– Governors Bay, Canterbury and Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Disrupted lives – living with earthquakes. Diary entries from 17-20 May 2011

Monday 17th May 5.30am
I look around me in my granddaughter’s room, the yet again ‘new’ room from all the shifting, and feel comforted by the familiar. The pretty little dressing table with its mirror almost covered with girly stickers, the prints of the famous images of a child, which used to hang in her mother’s room when she was a little, and the delicate porcelain puppet from Prague looking down from the wall. I am in wonder these things survived not just the quake and falling rubble, but the exposure for weeks to the elements as the battered house in the Avon Loop stood empty and red stickered, before the rescue attempts for the contents began. First the perishables, then the clothing and precious pictures and other art work were rescued, each visit a drama of waiting for cordons to come down then waiting for after shocks to ease, then negotiating road blocks and closures and finally mustering nerves to go into the sad and broken family home. Finally, a yellow sticker arrived on the door indicating restricted access and the cordon was lifted. This was after about one and a half months. The next challenge was to get a removal firm agreeable and able to go into the yellow stickered house to remove the furniture and kitchen things and the larger white ware items.

At first when you survive the initial terrifying event, you are happy if you retreat from where the event hit you with your life intact. Then as the weeks move on you start to miss your environments, your familiar things. If it was your home where you were at the time of the earthquake, you start to have gradually a different perspective from the initial flight response. We are like bewildered small creatures creeping back into the damaged zones, gazing at the enormity of the damage, of the change wrought on us and our environments. Some of us, many of us, go back into the broken homes to retrieve cherished and familiar material items. Rather than an unnecessary luxury, these objects become important comfort in these strange times. So much is continuously changing around us as buildings are brought to the ground in the days, weeks and months following the seconds where the earth underneath us did the unthinkable and tried to rid itself of us. I now know how it would feel to be an ant being flicked off a human body it had annoyed by its scurrying.

I am reminded of childhood stories, giants featuring, of Lilliput and Jack and the Beanstalk, of the highly improbable it seemed then , being human and tiny with complete vulnerability in the stories to the whims of huge beings that would shake the world, could lift up homes, could wreck landscapes. In the stories, these terrors which could cause such devastation were always in a tangible form, often bearing human likeness. Yet here now, not in fantasy but in real life, we have complete vulnerability to a force unimaginable, that cannot be seen, that cannot be anticipated, that can only be measured after each event as to the strength of it. We all struggle to come to terms with the unseen terror beneath us that has made a drastic appearance twice now, and others less catastrophic, but in varying degrees of disturbance around 7000 times since September. That’s about an average of 800 times per month, nine months of shaking. In the stories, as children, we are often told to believe the characters who are being subjected to terrors have made foolish choices that have disturbed the dangerous creatures or giants or spirits, that the forces are unleashed because there is anger and that things will calm if there is resolution to the conflict.

Just prior to the 4th September 2010 we were all watching Margaret Mahy’s story, Kaitangata Twitch, in televised format. Set locally in our harbour at Governors Bay it seemed far-fetched indeed to see the sands on the beach and indeed the whole Bay in all its beauty shudder and rumble and visibly shake. And yet that’s what it has been doing since that first event. I have stood in my garden, which gently rolls down towards the sea by its avenue of silver birch trees and I have heard the rumble and watched the ground convulse. I have heard the grandchildren scream in terror from the compost heap near the chook house where they were burying a dead bird, “Granny, Ganga, stop the ground moving, make it stop.” And I was unable in the seconds of tremor to move a step towards them. And that was just an aftershock in the calmer weeks between the big ones. I lost my credibility. I could not give reassurance to my grandchildren. Their world was changed forever. I could not answer the question as we drove from the city up the Cashmere Hills, reaching the top and looking down into the beautiful harbour towards the Bay and home, “Granny, is the earthquake asleep today?”
I think that is the worst thing for me about what has happened after the earthquakes, the loss of security about anything.

We accept as we get older that there is so much we cannot control but we do most of us try to “settle”. As the words “settling down” suggest, we make homes. These become our places of refuge from what goes on in the wider world around us. The very concept of settling down suggesting stability, rootedness, a place to make a bed, put your head down at night, to rest but now, since September in Canterbury, that concept is a changed one. Many of us have physically lost that safe place we called home, others have lost a loved person they shared that place with, while others, carry with them a constant reminder of that moment, an injury never allowing them to forget. Some have gone back to that place called home, even broken, choosing the place they know, the familiar, broken as it is, over the unfamiliar rental or temporary accommodation.

May 19th, Hobart, at “Ashfield” the home of friend Barbara
Diary entry 6.00am – Once again I wake early, still on New Zealand time. I sit in my lovely white linened comfortable bed in a quiet room that does not shake. I could get used to this. Pictures that hang on the walls and do not go crooked in the night.

I wake thinking troubled thoughts about my family back in New Zealand and about my broken house, and reflect on the conversation last night with my husband as he described the ‘progress’ the builders are making in our broken house. Yes, we are some of those who have gone back home even though home is much changed by the earthquake.
There have been already so many ‘man’ ‘woman’ hours put into the restoration of some normality and safety again within the cracked walls of our home at “Ribbonwood.” Yet it is still so precarious, with its future unknown. We may be required to pull it all down, may be permitted to rebuild some part of it – what exactly are we waiting for? Who is making the decision? Negotiating the different entities responsible for decision making and payment is like negotiating a minefield – exhausting, depressing, frustrating. We approve work to go ahead for temporary and urgent repairs with verbal assurance from EQC representatives in Brisbane who I talk with on the telephone, yet there is this fear in the background constantly. Will they honour the promises with actual payments? When will these payments arrive?

The noise and the mess is fairly constant, not just at our place but neighbours too, and then there is the chaos on streets and in the city when we go “over the hill” with no end in sight. I wonder, do I want the years as I grow older to be with this scenario as a background. We go in circles trying to work out what is next and what is best for our future.

20th May
It is three months now since the devastating event. Here far away in Hobart, I am relishing time to myself and being spoilt in all ways by my dear friend Barb. She had rung shortly after the earthquake and said, “I want to help, to do something for you and your family. I would like to help you, Rosie, to come to Tasmania and send back things for the family with you.” What an offer. I could not turn it down.

I am on one of the garden seats looking out over the yachts moored at the Royal Yacht Club at Sandy Bay. The land is looking just pre-winter proper, some coloured leaves still clinging to the branches. The sky has muted colours and the air is still. There are birds in the background and some gentle cooing from doves, and the hedges look precise and beautiful with their just recent pre winter hair cut, topiaries strong in their images again.

I read this morning on Geonet that Christchurch is still having aftershocks. There have been about forty since I left one week ago. Mark says he doesn’t feel them any more. I’m just glad to be away.

The builder rang this morning too tell me he had taken the fire place down to the hearth, but the hearth was mess so he has taken it down further and needs to pour a new hearth. Is that okay? And it needs to come further out into the room to accommodate the new retrofit fireplace. “Fine, fine,” I say. “Does Mark know?” “No.” “Oh well, there’s no alternative, you’ll just have to do it.” We are so conscious of the need to get these heating devices in before the real winter hits. Yesterday it was the other team of builders ringing me, the ones working on the little house. The plan is to complete this building before the winter proper so we can sleep in it instead of the caravan but there are hold ups and big problems!

“Doing emergency repairs” the builder says, being asked what is going on by the neighbour at the end of the lane. We are all nervous knowing we should go through a consent process, but also knowing this will take a long time, and that in what is an emergency situation we reassure ourselves we can get the job completed while the builders are available. We will sort the consent later! This is not to be. We are delayed by 3 months and there is a lot more stress, but now we have a compliant and very well piled building in the front garden.

I am treated here to beautiful meals, restful walks, garden visits, and the kindness of strangers. I met today a woman who was holidaying in Christchurch in February. She explained she was a regular visitor to Christchurch returning to a city she loved on an annual basis. “I was in Latimer Square,” she says, “staying. We packed up and left on the morning of Feb the 22nd driving south to Tekapo. We were just checking in at our motel, when we felt the ground jolt, 434km away. And then we saw the screens in the lobby. I thought why are they replaying the scenes of 4th September 2010 earthquake and then someone tells us no, this is live, that jolt we felt was the aftermath of a giant quake in Christchurch and in Latimer Square where we have been peacefully staying, people were dying in collapsed buildings. In a few hours Latimer Square would become a triage centre for the wounded. I felt sick,” she says.

I cannot leave this all behind even as far away as Hobart. But nor do I want to. It is not over yet, the sorting, the decisions. I am numb most days to any feelings about what has occurred. Showing the pictures on my laptop to my friends here, it seems sanitised. I can feel nothing. There is no smell, no noise, no emotion. I feel guilty I can feel nothing. Perhaps it isn’t so bad after all, as Japan is so much worse.

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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