– Governors Bay, Canterbury, New Zealand

Earthquake Canterbury – 14 Days of Shaking

Written over the weeks between Sept 4th and Sept 18th 2010. I began to write this diary in Governors Bay, Christchurch then carried it on in Hanmer Springs where we took some respite from the shakes. It is here I get the stories from the grandchildren and Mark because it is only when we are out of the quaking zone that the children have the perspective and confidence to talk about what has happened to them on Sept 4th. I end this piece of writing in Christchurch where I thought I was finishing an amazing account of an earthquake and its 14 days of aftershocks!!!

September 4th 2010 4.35 am:
I woke to hear the loudest sound roaring through the bedroom. Everything was juddering – dadada, dada dada, dadada, on and on it went, rising in crescendo, until you could not imagine anything being able to be louder, or more movement without the house falling around us. We hung on to each other, Mark, my husband, and I, and called to the 3 grandchildren, sleeping also upstairs in the house. I thought we were all going to die here in the blackness – in this chaos – not knowing what was going on. I knew it was an earthquake but it was not anything like any of the earthquakes I had ever experienced in my lifetime. This one was off the chart. Like a science fiction, not real. As the first episode died down slightly, Mark went to the children’s rooms, returning first with 2 girls then a boy, all awake and ‘owl like’ in their terror. We clung to each other as more terrible jolts began and more glass fell.

I found myself reassuring the children, trying to sound so in control. “It’s okay. It’s an earthquake, a big one, but it’s all going to be okay.” The children are very quiet, but cling to me like limpets. We ring people on our mobile, other family members. A son in Akaroa, a son and daughter-in-law and 2 other grandchildren in Avonside Christchurch and friends here in the Bay. All have stories to tell. All are shocked, but all are alive.

Mark reminds me it is my birthday. “Happy birthday dear Rosie.” The dear children try to sing to me and I add, “Happy birthday to me,” so happy to be alive.

As the light comes, we look around and survey the damage. The rooms are strewn with broken glass and fallen, sharply rearranged objects. We make our way to the bathroom with the children, toilet stops essential with such shocked people. Water is brought from the devastated kitchen, our mouths dry with fear. I stand downstairs, astonished at the state of my home, in those minutes which seemed like tens of minutes. The pictures left on the walls are hanging at odd angles, such a vicious assault on the home. I am completely amazed. I look out the window at an exquisite night sky, the quarter moon hanging so still. It seems impossible what has just occurred. No time to contemplate before the next shock is hitting. I think we had 98 aftershocks in that first 24 hours post the ‘big one’. We are concentrating on keeping warm. It is five degrees outside. And keeping as calm as possible in the circumstances and getting some routines for the children, especially with their mum away in Auckland and Dad in Australia. I manage well for the first two hours and then I start to shake uncontrollably and cry. The children are left trying to console me – they sing to me and stroke me. And then the bird calls for early morning spring in Governors Bay begin. It is as if nothing at all unusual has occurred. But it has.

When crisis hits, I write. That’s what helps. It reminds me, after the first big quake, of how I felt after brain surgery, utterly vulnerable and treading unknown waters. And of course there is a whole population of Canterbury, New Zealand, having variations on these thoughts. The wobbling earth becomes a focus of our lives, despite trying to get back to ‘normal’ lives again. There is an alertness to sound and movement that is exhausting, day after day.

5th September 2010:
I am too busy managing a household without power and coping with traumatised self and children to write anything.

6th September 1.00am:
And the last big aftershock was just 10 minutes ago. My birthday will be memorable. The 61st birthday as we were awoken by the fury of the earth. A 7.1 or more earthquake centred quite close to Darfield, 30kms west of Christchurch. Terrifying in the extreme, and for 42 hours the ground has been wobbling. It is very unsettling.

8th September 2-30am:
And we have entered day 5 of the earthquake and its aftermath. A light rain is falling outside. The sounds are familiar and slightly comforting, but not comforting enough to dispel the deep fear that has become a nightly companion to those of us living in the earthquake zone and experiencing the aftershocks from the Christchurch quake. Since that initial shock, the shock that you experience after such a terrifying event, it has been a roller coaster for Cantabrians as we try to resume the normal daily activities and attend to the cleanups and the practical necessities of reviewing losses and of putting in insurance claims. There is a need to talk and share the experiences of the initial event and of the days following, with family, friends and neighbours and with colleagues and strangers. There is grief in the community and a need for those of us hit less hard to reach out and comfort those with huge loss and confusion.

Daylight each day brings a certain relief – somehow because being able to see, makes the aftershocks seem slightly less scary. Night time has become a time of dread as we feel yet another jolt or tremor. ‘Tremor’ seems such an inappropriate word to describe the events. It is exhausting, both physically and mentally, as you brace yourself yet again for another rumbling, then shaking, then a jolt. The last one at around 1.00 am or so was only 4.6 but very shallow and closer to Christchurch. I have found myself unable to sleep, constantly imagining I am feeling movement but checking the Geonet site on the computer and seeing only 1 quake registered for Wednesday 8th so far. Yesterday there were 25, 2 of which were 5.2 and 5.4 respectively, the day before, 32.

Here is another one. “Oh shit,” I say, as my whole being lurches with anticipatory fear. It was short and small but a constant reminder that the earth under us is unsettled is rearranging itself, and we the tiny beings on its surface have absolutely no control over what is happening under us.

How the grandchildren are doing tonight in their respective homes, I wonder. Some of them are so disturbed, fluctuating from extreme upset to withdrawn, pale anxiety. The sun came out and it was a hot nor wester on day 3 and for a while the children played outside, happily bouncing on the trampoline, 5 cousins, 2 dogs, and 2 rabbits. But like a war zone, the events carry on and the uncertainty surrounding the events, and we the adults seem not to have the answers the children require to help them to feel safe.

Later on Wednesday 8th September 2010:
How often do we see news reports of earthquakes and devastation in countries far from our own. Those images of piles of rubble and children staring out from the page with empty eyes, or people huddled together outside, looking lost and helpless. We now know that confusion, that state of living through an aftermath of such a huge shake up, but to know also we are the lucky ones. This is difficult to comprehend. No one has died in this event, most of us have homes to shelter in, homes that have been affected to a greater or lesser degree, but at day 5 most of us with habitable homes have all the services restored. We have food, fuel, warmth and communication services. This is the privilege of living in a wealthy country – a country where there has been care taken to make buildings which will have resilience to such natural disasters as earthquakes. Our planners and architects and engineers have anticipated such events in their planning, but not even the best of planning can prevent the devastation and chaos the earth can deliver in some instances. It is of comfort to see how the earthquake strengthened older heritage buildings have come through – are coming through – this event. Not so the many character brick buildings around the city or some of the stone churches.

Today a brief drive and walk around revealed such losses, places we have had close association with over the years. Weird to drive past the hairdresser where Mark and I had been sitting on Friday the 3rd having our hair cut and to see it so destroyed. The furniture and kitchenware shop next door, all the years of purchasing there, and around the corner to the cheesemonger – forlorn – an island of functioning in the midst of the chaos. Those premises untouched by the quake, and yet probably doomed for demolition, as how can this tiny island unspoilt stand alone. The owners and staff in shock and grief about losing what they have built up over the last 8 years, and those of us who have been the recipients of the cheeses equally distressed at the look of this popular spot. And next door again, the antique shop, a touch Provencal with its beautiful yellow and blue exterior and lavender hedges out the front. Inside furniture of another era, early English and French ,a smell of beeswax polish and a feeling of calm and beauty – all gone now.

On we go – and next is the picture framer. This looks totally bizarre with the roof actually inside the shop and across the road a string of little restaurants, tastes of other cultures ripped open for the world to see – no more food served from these premises – closed, closed, closed.

Around the corner and into Kilmore Street, the theatre we have so often sat in as audience and used as a venue, slightly musty and decrepit, but charming and characterful, a part of the theatre fabric of Christchurch – all gone now. It is full of gaping wounds, doomed for demolition. On we go. Next the beautiful little church in Hereford Street, Latimer Square where our first child was baptised. Huge piles of rubble surround what is left of the tower. A sad little handwritten sign on the gate reads – “If God is willing, services resume Sunday 12th…”

We cannot get into the centre. Weird to see police and army personnel guarding the entrance to the city centre, our city, but we can see up Worcester Street far enough to confirm what we have heard from the media, that large parts of Manchester and Worcester Street are damaged.

It is comforting to drive on and go to the Mediterranean Warehouse and see its shelves full, and warm kitchen smells emanating. We are two of only a handful of customers. It feels weird to be in this usually bustling place but we are comforted by the familiarity found here. A stock up of olive oil and tomato products and olives and cheese and spread and we are on our way again to the wine merchant. There is comfort. Their building also in tact and the shelves stocked again, even though there is a strong smell of spilt alcohol emanating through the shop. It is a relief to see some normality at the counter.

When there is a gap in the after shakes, confidence returns to us, and that’s how it was for me this morning. A restless night, but here was a new day. I went downstairs to make a cup of tea. Lit the gas, put the jug on and stoked the wood fire. And then wham, another aftershock hit. Only 5.1 but shallow and extremely close by. I am hit by a small airborne ornament (a wooden giraffe) I have foolishly put back on the bookshelf. I dive for cover under the oak dining table. This table haven has been well used by the grandchildren over the weekend as they set up camp there with their pillows. This big shake was centred around Lyttelton 10 km from us and nearby Heathcote. More devastation and grief as homes already weakened take more damage. This last big quake leaves us all on edge to the extreme. Friends and family report loss of concentration and tearfulness and a desperate feeling of wanting to flee. Some families make preparations to leave Christchurch and later in the morning they leave for Dunedin.

Thursday 9th September 5.58am:
We woke half an hour ago after the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep since the night before the big quake. It felt good. The birds began their morning calls which are now gathering in volume, something that is normal for an early spring morning in Governors Bay, New Zealand, yet as I wake properly, the fear returns. It has been too peaceful for too many hours and I am right. A few minutes ago another rumble and rattle of an aftershock and just then, at 6.05am, another quick rattle.

My dressing table top surface so chaotic after the first big quake, I do not bother to put back together. Perfumes on the floor along with the bedroom mirror, face down on the carpet. Pictures from the family gallery in the hall now all face down on the bedroom window seat and floor after their spectacular crash into the stairwell. We are on edge again. Another day of abnormality post quake begins. Another quake just minutes after the last, and the birds still sing on.

Thursday 9th September 11.07 pm:
As we prepare to go to bed the fear re-emerges. I have reassured the grandchildren at their homes, “you are going to be fine, please don’t worry.” The almost five year old rang tonight to say “I think the earthquake is going to sleep.” She reassures me and herself.

But they are not asleep – another night of rumbling and crashes ahead of us. We are so tired now that unless they are bigger than 4 we hardly move in our beds. We awake after another jolt at 6.45 on Friday 10th, as exhausted as we were on going to bed. I think of all the parents over the city sharing their beds with terrified children.

On Thursday the 9th day 6 we have a day of practical help on the cleanup in Avonside at son and daughter-in-law’s house in Keller Street. Their street is hit hard, water and sewage services remain erratic . The street is a hive of activity with machinery and human helper’s co-ordinating efforts to bring some order to the neighbourhood. Strangers and neighbours side by side, shovelling, wheel-barrowing, sweeping, hosing the black silt and soil from all it is sticking to.

It feels good to be outside and contributing to a cleanup, bringing some semblance of normality to a battered neighbourhood. I am amazed by the appearance of people from other parts of town just coming along to offer their services, particularly the students, many of them unfamiliar with the activities of shovelling and wheel-barrowing, but quick to learn and contribute. And the man who set up his barbeque on the footpath and handed out bread, sausages and water. He was not a local but he said he knew this street was needy, so he just came to offer some support.

It was a good day and the after shocks not so noticeable because there was so much other noise and vibration from the heavy machinery.

Saturday September 11th:
It is 3.00am on Saturday September 11th. A whole community continues to be disrupted by the events of those seconds when the earth convulsed so close to a large urban area of New Zealand. I have woken again, not because of an aftershock, which I believe to be happening almost constantly now despite the fact that we are far away tonight from the experience of these events. It all got too much for some of us in our family yesterday. Like many other Cantabrians, we climbed into our cars with 3 of the five grandchildren living in Christchurch and headed north. It was a bit disconcerting to see on Geo net that the area we were headed to, Hanmer Springs, had been the location that day of a minor quake, but hey, it still seemed a better option to us all than sitting out another anxious night of jiggling and jolting in our beds in Christchurch.

So here we are, temporarily relocated in the spa resort of Hammer Springs, 150 km north west of Christchurch, The children were deliriously happy to have got away and the adults equally relieved. We toasted our good fortune at a local Indian café with ginger beer and smiles and laughter from the children which we haven’t seen in such supply for over a week. So why am I awake writing with my first night off? Well, the dog has woken me with a simple need/request for water – a thirsty dog. The household is quiet otherwise. The dog’s needs now met but I am unable to go back to sleep, the new patterns of nightly wakefulness too difficult to break.

But hey, we are away from the torture in Christchurch. It’s morning and we are thinking about how we will face going back. A whole population affected, spooked to one degree or another, by the strangeness of our new lives, post impact. Literally at sea, but on land, the land we “know” or “knew,” Canterbury, now so weird, so different, as it tries to find equilibrium post quake. “Getting earthed” something we talk about when we are feeling out of sync, out of balance in some way. The earth, our marker point for stability. “Getting ourselves grounded” another term of solidity. But now, these statements have lost all validity, all meaning, as the very ground we so trust in to make us feel solid again, moves and shakes and rumbles, terrorising us dozens of times daily. So far 400 plus shakes since Saturday. Even after all the cleanups, the demolitions, the rebuilding’s, how long will it take us to have confidence again to live our lives in Canterbury, the area of New Zealand we came to live.

Saturday 11th 3.00pm:
We continue to unwind in the hot pools in Hanmer, surrounded by other Christchurch escapees. We all share our stories as we soak in the warmth and safety of the pools. We’re all still jittery and jump at any sound resembling a quake or any wobble. In fact from talking to people, a lot feel they are wobbling most of the time. It is as if we have all been on a long sea journey. The children are unwinding and eating again. We have a large brunch this morning, or a huge late lunch. Family members variously reading the Christchurch Press newspaper, everyone still avid for more news. For the last week it’s as if nothing else exists. We reflect on the weirdness of the week. I get a text from our hairdresser. “Due to the quake we have relocated,” – the new location SURREAL Hairdressers, Victoria Street. Surreal indeed are the circumstances of businesses requiring to relocate

The weekend in Hanmer was great, but we have to return home to work, and to school for the grandchildren. Along with hundreds of others, we head back to the wounded city. I don’t want to feel negative, but can’t help it as we get closer and see more and more signs of the damage again, a reminder that the events of the past week are not a weird dream, but real. We are disoriented at times as we drive into the city, landmarks now completely erased by demolition work undertaken during the weekend.

The grandchild in our car is beginning to get anxious. We stop at the Supermarket in suburb Beckenham where Mark goes to buy a few grocery items. My grandson and I are in the car when suddenly we are swayed and jolted. I wind down the window and a woman with children in the next car says, “Another one, that was quite big. Did your car move?” “Yes,” I said. We take comfort in sharing with strangers the weirdness we are all experiencing. My grandson is disturbed again, as are the others, when we arrive at his home. I am wishing we did not have to come back to what feels like an unsafe zone. We leave the family and drive home to Governors Bay. For the first time that I can ever remember, I reached the summit of Dyers Pass and looked down to the harbour and see not exciting beauty – the kind of beauty that sometimes takes your breath away – but something sinister, a reminder of something horrible and not in our control. I felt sick driving towards the house. Coming inside it all reminded me of the wobbliness of the week’s events. Pictures still stacked on floors, books stacked, and upstairs, my dressing table contents still in piles on the floor. It didn’t feel like home should feel. And I have been constantly on edge, back and forth to the computer web sites checking the number and intensity of recent shocks. I feel a little reassured that we have only had 10 aftershocks in the previous 24 hours. Can add another to that now, though. Trying to go to sleep and I have been jolted to total alertness by a strange, short jolt. Almost like a twitch, the earth still uncomfortable under us. I cannot imagine ever being able to relax again, being able to forget that event, being able to enjoy this bedroom again as a safe and calm place. How can I reassure the grandchildren when I am a complete nervous wreck myself?

It is raining and cold outside. My husband says “relax, listen to the rain on the roof,” but I can’t do anything but lie here and wait for the next event.

September 14th:
Day 10, post earthquake. I am up at 4.30 am to see Mark off – he is driving to a job 3 hours south. I feel anxious about him leaving and me still in what is dark night.

Just a small shake up now, a twitch just a reminder, all not quite settled yet. There are still piles of items on floors. I am not comfortable about returning them to shelves yet. And we are still discovering breakages, rearrangements, near misses, books teetering on shelves. More cracks in plaster between gib sheets and bricks loosening in the fireplace.

Another shake – 5.39 am now. Lui the dog is as on edge as me. No way I am going to be able to go back to sleep now. The shakes are like a torture weapon making the whole population sleep deprived and anxious.

On the surface of things people are doing what is recommended. “Getting back to normal”, whatever that is. We are told to try and carry on with normal daily activities, children back to school, parents back to work, where they have a work to go back to, and to resume shopping. Buy, buy, they tell us. We need the economy to be working and it only works if money is going around.

The problem is we have only so much energy in a day and a large portion of it is being taken up at present coping with your body being in overdrive with anxiety. Then another large portion is being directed to assisting others in the family or the community, making sure the basics are being accounted for, that families are fed, have the water and sewerage sorted. And then the psychological demands of the children, the neediness of those in the family not wanting to be alone, and you can count me as one of those. Add to that trying to carry on the cleanups in and around your homes and businesses, physically exhausting, and often meticulous work as you sort through the material objects of your life, assessing and noting the damages for insurance purposes. How much time and energy is left to go back to normal, to go shopping! Or to start entertaining or to welcome tourists. And anyway, who in their right mind would want to come to Christchurch at present to enjoy the spring in the city when they would have to endure being shaken by aftershocks. I mean, damaged or not, who wants to be on a 6th, 7th or 8th floor of a hotel being shaken periodically during the night when you can put your tourist dollars elsewhere and not suffer the shakes.

Birds are singing in the early morning chorus and I am exhausted.

September 17th – Day 14:
It is 2 weeks since it all started and now here we are, 696 shocks later, a city of 400,000 people, adapted to a weird new way of living.

We have woken to a sunny, calm day and memories of only one large jolt during the night. Maybe the earth is settling and we can all get on with the business of living again, of putting back together our injured properties, businesses and interrupted lives. Spring flowers in full bloom bring visual delight around the city alongside the busy backdrop of heavy machinery demolishing teetering buildings, repairing others – a cityscape of gaping wounds being patched and mended .Inside the buildings deemed safe to enter the resilience of business owners as they begin to trade again, often in very changed circumstances, is remarkable.

Sunday September 18th:
It is a calm, sunny, cold morning, a sprinkling of new snow on Mt Herbert. The night was less disrupted by quakes. Today 714 shakes later we hang the pictures again and put things back on the dressing table. I invite friends to dinner and we toast to the ending of this strange episode in the history of Christchurch.
Comments from the grandchildren who were staying with us during the first event.

Sophia – Aged 12 years:
‘I’ve never experienced an earthquake before so I didn’t know if it was really big or just small and I shouldn’t worry, but then I felt dust land on myself and thought I really should get my little sister – she had plaster dust on her face and hair. I shook her and woke her up and got under the camp stretcher bed she was on because we were sleeping at Granny’s. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. “Granny, is it a big one or a small one, Granny, what shall we do?” It was so noisy no one could hear me. Then grandfather came in and said, “Quick, quick, it’s a big earthquake.” He carried Grace and I dodged the broken glass and we went to Granny and Grandfather’s bed. Soon after, my brother arrived, shocked. We snuggled up in bed and then it stopped for a while and then it kept going.

There was no room for Grandad. He had to sleep along the bottom of the bed and Lui the dog was there too. Grace made me feel sick because she squeezed me so hard. We both hung on to Granny. Arlo just lay there with his eyes wide open looking up at the sky. We rang our cousins on the cell phone and they said they had mud all around the house and water too and a terrible smell.

We had no power but we had water from the tank and the toilet worked. Granny gave us a bath with the remaining hot water when it got light. We kept warm with the wood fire and Granny cooked on it. That night before the earthquake we had thunder and lightening and snow and hail and there was still snow on the roof after the earthquake.

In the morning my cousins came. They had to climb out their window because their doors were jammed and they could not get out. It was a lovely day in the morning and the sun came out but it didn’t cheer us up as much as I thought it would. I felt depressed and scared and shocked. I couldn’t move and I was so tired. I could not play with my cousin and she started saying “I hate you” because I would not play with her. I felt dizzy as well.

My cousin Lili stayed the night and we all wanted to sleep in Granny and Granddad’s bed. There were big dramas because the children said we wont go anywhere but your bed. Grandad got so angry because he wanted to sleep in his bed with Granny, but in the end he stormed out and went to the kids room to sleep. We all hung on to Granny, especially Grace, the 4 year old. She squeezed as tight as a baby monkey hanging on to its mother’s back in a running race. Granny was really grumpy and would not let me stroke her.’

Arlo – Aged 9 years:
‘I woke up with a drawer on my head and I did not know what was happening. I was shouting, “Grandfather, stop shaking the house.” Then Grandad got Sophia and Grace and took them to my Granny’s room and I followed closely behind, stepping through picture frames and glass.
I felt horrendously shooken up. When I was in my Granny’s bed they said I was the best, but it was because I had spit in my mouth and I couldn’t talk. I spat over the side of the bed so I could talk. I didn’t know what had happened. I was busting to go to the toilet but it was shaking too bad for anyone to take me so we all waited until daylight.
The next day I went to my friend Casper and stayed with him for the night. There was a big party because all the neighbours were too scared to be at their houses and they had no power or food so my friend’s mum had dinner for them all. There were ten families. There was no room in the house and 27 people altogether. I went to bed in the lounge while everyone was talking by the fire. I woke up in the middle of the night because of a big shock and went to my friend’s parent’s bed and slept there. The next morning they had their chimney taken down and it felt like another big aftershock.

When I got to my house from my Granny’s car, my Aunty Sol and Uncle Mischa and cousins Inaki and Lili stayed at our house for the night, because our mum was still in Auckland and Sol and Mischa had no water or power or sewerage at their house. I had to sleep in the bed with my sister Sophia and Uncle Mischa. There were lots of aftershocks.’

Grace Aged 4 years:
‘My sister woke me up and I was saying “stop it, stop it,” and I went under the bed. I held on to her very tight because she was about to die. I said to Grandfather, “Is someone rocking the house,” and he took me to Granny’s bed. I said to Arlo, “will you stop rocking the house.” I hung on to Arlo very tight. He was about to choke. Sophia said “I need to go to the toilet,” and I would not let her go. Granny piggy backed me down to the toilet because there was glass on the floor. Granny had candles and a torch. She rang up Philip and Sarah and they said don’t have candles because it might shake the candles. Lui was a good boy, he sat so still. I was gone to Granny’s bedroom. All Granny’s perfume and pictures were on the floor and our TV was broken.’

And from Husband Mark:
‘What’s going on? I listened – it was like a freight train going through the bedroom, a wobbly train with broken wheels. Then I thought, “Where are the grandchildren.” “Kids, it’s alright, you’ll be alright.” I thought, “is this the big one – are we on the edge of the big one?” And then I got out to bring the girls to our bed and then Arlo. I carried Grace through and then I saw the shambles and crashed through the glass. Once all three children were in bed with Rosie and Lui I climbed in. It felt safer to be together.

Later I went down and got a torch. I saw things smashed everywhere around the house. One of the difficult things was the blackness. We rang Wellington, Rosie’s sister Angie, and no one answered. Then we rang Nelson, Rosie’s brother, and he hadn’t felt anything. I then knew it was not the main divide, but it was Christchurch. We stayed in bed, waiting for the light to come. It was good when the light came. We didn’t know what had happened until calls came in from overseas. Strangely the landline started working again.’

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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