started – I’d seen a couple of students in the corridor coming towards my office, so I’d turned away from my lunch to see what they needed. As soon as the earthquake started, I knew it was going to be a big one. Normally when there’s an aftershock you don’t react for a few seconds as you wait to see if it’s going to get big or not, but with this one it was big right from the start. It felt different than the September one – more of an up and down movement, whereas September was side to side. The best way I’ve been able to describe it is as being like when you were a kid and you’d sit on a trampoline while someone else was bouncing, and you’d be thrown around uncontrollably.

I immediately tried to get under my desk, but I was being thrown around so much it was difficult. I kept bumping my head on the bottom of the desk as I bounced up and down, and must have hit my arm as well (though I didn’t notice it at the time), because I ended up with a huge bruise. The noise was unbelievable – as well as the low-frequency rumble from the ground, there were all sorts of creaks and moans from the building, and the sound of things falling down everywhere. I could see things flying off the shelves opposite me, and I worried about the two students, because where they’d been standing out in the reception area there was nothing to shelter under.

I’ve got no idea how long the shaking lasted (it always feels much longer than it actually is!), but when it stopped I crawled back out from under the desk and saw the students huddled together beside the reception area’s couch, arms covering their heads and thankfully unharmed. The building was still standing, but it was a mess though – all the ceiling tiles had come down in the corridor again, and the hanging sign outside my office had broken and was hanging by only one chain. I didn’t have much time to look around though, because it was obvious we’d have to evacuate.

A few people have said that the September earthquake actually turned out to be a good thing, and it’s true, because our experiences then taught us so much. One thing the university learnt is that our evacuation procedures, designed for fire, wouldn’t work in an earthquake, because all the evacuation points were too close to buildings, so anyone standing there would be endangered by falling glass (or even buildings). Over the summer the Health and Safety team had been redesigning the procedures, and only a couple of weeks ago I’d been to a training session where they told us our new evacuation points (in the centre of large carparks or playing fields well away from any buildings), and what the procedures would be once we got there. During the training, someone asked how we’d know if we needed to evacuate after an aftershock, and the trainer basically said “if it happens, you’ll know”.

She was right – we all knew there was no way we were staying in the building, so we headed for the stairs. I remembered to grab my bag as I left (otherwise I’d have been without such essentials as my phone and my wallet), and glanced around my desk wondering if there was anything else I needed to take. I must have been in shock, because instead of picking up something sensible like my keys, my diary (otherwise known as my lifeline – it contains absolutely everything I need to know), my water bottle, or even the book I was reading, the one thing I picked up was my mp3 player. Yeah, really essential survival equipment there FutureCat!

As we left, we were knocking on office doors to make sure nobody was trapped inside. One person was trapped – his books had fallen off the bookshelves (which are secured to the wall) and landed in front of his door so he couldn’t pull it open. But my boss and one of the postgrads put their shoulders to it and managed to force it open to let him out.

There’s supposed to be emergency lighting in the buildings that comes on when the power goes out, but for some reason it wasn’t working, so the stairwell was very dark. We got to the bottom ok though, and started directing the confused looking students who were milling around to the new evacuation point. I’d been doubtful when we were told about the evacuation plans, whether it really would be possible to get 12,000 students and staff to safety. But from what I saw of our area of campus it worked really well (and I later heard that there were no serious injuries anywhere on campus) – those of us who remembered the new procedures directed those who didn’t, and we basically herded everyone out to the carpark, picking up strays as we went along.

The only part of the plan that failed was that our carpark didn’t have a warden. They’d been asking for volunteers the week before, and ours was the last evacuation point that still hadn’t had someone appointed. So we all milled around for a while waiting for someone official to tell us what to do next. Everyone had their cell phones out, of course, desperately trying to contact family, but the network was obviously overloaded, because no calls were getting through. At first we didn’t realise how bad it had been, and were joking about how come the aftershock couldn’t have waited for a nicer day (it was still drizzling), but then texts started to get through and word started to spread about how bad it was in town. H texted me pretty quickly to let me know he was ok, which was a huge relief. A lot of people had left their phones in their offices, so those of us who did have them were sharing them around.

The first big aftershock to the aftershock hit while we were standing in the carpark – a 5.7, which is bigger than any of the aftershocks to the original earthquake. It was a huge jolt, and all of us grabbed hold of the nearest person (whether we knew them or not :-)). I ended up in a group hug with a few of the women from the college office. The cars in the carpark were bouncing around madly,
totally lifting off the ground – really scary!

Eventually someone from security arrived, and told us they were shutting down the campus, and that we should all go home. There were a few people upset that they couldn’t go back into the buildings and retrieve their belongings first (especially people who’d left their car keys behind!), but security weren’t taking any chances on another aftershock hitting, so turned them away.

I contemplated walking home, but I was still feeling pretty shaky, and wasn’t too keen on being on my own for the 40-odd minutes it would take to walk. So when I heard Phil offering Jenny a lift home, I asked if he’d mind dropping me off too. They were both concerned about their partners, Phil’s wife being at home in Lyttelton, and Jenny’s husband on his way from Sumner by bike, without a phone. I gave Phil my phone to keep trying his wife as we drove, but there was nothing I could do to help Jenny other than try and reassure her.

The traffic was horrendous, with everyone trying to get home or to their children’s schools, so it took nearly an hour to reach my place. It would have been faster for me to walk! Everyone was being very good though – there was no road rage, and nobody was trying to overtake or block cars joining the road, but just patiently crawling along, happy just to be moving at all.

When we got home H was watching the news on TV (amazingly, we didn’t lose power at all this time) – it was such a shock to see what was happening in town, when this side of the city looked completely normal. I gave Phil H’s phone (as parents etc who’d be wanting to check on us would be more likely to call mine) so he could keep trying his wife, and found a jersey for Jenny (who was going into shock and shivering uncontrollably), and made sure they had water, then they headed out again to try and reach Lyttelton or Sumner.

(I heard from Jenny a couple of days later that Sumner was completely cut off, but they’d managed to get over Dyer’s Pass to Lyttelton, then Jenny borrowed a pair of gym shoes off Phil’s wife and walked over the hill to Sumner (note for non-Christchurch people, this is a serious hike, that takes a few hours on a good day). A couple of people were killed by falling rocks trying to do the same thing, so she was incredibly lucky to make it.)

The rest of the afternoon we were glued to the TV. Outside, the traffic jam in our street (which is a major route out of town) continued until well into the evening, and there was a constant sound of sirens in the distance and helicopters overhead. There were a few big aftershocks through the afternoon, but nothing too scary, and amazingly we once again escaped any damage – I think the only casualty this time was one wine glass.

So, that was February 22nd, a date that will I think be engraved in every Cantabrian’s mind for ever.

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