– Governors Bay, Canterbury, New Zealand

Disrupted lives – living with earthquakes. Diary entries from April-early May 2011

I did not expect to be writing again about an event which changed my life abruptly, but here I am, 8 months into a new journey, this time not an individual one, as it is shared simultaneously by a few hundred thousand people. We all have our individual stories but there is within the zone a shared experience. We have bad days and better days. We have sleepless nights and better nights. Some of us are affected more than others. My husband lies sleeping beside me, completely relaxed and in a deep sleep. My dog Lui has been disturbed again and lies between us at feet level in the bed, happy now and asleep again, ‘safe’ with the people he loves, but even he has had enough of being shaken. And me, I sit writing by the light of the bedside lamp in the caravan where we sleep in the front paddock. Ever since the first terrible seismic event on September 4th, 2010, our lives have been changed. Our city, our family, our friends, all have been affected.

But lives are still being lived. I hear in the distance, rare these days of roads so damaged, a hoon car. The wind is getting up in strength and I wonder how it will be here when real winter kicks in. So far we have been lucky. The earth began its huge heave way back in the early spring, eight months ago now. We consoled ourselves through those early days with ‘at least we’re coming out of winter, heading towards warmth and summer,’ time to repair, to regroup, and to grow again in confidence. And there were no deaths at first, but then of course that all changed. Summer did come and with the warm, long days, the rhythms of life continued, the gardens grew their produce and the orchards their fruit. It was a bumper blackberry season and citrus too, and feijoa’s and figs. The sea was warm and the days settled.

Around Christmas on Christmas night and Boxing Day, we were given a big wake up again. A big jolt that was right under our city, and then a subsidence again on to late summer and early autumn, the harvest about to begin, Black Doris plums just ready and red skinned pears and Golden Queen peaches and the last of the strawberries and the first of the luscious black grapes.

That’s when it happened again and the earth threw us around so bad this time that the buildings were like flimsy tinsel. Down they came, one after another, brick and mortar and wood and iron and steel and concrete and glass. Down into twisted heaps. This time, there were people under them. This time there were deaths and injuries and what terror. Water and mud and sewerage seeped up from under the ground. The city and its inhabitants submitted to torture. Some ran, and then returned, some ran and did not come back. I wanted to run and not come back, but after running and resting elsewhere briefly, I did come back.

As a friend said today standing at the bottom of the garden path farewelling me following Easter lunch held here in the garden, “you need to stay on this land, your soul is here.” Sure I’m thinking now, in the middle of the night, with the frightened dog twitching on the end of the bed in the caravan, my soul might be home on this land, but is this the rational thing to do, to stay in our unpredictable ‘war’ zone with the accompanying high anxiety. But what choice do we have? For most of us who call this place, Canterbury, our home, we have more than just an emotional attachment, we have financial constraints. We have mortgages. Many of us have homes and businesses damaged that need vigilance and nursing through this intensive care period to maintain what we own materially, or how do we start again? We also need each other, and the only people who really understand are the other people who have gone through this trauma with us.

People from outside say “you are heroic”. Certainly there have been huge numbers of heroic deeds during this enormous crisis for our city and its inhabitants, but it is not heroism to stay here and carry on. Rather the human drive and need to pull our homes into some sort of liveable shape again, and to carry on doing what needs to be done on a daily basis. To be fed, to be working and earn again, and to try and reassure our young that they can be safe with us adults again, that is definitely the hardest bit. How do you reassure the young ones when you have no answers, no surety from one second to the next?

April 27th 2011 Diary entry
It’s been a cold night in the caravan. There was almost a frost this morning. My fingers are cold writing this. Just made the early morning walk in dressing gown and boots and scarf across the paddock through the gap in the hedge, down the perennial border to the little house at the bottom of the garden to go to the “en suite”. Quite a mission to get to the bathroom and one hopes fervently not to have to go during the night. I think and feel for all the hundreds, even thousands of people in Christchurch eastern suburbs having to make their journey to a Portaloo, not through a beautiful autumnal garden as I have here, but rather to a broken suburban footpath, often still caked in packed mud and after rain, a black wet concrete like substance. One neighbour of my sons has had a Portaloo now since September – 6 months. It’s embedded in mud and on a distinct lean since the February quake. The neighbour decorated it with Christmas lights to demonstrate its presence. There is a feeling in the street now of hopelessness. Sadness and anger have been replaced by this. What can they do? The street at surface level has had some flattening, some new tarseal, but underneath it is hollow and liquid with water wastes. The smell has gone but the problem lurks and makes impossible the drainage of water from the households, so no baths, no laundry washing, certainly no toilet flushing. And then carry on and have a normal life? Go to work; send the kids to school, present well to the world. It’s a challenge, and a challenge many in the eastern suburbs can no longer step up to.

In these areas you can never forget the events of the past months, not even if you were blind. I walk using a walking stick and the uneven surfaces now cause me much misjudgement with my steps. And with eyes open, the wonkiness of it all is at every turn, lamp posts one way, houses another and yet different to each other, neighbour to neighbour. A front fence or wall outwards, another inwards, a house sunk to the left and another close by to the right.

They sit there sadly, no longer brave, many unable to shelter their dwellers, and others still acting as a winter shelter despite their angles and broken bits. Post quake Christchurch dwellers no longer so fussy about their surroundings, settling for what will keep them housed warmly through the cold months ahead.

Common conversations, “how are you doing?” “Oh well, we are getting there. Are you back living in your house?” “Well, yes and no – staying there during the day. Lots of cracks, plaster down, chimney down and the house has moved off its poles. We’re on a bit of a lean but hey, we’re warm and dry.”

Of course there are those who can answer differently- “well, actually we’ve been lucky, just a few ornaments down and a few cracks in the gib. But hey, we’re okay.”
Sometimes these people express guilt or embarrassment that they have not been affected like their fellow Cantabrians, or their relatives and friends, and sometimes they just enjoy their good fortune. At least there is somewhere nice and unbroken to go to as a neighbour, as a relative, it is not all complete devastation. That’s one of the weird aspects of a natural disaster like this, the randomness, or seeming randomness of the assault on the surface dwellings. I’m sure if you could see underneath from the perspective of the exterior of the earth’s crust you would see why the effects above ground are as they are, but we can’t do that, we can only feel and see. We can gaze with awe on the outcome of the powerful thrusts and twists from below and we can have the ongoing experience of a land surface that feels fragile. Even heavy vehicles passing by, now make our homes vibrate and move, no longer a stable earth, and the psychological effects for those being shaken or jolted on a daily basis takes its toll.

May 8th 2011
And so it goes on. And the strangeness that is our new lives progresses. Some things stay the same – the seasonal changes. Today we all raked leaves. The leaves feel like drifts of snow, beautiful with their golden and red colours, making gorgeous patinas on the decks outside. For a few moments it seems like none of the ‘new’ has happened and then my vision draws back and down and I see the walls around, all with their cracks and cavities, and the lean on the floor towards the front of the house draws my attention, a constant reminder of the changes wrought on the 22nd February. We are visited by another engineer on Friday, this time sent over by the insurance company. Hailed from Auckland, of Iranian descent, he looks around, alerted by the dangers. One of his announcements remains on my mind. “Your house,” he says wryly, “has split in two and one half is trying to leave the other half, sooner rather than later. I would spend as little time as possible upstairs,” he says. He leaves wishing us well as so many other assessors, consultants, and engineers have done before him. “It’s not going to be easy, good luck.” “Will I see you again,” I call out. “Probably not,” he says.

Some days our confidence returns and we breeze through the day with some normality, and then another big hit again, and we are vulnerable again. Yesterday was like that for me. We were enjoying a quiet cup of tea, me and my daughter in law in her new rental. One of the characteristics of post quake city is relocation, moving, change. It is a very pleasant new space looking back towards the hills, the Cashmere hills in their autumn beauty, the grasses dry and golden, and the children playing in their bedroom, reading a pile of new library books. A quake hits, it seems to grow, mouths go dry, and eyes enlarge as we are buffeted. Then the children emerge, crawling from the bedroom. One darts under the table and makes a turtle. She is crying piteously. The other is silent and ashen faced. I am sick to the core and taken right back again to those terrible seconds on the 22nd February. My daughter in law shares with me a day later their saddest story about the four year old, mute with shock. He has three songs, she tells me, he has made up, which he alternates performing, the earthquake one, the tornado one or the salami one (tsunami).

He is four years old and his world has been crammed with these experiences and images. Today he says, as they begin to drive to preschool, “I’m going to sing a song about happy times. Remember the happy times Mummy? You know how we had one earthquake and then another earthquake, well, before that was happy times.” There is no adequate
response to make to this statement.

This story is an extract from an unpublished manuscript written by Rosie Belton between 4 September 2010-22 February 2012. Read more of Rosie Belton’s writing here

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