– Sumner, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

I wrote this in the days following the 22 February quake. We really thought we had dodged a bullet.

When we were shaken from our beds at 435am on 4 September, 2010, shock that ‘the big one’ had hit Christchurch rather than Wellington turned to relief that we had gotten through without loss of life.

Our sadness over lost or damaged buildings was bookended by happiness that so much was still standing and that so much could be and would be rebuilt, regardless of cost.

The next phase was probably one of fatigue, as thousands of aftershocks rattled our homes and our nerves, til finally we became ‘experts’ and invented our own game of trying to guess how big the most recent quake was, before it was posted on Geonet. Most of us got pretty good at it, pretty quickly.

Immediately following the 7.1 in September, we were told that there is normally an aftershock within weeks which is about 1M smaller than the initial quake, but as time passed, it seemed less likely, and for the most part, we had settled into a bit of complacency about the aftershocks.

Since the Boxing Day (26 December) quake which rattled the central city, the aftershocks had mostly disappeared, even, and life was returning to ‘a new normal’, with some buildings still cordoned off, an increasing number of vacant lots, and a lot of new scaffolding.

We really thought we had come through it, and that any future aftershocks would be smaller and less frequent, til finally they were gone.

And then….

On Tuesday 22 February, traffic was backed up for miles on Sumner’s main route to the city. My husband even texted me to say that I should take the road up Sumner valley to Evans Pass, down to Lyttleton, and through the tunnel to the city. That drive, though longer, takes only about five minutes longer to travel, and when traffic is backed-up nearly to Shag Rock, as it was that morning, it is often much faster to drive over the hill and through the tunnel.

But, I needed petrol, so I had to battle the traffic.

Finally arriving in the city, I stopped at our office and then ran errands, looking for a storage shed, grabbing breakfast along the way. I was about to stop for some takeaway lunch to take back to my workplace when I got a call that I was needed urgently. I arrived at my workplace, and as a colleague, the client, and I walked back onto our driveway, the quake hit.

The long driveway is wide enough for a single car, and is bordered on each side by tall wooden fences. The neighbour had just climbed upon the fence to talk to us when the quake hit. It was impossible to stand upright, and almost impossible to keep on my feet. The neighbour must have had one helluva ride, and must have been hanging on for dear life; when the quake subsided many long lifetimes later, we shook hands and introduced ourselves properly, for the moment having forgotten any differences.

We knew right away that this was no normal aftershock. As I’ve written above, having now lived through thousands of these things, we could now come pretty close to correctly guessing the magnitude of the quakes, and immediately knew that this had to be the sixer we’d been warned about since September, but which we had thought by now we must have dodged.

Staff and clients who were inside the house, ran outside, and as a group we watched the traffic come to a halt. Without electricity, horns were blaring as cars started-and-stopped their way through the intersection. Two of my teenaged clients were adamant about wanting to go out for a walk or a drive, so a lot of effort was spent calming them down and redirecting them.

I had two staff I needed to track down, but of course cell phones were down (overloaded network). Texts took at least an hour to travel in one direction, and then an hour or so back, so that suddenly you’d have a dozen texts come in – utterly confusing when they were one-word responses, as well, as you could not recall exactly what the question was.

We turned on the car radio and sat there for a while listening, trying to gather news. We stood by the street watching traffic. We shook and trembled through several large aftershocks.

Finally, someone walked by who told us that the epicentre had been in Lyttleton, and I went a bit cold inside. Lyttelton is literally over the hill from our home – that same short drive I had contemplated taking just that morning; just last year, an entire street in Lyttleton was given historic, protected status; it’s a small harbour town with character.

So, for a couple hours, I was in limbo. I couldn’t contact my husband; although we had a (corded, analog) landline which worked, his workplace had shut up shop shortly after the quake, and he was in the process of spending three hours to do a half-hour trip home.

And, I couldn’t leave.

I still had two staff and two clients to locate, and I had to make sure everyone was okay. Two of my staff showed up shortly thereafter, having walked from the local mall where they’d gone to see a movie; both offered to stay and work a shift if required (they were).

One staff member and client eventually made their way home by car, reporting that the roads were a mess with traffic lined up for miles. The other staff member and client were known to be in the central city, and all we could do was wait.

Finally – finally! – the two of them walked up to the house. They had been in a video store when the quake hit, and the client had been knocked down by shelves full of videos; people across the street had reportedly not been as lucky, and had been injured. The staff member and client had spent two hours walking home, and had seen carnage along the way; both are still in a bad state.

In the meantime, those of us with analog landlines were busy trying to communicate with other colleagues and teams. Plans were made to shift people from sites without power/water to other sites.

Finally, at around 4pm, I braved the traffic for the second time that day and drove onto Blenheim Road.

And stopped.

Traffic was queued for miles. It took ages to do a five-minute trip up to a side road where I darted off toward the hills, hoping to find a quicker route. It was quicker, too, if not completely traffic-free.

I still had no idea how I was going to get home. I had heard that the Ferrymead Bridge was out and that the tunnel to Lyttleton was closed, but had had a single text from my husband to say he’d made it home over the hill. Though it seemed ‘wrong’ somehow, I assumed that he must have meant Evans Pass, the same road I had considered driving that morning.

In September, that road had been badly blocked by falling rock – and that was when the quake had been much farther away and a bit deeper in the ground. How could it be passable this time, when the epicentre was right underneath it?

I did not have my roadmap, but followed my nose to the end of Colombo Street to the roundabout which led me up the hill toward and over Dyers Pass. At the top of the pass, I asked army personnel if the road from Lyttleton to Sumner was open, but they didn’t know. I headed down the hill toward Governor’s Bay.

I received a couple more messages from my husband, telling me that the road over Evans Pass was closed, and that I would have to turn around. His text indicated that I needed to get over Cannon Hill/Mt Pleasant, but as I had never driven that way before, I needed more specific directions. Still, I headed back over Dyers Pass and back down to the flat, where I wound my way around the bottoms of the hills along Centaurus Road.

And there I began to see the damage. The road was stuffed, and I had to drive carefully to avoid cracks and holes. Liquefaction was everywhere. There was this internal drive telling me I had to get home, to find out what my husband meant when he said the house was wrecked, to make sure my cats were okay, but for the life of me I still didn’t know how I was going to get there.

In Heathcote, I passed under a rail bridge where a train sat derailed; that road has since been closed and remains closed, though the train has been removed. I had once worked at the bottom of Cannon Hill so had no trouble finding it.

Twice.

I drove up Cannon Hill, made the correct first turn, then made an incorrect turn and before I knew it I was back at the bottom of Cannon Hill, frustrated as hell.

I drove up again, and more carefully chose the correct path, and followed it onto Mount Pleasant. Just last week, we had wanted to cart my visiting family member, Victor, up to the top of this mountain/hill and set him loose on a mountain bike; I did that in 2000 and it was one of the most exhilirating things I’ve ever done. On this day, too, I was just wanting to get downhill as fast as I could. It had already been two hours since I’d left work.

At the bottom of Mount Pleasant, I turned onto the causeway, and could not believe the level of damage done to this section of road. It dipped and rose where before it had been flat. Cracks lined nearly the entire length of the roadway. Sand volcanoes lined the estuary.

And then in Redcliffs, turning the corner to the afore-mentioned Shag Rock, my heart sank. Shag Rock had all but fallen, its tall, proud form reduced to rubble.

My eyes turned back to the road to avoid falling into the cracks and holes that potmarked the road, but my sadness wasn’t complete. As I neared Shag Rock and turned that corner, my eyes fell on Peacocks Gallop, the beautiful cliff-side reserve where my husband and I were married.

The cliff had fallen, dumping many, many tonnes of rock onto the reserve, and nearly obliterating the rock stack where we’d taken our vows. Looking up, I could see a swimming pool or patio hanging precariously over the edge.

I turned toward home, and raced up the hill, not knowing what I would find. I had to park on the hillside at the end of the drive, as our neighbours’ cars were parked at the end of the drive. A part of the 100+yo stone wall had fallen, blocking the drive, and I had to clamber over that to get home.

My husband was in the carpark and we hugged before I went inside.

To the smell of….vinegar.

I love vinegar, but don’t care if I don’t smell it again for weeks. At least two bottles of vinegar, along with every other item in our kitchen, was on the floor, broken. The fridge had emptied its contents, including the banana pudding which I’d made the night before, with Nilla Wafers which Victor had brought to me from the US. Every dish, every glass, every breakable thing, was broken.

The study was in bad shape, too, with nine long shelves and two desks and countless boxes emptied onto the floor. Had I been home, this is likely where I would have been, and had I thought to get under the desk – not a given, as I tend to not move when an aftershock hits – I would have been stuck under there til my husband got home, as there is little chance I would have been able to dig out beyond the hundreds of paperbacks, the computer monitor, etc. Had I not gotten under the desk, I would have been absolutely pelted by books, and likely knocked off my seat/feet.

However, had I been home and unhurt, and had I had my wits about me, I joke that I would probably have tried to scoop up any uncontaminated bit of the banana pudding as it’s been years since I had any with Nilla Wafers.

The lounge and dining room were a mess as well, and again, everything not on the floor that morning was now on the floor, and if it could break, it pretty much did. The lounge has another shelf full of books and knick-knacks, and all of that was on the floor – and some of it had somehow found its way downstairs.

There was glass everywhere, including the stairwell, where several photo frames had fallen. The bottom hallway was impassable, as is the spare room where I have boxes of papers and magazines and photos. The tall chest at one end of the hallway had fallen over, as had mine in our bedroom. Toilet water had sloshed out of the toilet, wetting the floor and nearby toilet paper.

We had no electricity, no water, no sewage, no phone. The latter returned later that evening, but seemed to drop in and out.

The cats had disappeared, and it took quite a good calling to convince them to come out of their hiding places. One, already shy from having a visitor, was visibly shaken, and refused to come inside the house; the other, once with us, almost refused to leave our sides, and has taken to sleeping with us – or rather, on us, at night.

It was now nearly 7pm, and we had a lot to do before dark.

We scooped up as much of the kitchen carnage as possible, keeping a few bits and pieces as evidence of breakages. We put the microwave back on its wall perch, and rejoiced when we found the 3 or 4 pieces that were not broken – a couple glasses, a bowl, a coffee cup. So much was gone, though, and it was sad to know that all our breakable momentos were gone.

And yet, somehow, the gnome survived. How does he do it? The dadgum thing never even fell off his perch, and sits smugly in the highest spot of the kitchen. My husband has joked that he sits up there with his feet in grime and dust, fairly cemented in place. It’s that….or perhaps some witchery.

Mentally exhausted, and not knowing where to start, we stopped. We set up the camp stove, some candles, and foldable chairs outside the back door, and we cooked a simple dinner. The meat we’d bought the night before had thawed in the hours since the quake (the fridge/freezer doors had come open) so we cooked a couple packages of that, but to be honest, I didn’t have much of an appetite at all, and barely ate anything.

We sat in our chairs as dark descended, listening to what would be our lifeline the next few days – the transistor radio.

And when dark came, we went to bed, but not to sleep. Though the aftershocks following the 7.1 had not awakened me a single time, the ones following this one would barely let me close my eyes. We slept in our clothing, flashlights at the ready.

A few long hours later, we awakened to our new reality, all over again.

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