– Florance Place, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

Dear All
It is now timely to recount the adventures of the past months; a period of unparalleled seismic activity with adverse effects and a watershed for the future.

Last 4th September a violent earthquake shook Christchurch, its epicentre some 30km inland. It caused widespread damage to various parts of the City, however, apart from minor cracking of concrete drive and pathways our house escaped damage. A further earthquake occurred on 1st January with nil damage.

Before proceeding further it would be appropriate to describe our property. It is known, colloquially as an “ownership flat”. About 100 sq metres in area. The building sits on a concrete slab; timber framework supports a brickwork veneer exterior; roofing is long run corrugated iron. The building is well constructed, insulated with double glazing, warm and comfortable. It is sited on a plot of land, 650m2 in area that affords a small garden. The living area comprises 2 bedrooms, dining room, lounge with kitchen attached. Has all the usual offices: laundry, toilet and bathroom. Two garages separate us from our neighbour. In summary it is a small property located in a congenial district well served by public transport and handy to all the required services.

Fortunately I keep a diary, not in the Pepys league but, sufficient as a reminder. I noted on the nights of the 4th and 7th January slight tremors occurred, on the 20th a sharp 5.1 then activity tailed out.

The morning of the 22nd February Ann had an appointment to attend the local medical centre to dress a small growth on her wrist; came home and did our usual things – me to the garden to pick beans and tomatoes then a quick run over the lawn with the mower. As it was nearing 4pm decided it was time for a “cuppa” so the pair of us sat in the lounge, I with a book and Ann listening to a “talking book”. Suddenly an incredible and indescribable noise occurred together with a massive jolt from below ground then a south to north violent oscillation. Our big TV madly gyrated, the components of our entertainment centre shot across the floor. We watched our wall unit in the dining room rise from its base as though grasped by a huge hand then crashing to the ground, books and crockery becoming projectiles; a collection of vases and trays zooming through the air, pictures falling from the walls.

Ann screaming with sheer terror, me: petrified, trembling uncontrollably and momentarily unable to move. The world was crashing about our ears.

All this within the space of a few minutes.

Our now distorted house jammed all the doors in position, getting out impossible. Luckily, Bob, one of our neighbours came running across soon after the shaking ceased and managed to kick the front door open. With a lot of pushing and shoving I gotinto the garage to get a large crowbar, felt it might be handy, turned out to be a good move.. Took a minute to raise our next door neighbour. She lives alone; poor woman, she was so badly shaken. Her house in similar shape as ours.

Managed to quieten Ann; on going outside I could not believe my eyes, the devastation to the road unbelievable, huge surface cracks every where, cars upended and some half submerged in ground that had given way. Liquefaction was taking place water and silt mixed oozing up and in places many feet deep. Power, telephone and cellphones not working; water was gushing from burst mains. Felt very concerned about our son, Chris. One of my first actions was to turn on the battery powered radio, Christchurch was silent and news from other stations limited to stating that ChCh had suffered a big EQ.

The neighbourhood quickly assembled in the street to mutually congratulate ourselves on survival, whilst talking heard a telephone ring – it was Chris, told us that Sumner was wrecked but he and partner Sue were OK. I am truly amazed how quickly the telephone service was restored. Giles, one of our grandsons, rang from Wellington, discussed the safety of Ann and the absolute necessity to get her out of harm’s way as soon as possible. Plan: we fly to Whangarei Giles would drive our car up to Joanne’s place at Maungakaramea. Meanwhile Nick, Ann’s nephew got in touch, his place almost untouched, invited us to stay with him and his family for “as long as it takes”. Finalised our plan with Giles, he managed to get cheap air fares to Whangarei and he would arrive Christchurch sometime Thursday. Joanne rang, was able to reassure her that we were safe. Fortunately we had taken full notice of CD warnings about being prepared for EQ’s, plentiful supply of water, means of heating a meal, plenty of tinned and dried food items so was able to make a “cuppa” as required. Took up Nick and Kerry’s offer and decamped to their place, just around the corner; sleep was out, of the question, recurring after shocks and nervous tension.

Early Thursday morning Chris and Sue arrived to help and try to restore some semblance of order to the prevailing chaos. What a heart breaking experience; all of our prized possessions nothing more than useless rubble. Luckily the silt had not invaded the house, all of our photographs and books untouched.

In due course Giles arrived; he brought with him a mountain of food and bottled water. For us eating was not a priority – all appetite was lost. Started to collect together books, clothing, photos, personal effects and important documents for transport north. Decided to remain in our own house for the night, after shocks did not help sleep. Great source of comfort having Giles in the house. My main concern was Ann.

Friday Chris and Sue returned, helped remove all the food from the deep freeze and refrigerator. Organised help began to appear, with offers of fresh water and later a hot meal, volunteers from Rangiora, a township 20km west of ChCh. Further assistance arrived, gangs of university students armed with shovels and wheel barrows to clear the results of liquefaction many tonnes of it! Spoke to one volunteer, a Dutch lady on holiday, just wanting to help.

A further rocky night for Friday – sleep impossible.

Saturday morning we left home for the airport at 5.00am, Giles driving. The roads in our area were just passable, great holes and surface gaps for about 2kms, then almost normality street lights on, roads undamaged, took about 50mins to reach our destination. Thank heavens for Giles who had pre-booked our flights smoothing our way through security. Ann is almost completely immobile, AirNZ really turned up trumps with wheelchairs and forklifts to get Ann in and out of the aircraft. I heaved one great sigh of relief as we took off for Auckland, respite from danger. Arrived at Whangarei about 1.00 pm, to be greeted by Joanne and friend Pete.

Joanne had pulled out all the stops to accommodate us and Pete produced a bottle of wine. Soon after Chris rang, had a long chat with him going over events and likely results. A wonderful gesture by one of Jo’s friends who knew we were coming, Shiela, baked us a great cake. Our first night in Maungakaramea, a wonderful night’s sleep; the only disturbance was from a possum outside making a noise whilst eating grapes. Ann is coping, with difficulty managed to get her into the shower – bearing in mind that it was more that five days since being able to clean ourselves – a rather ripe smell.

Joanne and I started to plan a way forward, mobilising local help through Government and Local Authority agencies. Chris rang again: put our house and related affairs in his hands he also told me that low level after shocks were still occurring, power in Sumner back on and he, Sue and family were all well. His property wrecked.

Jo and I got very worried about Ann, she looked awful, in some pain and discomfort. Eventually we decided to ring the emergency number 111 for an ambulance to take her to Whangarei Public Hospital where they agreed to admit her for a few days. The shock and strain of the past few days was far too much for her to bear. Her absence gave us time to collect our thoughts and make arrangements for ongoing care; she is not capable of doing very much for herself. My thoughts now turned to the future, there appeared to be two options:

-Given time, return to Christchurch. We have a house that may be replaced or become liveable. Power, water and sewerage would eventually be restored. A supportive neighbourhood. Family nearby: Chris, Sue, Nick, Kerry, Deborah and Ben. Ready access to hospital, doctor and home help. The major drawbacks being; continuing seismic activity; the task of repair or rebuilding.

-Remain in Whangarei. Dependant entirely on equity in our now damaged house. Ready support by Joanne and her friends. Safety – absence of earthquakes and aftershocks. Access to hospital, etc., not readily available.

There was so much to consider that my mind was in a whirl, despite the above indecision ruled, however, Joanne managed to bring me back to earth and the current practicalities.

One of the first tasks was to register with the local medical centre for continuing medical supplies, completed with minimal fuss plus a great deal of sympathy and understanding when we commenced using their facilities. Next to the bank to get up to date statements, again our treatment was outstanding. In the destruction of our goods my glasses got smashed so onto the optician. Notified the Insurance Company that our house was vacant, we would be away for some time.

Visited Ann in hospital, she had made a remarkable recovery; a tremendous relief. The hospital authorities really responded to our situation with first class medical and nursing attention. Discharge on Thursday 3 March. A great weight lifted from our shoulders. Giles completed EQC Application for Compensation, interim acknowledgement. Discussed my intent to return to Christchurch with Chris, possibly late March or early April; he expressed some alarm – no great haste! Joanne trapped a possum and congratulated by her friends, never realised how much of a pest they are. One of Jo’s friends, Dave, loaned Ann a comfortable chair, well suited to her needs. People were so kind, Pat Anderson did a great pile of washing for us. Patrick and Siobhan kept us supplied with apple crumble. Pete made platforms to enable Ann to negotiate the steps into Jo’s house. Healthlink North made available a nurse to assist Ann with showering, three times a week, the Nurse, Sharon, turned out to be a most engaging person – great stories about farm life. One really big treat during our stay with Jo was provided by a friend from down the road – Janice – a roast of farm killed lamb with a fruit loaf for dessert. Cooked and presented to perfection by Jo, proof that life does have pleasantries.

A real disappointment caused by the earthquake was our inability to attend the 150th Anniversary of the Dunedin Fire Brigade, by all accounts a memorable and successful occasion. Rang Kath, our neighbour in Christchurch, she was very stressed by someone forecasting further earthquakes next full moon. Suddenly, the enormous tragedy of earthquake and tsunami in Japan, whatever is happening to the world?

Soon we slipped into a routine. Jo certainly became an expert organiser, excellent cook, great meals without a lot of fuss. My only contribution – washing up the dishes. I, in observing her, learned much about meal preparation which will come in handy when we get back home. Got a bit worried as my Cardiac Arrhythmia recurred, it disappeared within a few days. On the 18th March we watched intently the Earthquake Memorial Service from Hagley Park, a very moving experience. My thoughts about returning to Christchurch are hardening, I feel so helpless, unable to control events. Met Allan Corry in Whangarei for lunch; many years since I last saw him – we were in the Fire Service at the time, an old and valued friend.

We had now been with Joanne for over three weeks, I discussed the position with Ann, within her limitations of understanding the problem, return to Christchurch was the most practical solution. Rang our neighbour, Kath, to get first hand information as to the local situation; the indications were that normal services had been restored, a degree of normality prevailed. Got in touch with Giles who kindly booked the air fares and undertook to drive the car back to Christchurch. On Sturday 26 March we returned home. A fairly straight forward journey, AirNZ has the movement of physically impaired persons very well organised; due to various reasons our arrival was delayed by two hours which meant we missed seeing Giles before he took off for Wellington where he lives. No matter where it is and what state it is in “home is home”. Very evident that Chris, Sue and Ben had made a good job of restoring order to the premises. We got to bed at 11.30pm following a long and eventful day and giving thanks for all the help that we had received along the way.

Both Ann and I had a lie in, quite late when we finally got up. Time to take stock. Firstly get rid of a pile of washing. Soon after that was on its way Chris and Sue arrived with a load of groceries and other necessities. Joanne rang, I will miss her company, she is a wonderful and caring daughter. Got in touch with Giles and thanking him for all his efforts. Stacey, the nurse that assists Ann with showering, rang to say she would be resuming her task. Sorting out radio and TV was a challenge – I arose to the occasion and at least established communications; Sky was defunct and the call for assistance went out, reaction was prompt. Same applies to the burglar/fire alarm system. Word soon got out that we were back so the telephone commenced earning its keep. Got back onto the Internet and dismayed to find a huge list of messages – this prompted me to compile this and reply in one fell swoop!

Our house has been the subject of an exterior assessment and judged as having “minor structural damage” however, my interior assessment differs widely. The house has moved laterally by about 3cm and slopes from east to west, very large crack in the kitchen floor and I suspect extends to other parts. It is an uncanny feeling to walk about inside the house with its altering slopes. Will be very surprised if it is not replaced. It is habitable, warm and waterproof and, providing there are no further serious shakes, it will see us through the winter.

Prior to the ‘quake we were giving thought to selling up and entering a retirement village; planning is now out of the question. The remaining equity in our property is anyone’s guess; on the face of it our insurance cover appears adequate, time will tell.

Hopefully the foregoing will bring you up to date, in closing I ask you to spare a thought for Christchurch. What was once a most beautiful city is now, in parts, a pile of rubble; bent, battered but not down. With assistance it will in due course recover, one can only be thankful that all the services required to overcome this awful event responded with total dedication and continues to do so. The amount of work that has gone in since the fateful day is tremendous, the almost impossible has been achieved. It is good to be back.

Footnote: 07/11/2011: we are both in our nineties, my wife, Ann has residual effects of three strokes and not entirely sentient. I have an ongoing heart problem which is reasonably well controlled, additionally, I am recovering from a back operation, corrective surgery for compressed spinal nerve system. The above was sent to all our friends and relatives in response to their many enquiries.

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