– Avondale, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

At 4.35am on September the 4th, 2010, my husband and I were shaken awake by the extreme rocking of our bed, loud rumbling through the floor and the creak and groan of our moving house. We rolled towards one another and embraced tightly as the shock began to turn to realisation. Within seconds we could hear the sounds of crashing coming from other rooms, particularly the kitchen, where our huge floor-to-ceiling pantry threw open its doors and jars and cans rained down onto the plates and glasses on the lower shelf. Large, heavy pot draws were thrown open. Pot plants and ornaments toppled onto the floor. Several framed prints leapt off the wall smashing the glass, while others thumped on the walls, but stayed put.

For several minutes I cowered in our bed, too afraid to move for fear the roof would be the next thing to tumble. My heart was racing and I was hyperventilating. When I took note of our immediate surroundings I noted that the digital clock was not displaying; obviously the power was out.

I called out to our adult son in the next door bedroom to check that he was all right. We found a torch and gingerly made our way down the hall to check the condition of the house. The kitchen looked as if an angry and very strong demon had been on a rampage. We didn’t dare step in there in the dimness as it was evident that many tiny pieces of glass littered the floor and it would take the full light of day to clean up.

The only words that seemed appropriate that morning were “shit” and “oh my god”, as we continued to tour the wreck of our house. The living room had wonky pictures on the wall and fallen knick-knacks. Spilled potting mix and broken plants lay as they had fallen from tipped and broken urns. Our huge older style Sony television had rocked and shifted position but not fallen. Dust and insulation material had leaked from the ceiling through down lights and the gas fire’s flue.

Another surprise was finding that the toilet had slopped a huge amount of water onto the floor and everything in our shower was now lying on its floor.

Outside, the driveway had more cracks in it but we didn’t have liquefaction.

It was a miserable morning with no power and soon, no water. I huddled back in bed to listen to the transistor radio and was increasingly alarmed by reports of what had happened to our city. We had no emergency supplies and no camp stove, so it was a cold breakfast and then out onto the street to see what was happening in our area. We walked the local streets, talking to neighbours and strangers alike, trying to make sense of what had happened. A kind neighbour gave us a gas stove so that we could at least heat something. This single burner was all we had for a couple of days. My husband, Hugh had a bicycle, so was able to go farther than the rest of our household, to check out our broken city.

Because we had no supplies we got into the car and went in search of food basics. It involved driving for many hours on broken roads in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get bread, milk, batteries, eggs and hardest of all: butane canisters to keep our burner going.

I quickly realized that we weren’t going to manage at home with no power or water, so we booked into a motel for two nights just to have the luxury of a shower and warm beds. After that we went back home as the power was back on though the water took several more days.

With no toilet, we had to rig up a bucket with rubbish bag inside or use a garden pit. Overnight I just used an icecream container and hubby used an old bottle.

Once water was restored we slowly returned to a kind of normal, though nothing felt the same. The whole city felt strange. Although no lives had been lost and everyone proclaimed Christchurch “lucky”, we were constantly on edge from powerful aftershocks day and night.

At our work, a hospital where my husband is an orderly and I am a nurse, we were constantly having to reassure our patients and it took our minds off our own worries for a time. Eventually we slipped into a sense of normalcy. The Boxing Day earthquake didn’t affect us too much.

On February the 22nd, 2011, while we were on Annual Leave, the powerful quake struck at 12.51 pm. We had been in the North Island earlier in the month and were enjoying a break from working. It was a fine day: Hubby and I had been in town in the morning wandering the Cashel Mall area and buying things at Whitcoulls. We had got home and had lunch. Hubby was reading on the couch and I was on the computer in the spare room. Suddenly the house shook violently and I reached out to steady the computer monitor which was wildly rocking. As the shaking continued my swivel chair threw me off the seat and I landed on the floor along with a cascade of knick-knacks and a potted plant from on top of the console desk. I screamed in panic and was shaking so badly I couldn’t get onto my feet so I crawled along the floor to see that Hubby was all right. We looked out the windows to find that liquefaction was welling up in several areas in our section and silty water was rushing down our street. Power poles were leaning drunkenly down the street. Inside our house, things had toppled again but nothing too serious. The power and water were knocked out and this time, they were out for two weeks.

Hubby and adult son spent hours shoveling liquefaction silt from our garden and driveway as our car was trapped in the garage. A spare wooden door that had been leaning up on a wall in the garage toppled onto our little Honda and scraped the paintwork all down one side.

All of our neighbours laboured similarly in their gardens cleaning up the mess. We got to know some of our neighbours quite well during this time.

We “camped” at home as best we could. Doors and windows were stuck open or closed. We could not close the bathroom off so had to rig up a sheet over the door in order to create some privacy there. We got into a routine of boiling up water and pouring it into the basin for daily washes. I managed to get another burner so that we had two that could run at the same time for water heating and washing. It was exhausting constantly keeping up with obtaining water, boiling water to drink and heating water for cleaning and cooking. Initially it was difficult to get water supplies but later a tanker started to park up daily in Aranui and we would go there to fill bottles. Later still, the local intermediate school got a supply on and we didn’t have to travel so far. The Aranui Primary School was the closest place we could go to wash our clothes and I did that many times over the weeks when water was out or just off intermittently in later weeks and months.

When army trucks came through our area I asked one of the crews if they could help us with our back door which was jammed and couldn’t be secured. They sent over two guys who prized it open, shaved a whole lot of wood off the top and side and made it so we could lock it closed, at least.

We saw quite a lot of the army around the streets as they checked on residents, handed out bottled water and helped in many other ways to secure peoples houses. Later they delivered a chemical toilet to each house.

Once we were back at work we could shower there on a daily basis. Much later the local golf course at Avondale got the mobile shower unit which was marvelous especially on our days off. It was a massive truck with about 6 shower stalls and gas hot water – heaven!

Our house was moving constantly with the aftershocks and with each one we found more cracks, more bricks loosening and more warping of floors and walls. Being a 45 year old house with a wooden floor and on piles meant we really felt each shock keenly. We also heard the house creak and crack which was worrying.

The June quake struck while we were at work. It was a miserable day and I was so shocked to have experienced yet another large shock that I became quite emotional and didn’t cope well at work.

As soon as we could leave I got into my car for the arduous journey home. The streets were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic and most of the traffic lights were out. My usual 20 minute journey took me two-and-a-half-hours. The streets in our neighbourhood were flooded with liquefaction and where in darkness due to outages so I crawled along in my little car not knowing if I was about to drive into a sink hole.

Finally at home I found a terrible mess. The violence of this quake had thrown heavy furniture across the rooms and I spent a long time cleaning up the chaos. Digital clocks were all blinking showing that the power had been off and on again.

The June quake sealed the fate of our home, causing more cracking and more liquefaction.

After months of waiting we heard that our property would be in the Red Zone. Our adult son had moved out in April and in July we had had enough of our cold and broken suburb and we arranged a rental in a modern townhouse in Hoon Hay which our insurance company paid for. It was so amazing to us to be away from all the east-side issues and only minutes drive or cycle to our work that we felt very lucky and very relieved. It took another few months before our insurance company and CERA made the settlement offers, but finally we had a sum of money that we knew we could spend and we immediately went house hunting in the surrounding suburbs. By December we found a modern, warm townhouse in Somerfield and after a short bidding war, we secured it.

Life goes on but things remain. The aftershocks are not so numerous or as strong, but when they come I shake and feel scared. My heart rate soars and I hyperventilate for several minutes. I also startle very easily whenever there is a sudden noise or a truck rumbles by. These things will probably go on for years.

October 2012.

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