Dear Whoever, I write this in May, 2011. Some people here in Christchurch are talking about things “getting back to normal” after the earthquakes. But I think we are adapting to a new kind of normality. A lot of things have become normal here that never used to be. Read this and see what you think.

A is for
Aftershocks. It is normal to feel aftershocks, in other words new earthquakes smaller than the big ones. There are thousands of these, according to the guys who measure their size (the “size-mologists”). Dozens of them are easily felt. An aftershock is certainly an earthquake. The earth moves! And a respectable earthquake doesn’t come alone.

B is for
Bricks. It is normal to see piles of broken bricks and other rubble at or near people’s gates. It is not uncommon to see a huge pile spread across a whole section where a shop used to be.

B is also for
Barriers and Boulders and Bricks and Buildings and Bumps and Buttresses (see appendix)

C is for
Chimneys. It is normal to see no chimneys on houses. Often you see the gap where the chimney used to be. Sometimes you see an oblong of plastic on the roof, or a pile of bricks on the ground, or a vertical strip of wall made of plywood. Sometimes one sees a brick thing projecting more than 10cm above a roof, and says: “Look, that house has a chimney!”

C is also for
Chemical Toilets, Churches, CBD and Cracks

D is for
Dust. It is normal to see dust. On dry windy days it blows about. On other days we mightn’t see it, but it’s still present in smaller quantities. We still breathe it in, it still collects on our windows, on our cars, even on the bookshelves which we have yet to restock with dusty books. It gets in our eyes.

D is also for
Doors and Ditches and Diggers.

E is for
Earth. It is normal to be very aware of the dynamic earth underneath us. It keeps reminding us that we are perching on the unstable skin of a hot molten planet. What we call terra firma is not firm at all, and other common expressions are shown to be laughable, like “safe as houses” and “permanent materials”.

F is for
Footpaths. It is normal to see cracks and crinkles, not just in old footpaths. The pavement seems to be experimenting to see what it can do to make people stumble or trip.

F is also for

G is for
Geonet. It is normal for people to consult a clever internet site that lists recent earthquakes. This has become a household word. We consult Geonet to see where the latest quake’s epicentre was, and especially to see whether we guessed correctly its Richter number.

G is also for
Geotech reports.

H is for
Holes. It is normal to see small holes in roads and footpaths, up to 50cm wide or deep. Wet weather encourages the growth of existing potholes and the propagation of new ones.

H is also for
Handbasins, Hard hats and Hollows.

I is for
Intersections. It is normal not to recognise these. It turns out that a shop with a high brick frontage was how we used to recognise the place, or a stone church… but what landmark is there now? Which intersection used to have that pile of rubble? None!

I is also for
Insurance assessors.

J is for
Jobs. It is normal to ask not “How’s you job going?” but “Where’s your job these days?” or “Do you still have a job?” or “What job are you doing now?”

J is also for
Jolts and Jiggles.

K is for
Kitchen Stocking. Many people intend to do Kitchen Stocking, which actually means restocking – the replacement of crockery and glassware, and of fluids formerly kept in breakable containers (wines, sauces, cooking oils). Liquids love to go downwards, and they seize any opportunity given by seismic movement.
But most people are in no hurry to do Kitchen Stocking, and may even wait for the Christmas Stocking.

L is for
Liquefaction. It is normal to talk of liquefaction, a process few of us knew about, but which can pull the ground out from under a city’s feet. This has become a household word, and some people use it to mean the liquids produced from the process – in particular the silt that is suddenly ejected by a quake.

L is also for
Leaning hotels.

M is for
Mud. It is normal to encounter mud, not just after rain, but frequently and in big quantities. Mud happens wherever exposed earth is affected by water (be it on hillsides, riverbanks or building-sites). Water need not come from above, or horizontally across the street, or from below.

M is also for
Mess and Munted.

N is for
new normal, now normal. It is normal to see big new signs starting with N: “No entry” signs, “No exit” signs. Also “New address” signs, and “Now located at…”. (Just occasionally one sees a sign saying “not munted”)

O is for
Ooze. It is normal to see signs of continuing ooze or seepage, in lawns and gardens, in footpaths and roads. The ooze is likely to smell unpleasant, whether or not it contains waste-water from cracked pipes.

P is for
Portaloos. It is normal to see these objects on the roadside every 200 metres or so. Despite their sometimes bright colours, they are now part of the everyday landscape.

P is also for
Pictures, Pumps, Pipes above ground, pools, puddles, prefabs and plywood.

Q is for
Quakes. It is normal to talk about “quakes”, rather than “earthquakes”. Are there any other kinds of quake? None that deserve the name!

R is for
Roadcones. It is normal to see thousands of road-cones on any average trip. Sometimes they form orderly lines of 100-200, sometimes they stand in groups to guard a hazard, sometimes they lie down and obstruct the carriageway. In my own street one day I counted 246. And dozens of streets are comparable, which is why I call it normal.

R is also for
Roads, Riversides, and Rubble.

S is for
Silt. It is normal to see piles and pools of dirty gray silt, which people call liquefaction, and which is indeed the product of the sudden liquefaction process. In dry weather it turns to unpleasant dust.

S is also for
Scaffolding, Supercranes, Shipping-containers, Seismologists and Staircasing.

T is for
Tarpaulins. It is normal to see these on at least one roof in ten – guarding where the chimney used to be, or covering many square metres of unsound tiles.

T is also for
Toilets, tanks, tents and trucks.

U is for
Uncertainty. It is normal to be coping with uncertainty. Ours are not the universal uncertainties, however. We now say “I’m not really sure,” when asked: “When will your house be fixed?”, or “Will your house be fixed?” or “When will you have to move out?” or “How long will you have to move out for?” or “Will you be allowed to rebuild on that location?” These are uncertainties that eat away at people. “When will the sky fall down or the earth leap up and bite us?”

U is also for
Underground and Uniforms.

V is for
Visibility Jackets. It is normal to see people wearing bright visibility jackets. Not just men, and not just working-class men. Some wear hard hats as well. And some are inspectors, or pretending to be.

V is also for

W is for
Walls. It is normal to see walls that have lost bricks from the top, from the top half, or from top to bottom; or walls of brick or concrete blocks that are propped up with wooden buttresses.

W is also for
Windows, Workmen and Wheelbarrows.

X is for
Xchange. It is normal to see buses lined up on two different avenues, which thus form the new Xchanges (hubs) of public transport. This is due to the munting of the inner-city hub sometimes called the Bus Sex-Change.

Y is for
Yukkiness, yukky mess, yukky dust, yukky dirt, yukky silt, yukky ooze.
Yet now it is normal to resist describing anything as yukky. This is because mess and dust and dirt and silt and ooze have become normal… and because after two months we’re still not allowed to visit the CBD where there are flies and rats and mushrooms growing, and the perishables in the food-shops have yet to be properly dealt with after three months…imagine that!

Z is for
Zones. It is normal to talk about the numbered zones in the inner city, particularly the Red Zone. This remains off-limits, even though it is the heart of the CBD.


Barriers. It is normal to see barrier fences around old buildings. These are metal ones nearly 2m high, or higher. And they’re built to last for years.

Buildings. It is normal to assume that every building has been affected in some way by being seismically jumped. If one sees a lean, a fissure, or just a small crack, one’s first hypothesis is earthquake damage.

Buttresses. It is normal to see buttresses on brick or stone buildings or walls. The modest ones are simple wooden props, the ambitious ones (used especially for churches) are huge structures of steel.

Boulders. It’s normal to see boulders on the bottom of cliffs, or boulders looking as if they might jump down to join their colleagues below. I even saw men on ropes halfway down a cliff dislodging boulders.

Bumps. It is normal on roads to encounter ‘speed-bumps’ even on arterial roads. They are not in predictable spots, and often there is no proper warning that your car is about to hit one.

Businesses. It is normal to check whether a business is still trading, and whether it is in its same premises or not. Phone calls and internet searches may be needed.

Churches. It is normal for churches to have lost the apex of every end wall, or any side wall that rises to a high point of stone or brick. Earthquakes have a special dislike for neo-gothic.

Cones. See road-cones

Chemical Toilets.

Churches. It is normal for churches to have lost the apex of every end wall, or any side wall that rises to a high point of stone or brick. Earthquakes have a special dislike for neo-gothic.

Cracks. It’s normal to see cracks in walls, in roads, in footpaths, on sportsfields, close to riverbanks.

Ditches and diggers. It is normal to see deliberately dug ditches. Along footpaths, across roads, along roads. It is normal to see the diggers digging more. The two kinds of diggers are mechanical and human. Some are even Australian.

Doors. It is normal to encounter doors that open or close with difficulty, or refuse to do either, or have draughty gaps above or below. This can be observed even with new houses.

Floors. It is normal to encounter floors that slope gently or suddenly downwards, or have bumps or hollows. This can be observed even in new houses – indeed new houses are the ones most affected by the cracking of concrete floor-slabs.

Geotech reports. It is normal to mention these is a serious voice, as if they were exam results that will be released sometime to decide our fate. In a way they are.

Handbasins. It is normal to doubt the quality of tap water. Can I drink this? Can I brush my teeth with this? Can I stand the chlorine taste?

Hard Hats. It is normal to observe this fashionable headwear, particularly on men.

Hollows. It is normal, even on smooth roads or footpaths, to encounter a few unexpected hollows. There is no warning, except when rain has turned them into puddles or pools.

Insurance assessors. It is normal to look to these people for assistance, or at least for clarity in understanding our financial futures.

Jolt, jiggle. It is normal to feel a jolt every day or two (a quake measuring over 3.5)
Or at least a jiggle (say 3 to 3.5).

Leaning hotels. It is normal to see tall leaning hotels, even from several kilometres away. We are told the lean is very slight, but it’s easy to see. The so-called “high-rise” buildings might be aptly called “heavy-fall buildings.”

Mess. It is normal to encounter mess, even in homes that have been lived in continuously. For example, books piled in confusion on or near people’s shelves, because they have obviously decided it’s a waste of time putting them back in proper order – at least not until the shelves are anchored.

Pictures. It is normal to see pictures hanging obviously crooked on people’s walls, because they have obviously decided it’s a waste of time straightening them.

Pumps. It is normal to see and hear large chugging water-pumps, on the footpath, or on traffic islands, even in the middle of the road. These are temporary installations to cope with liquids that are not being coped with properly.

Pipes above ground. It is normal to see pipes (water or even sewage pipes) running along a few footpaths, in place of the ones that are doubtless still there underground, munted.

Plywood. It is normal to see big sheets of plywood tacked or screwed onto buildings, either to cover the broken windows or block the path of burglars. Or to replace the cladding of the house: my own place has over 20 m2 of plywood, six-ply sheets that ought to last a winter or two.

Prefabs. It is normal to see ugly new buildings that have sprung up like silt. More than one stretch of green grass now resembles an army barracks. These prefabs are only meant to stay for 3-5 years. Yeah right!


Roads. It is normal to negotiate stretches of shingle road in the city. These tend to get longer and not shorter over time. It is normal to encounter roadblocks or bottlenecks, even on streets one has used recently. It is normal for two-lane roads to narrow unexpectedly into one lane.

Riverside roads. It is normal to avoid these. Some are blocked in any case, and it seems that all suffer from lengthwise cracking where one side of the road has slumped towards the river.

Rubble. It is normal to see piles of rubble, usually including brick. By the road, in people’s gardens, beside the walls of shops and flats. Some of these rubble piles have got together and formed a hill in a nearby forest.

Scaffolding. It is normal to see scaffolding on buildings, especially near the city centre. There is a huge amount of it about, notably on churches and office blocks. We cannot assume that these are being repaired: some are actually being carefully demolished, and others seem to be condemned to limbo.

Supercranes. It is normal to see abnormal-sized cranes. Cranes to assist with tall blocks and churches have to be gigantic. They say these are the biggest in the country.

Shipping containers. It is normal to see these large objects lined up under a high building or a cliff, even if this means filling half the roadway.

Seismologists. It is normal for people, even people who’d never even heard of seismologists, to look to these guys to help understand what’s happening underneath.

Staircasing. It is normal to see staircasing in walls built of concrete blocks or of brick. This is where cracking forms not a straight line but a series of right-angled steps, vertical and horizontal, angling down like a staircase.

Toilets. It is normal to wonder “Should I use this toilet or not? Should I flush it? Will it overload the system? Will it fail to drain properly? ”

Toilet tanks. It is normal to see these wherever chemical toilets are or were in use.

Tents. It is normal to see big tents in carparks and sportsfields. It is normal for them to have people sitting inside watching television and computer screens. Yes, they have electrical wiring.

Trucks. It is normal to see and hear large trucks, throughout the daylight hours, creating small tremors wherever they pass.

Underground. It is normal to think about what lies buried underground, particularly the pipes carrying fresh water and waste-water. We cannot ignore these things or take them for granted. Besides, there are many teams of workmen digging at them, exposing them, and making efforts to repair or replace them.

Uniforms. It is normal to see men in uniform. Around the city centre they are often army uniforms, guarding the “red zone”. On one occasion we even saw an army tank (LUV) rumbling down our suburban street, in uniform!.

Voids. It is normal to see – or rather not see – big gaps where buildings used to stand. The most striking voids are where tall buildings used to be, or where there had been two-storey corner shops.

Windows. It is normal to see broken windows on deserted buildings, and boarded-up windows where glass used to be.

Workmen. It is normal to see many kinds of workman every day: sewage, electricity, roading workers. And they can be seen to be working!

Wheelbarrows. It is normal to see these beside people’s drives or garages. The fashionable colour is a sort of roughcast gray.

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