– Eastern suburbs, Christchurch


Tuesday February 22, 12.51pm

Forget all the disaster movies you’ve ever seen. People don’t panic and scream when something very bad happens. They do that when they spill milk on a freshly washed floor. Or when the dog digs another hole under the fence. Or if the car won’t start when they are running late. Small calamities of this kind can make us lose control, make us yell and cry and spit the dummy. When something very bad happens people gather their wits.

At 12.51pm on Tuesday, February 22, 2011, a terrible thing started to happen to Christchurch. After the first earthquake, on 4th September, 2010, I declared that I wouldn’t want to be in a shopping mall should another one strike – but there I was, in a mall. Worse, I was upstairs, in a movie theatre, watching “The King’s Speech” with a friend and a number of other people old enough to be in a theatre in the middle of a weekday. The screen went blank, and our world cracked and roared, bucked and swayed, and our city began to fall down and apart. We could only fling out a hand, clutch an arm rest, call out, exclaim, gasp, wait …

The people, however, did not fall apart. Not the ones I saw anyway. When, an eternal twenty seconds later, the rocking and the noise stopped, there was silence in the theatre. Miraculously, the lights came on. We could hear the whooping of the emergency siren. For a few moments no one moved. No one screamed. Then slowly, one by one and two by two, we rose and walked without haste down the stairs. We spoke in short, whispered phrases, to each other and to strangers: perhaps “are you OK?” as we passed someone hesitating.

Outside in the foyer mall staff were already directing evacuation. There was rubble, debris. Again no one ran or screamed, although we saw one middle aged woman being comforted by a friend. B. and I, along with streams of other people, walked out to the landing and found ourselves at the second level of the car park. Cars were already on the move, edging through pedestrians. We went down some stairs but at the bottom we found the gate locked so had to go back up.

We walked down the UP ramp of the car park, through the mall where staff were urging people to keep away from the buildings. There was glass everywhere. Cars bumping and nudging. Over all the other noises the whoops of the emergency siren kept up its urgent message.

Outside we crossed the road, stopping the traffic splashing through water by lifting an imperious palm. B and I started walking towards her house, and by the time we had gone a block the water – dense as a chocolate thick-shake – was ankle deep. I took off my shoes and squelched onwards, unable to see what I was stepping on or in. The earth had cracked open and there were holes and fissures everywhere. We passed a damp yellow labrador which smiled at us from a tiny patch of dry pavement and I hoped it had a home to go to.

Another block and the water was reaching our knees, gushing out in geysers and flowing along the streets, whirl-pooling around holes and spurting over humps and hills. There were now people everywhere, leaning over crumbled walls, standing dismayed in their cracked and lumpy gardens. Are you OK? What’s happened to your place? OMG, look at that! Neighbours huddled with neighbours, called out to us as we stumbled on and we stopped briefly each time in sympathy. There was mud, bricks and debris but no tears or panic.

One more street – but we couldn’t cross, there was too much angry, boiling water. Over there, on the other side, there was an elderly Chinese man with a Zimmer frame trying to cross but he couldn’t either, at first. But somehow he made it into the road and, ramming the Zimmer frame in front of him, he stuck his chin out and marched resolutely along the middle of the road where it was relatively shallow, ignoring the cars splashing slowly past on either side of him. Bravo, I thought.

We eventually found a place to cross where the water, instead of swirling, simply flowed. Clearly there was nothing disturbing it beneath the surface. My car, parked in the street outside B’s house, was belly-deep in water, and an hour later when I briefly contemplated driving home, the water had turned to mud. The car was stuck fast.

When we reached it the house was a mess. The chimney had snapped off but was still lying on the roof. Every cupboard in the place was open with its contents strewn and broken all over the floor, bookcases had tipped their loads off, the pictures were still hanging on the walls but seriously askew. There was, of course, no power or water, although they found an old-fashioned plug-in phone to use. R was manfully trying to clear up but the task was heart-breaking.

I wondered about the state of my own house but there seemed no chance that I was going to be able to find out any time soon. My son got through on my mobile eventually, and told me to stay put until further orders. My car wasn’t going anywhere, even if I had been brave enough to start the journey home. B made up the spare bed and triumphantly produced a new toothbrush.

Strong aftershocks continued to rock the house all afternoon. The only news we got was through the transistor radio but what we heard was awful: the city was badly damaged – again – and all services were out. J, having left work about 2.30pm, was still in her car, creeping dangerously and scarily along with everyone else, and didn’t get home until six hours later. The roads were cracked and bulging, flooded, and full of sinkholes – some big enough to swallow cars which were falling into them and having to be abandoned.

S managed to reach me and we drove with difficulty to my house. When we reached it, the house was a mess with everything overturned and scattered, the power and water were off, and the section was flooded with both water and silt – the phenomenon that we had only recently come to know as liquefaction. The house had moved backwards, forwards and sideways, so that there were gaps all round between house and garden. Inside there was a mess with shelves and drawers emptied out all over the floor. Amazingly the television set had managed to stay on its base and there were a few glasses and items of crockery broken, but otherwise it looked as though I had come off lightly.

Clearly the house was not the place for me to be, on my own, for the foreseeable future. We decided to escape to the bach on the West Coast – but what to do about my three cats? The neighbours were caring people who had helped me out before and they gladly agreed to do so again. I gave them a key and told them to help themselves to whatever they needed from my house.

We stumbled about with the small torch and packed a bag with a few clothes. I also picked up the address book, some fruit, cheese and fruit juice, my medications, and even remembered to collect the tin containing the valuables. My key-ring already held a memory stick with the contents of my computer’s hard drive. A life can be reduced to such necessities when disaster strikes.

So the three of us went through the dark, wet, dangerous streets now littered with abandoned cars. As we drove carefully westwards we came to an intersection – and there were traffic lights. And soon afterwards there were houses with lights showing. And street lights. The roads were clear and seemed undamaged, although we were still in Christchurch. The quake had, this time, hit the eastern suburbs and, as we found out later, with a force that was far more damaging than that of four months earlier. That quake, at magnitude 7.3, was greater, but it was deeper underground, and centred in a rural area 25 kilometres outside Christchurch. This one, at magnitude 6.3, was right underneath and only 5 kilometres deep. The already damaged city was too vulnerable and the damage was shocking.

We were feeling a little guilty about leaving. On the one hand, we could do nothing and we would be three fewer people potentially needing help. On the other hand we were leaving my neighbours to cope with my responsibilities – three cats – for who knows how long. S and J were in a rental house, more or less camping, but they were in limbo – planning to move into a house of their own on a large section near the city centre that very weekend. They had paid a deposit on the deal but the formalities had not been completed – and there were now changed circumstances that could affect the transfer of the property. In addition, the banks, accountants and solicitors whose services were needed were no longer available to consult.

From Moana we watched on television as events unfolded on the other side of the Alps. We saw how our city was suffering but also how the people heroically rallied round, both on a large scale and at a neighbourhood level. Whole communities banded together to cook and share meals, look out for and support each other. A crowd of people in Rangiora started a food supply operation with donated ingredients and delivered hot meals by helicopter to the eastern suburbs, from morning to night every day.

The earthquake co-ordination centre was based at the Christchurch Art Gallery – a modern building with a frontage that is more or less a wavy glass curtain. The gallery was built only a few years ago, and one of its purposes was specifically to act as an emergency civil defence centre, and it is a constant source of amazement now that this amazing structure that should be a heap of broken glass has (so far at least) withstood the tremendous shocks under which the rest of the city was crumbling. The television cameras were permanently set up on the forecourt and any announcements and media briefings were made from there.

University students set up a website to offer help of any kind to anyone, and for people to volunteer their services. The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) mobilised – again – to march out with shovels and wheelbarrows to clear away the silt for those unable to do it themselves. They mobilised after the 4th September quake and we became used to seeing cheerful, energetic bands of young men and women putting their backs into the many tasks that needed to be done.

As well, the SVA applied their energies and organising abilities to many of the other community tasks that need to be done around the city, from helping old ladies, handing out information pamphlets, fetching water, digging out vehicles. You name it, they did it. They had a website and a telephone help line for both those in need and those who could help, and they proved themselves to be a fine bunch of young people who earned the respect and admiration of all.

The whole of Christchurch – indeed the whole country and much of the world – did what it could. Farmers hitched water tanks to utes and drove through the streets offering water to any who needed it. Neighbours helped to dig latrines in back yards and fired up barbecues to share sausages and goodwill. Mobile coffee shops drove around supplying free coffee. Strangers turned up and turned to, like the woman who stopped her car when she saw a woman shovelling silt. The driver got out and so did her four children. They collected spades from the boot and all five of them spent the next two hours scooping the grey wet sand into the road for the trucks to collect. Then they drove away, to find someone else to help

However, there were a few despicable scumbags. Each morning, in the regular briefings from the art gallery, there were reports of the overnight looters and others trying to take advantage of other people’s misfortunes. Not many, but those who were caught were left in no doubt of the contempt of everybody from the judiciary down. In one notorious suburb the SVA shovelled silt watched by a crowd of residents sitting on walls and fences, smoking and laughing.

The whole country rallied round. Personnel from Navy ships, docked at Lyttelton when the first quake hit, cooked hundreds of meals every day and delivered them to welfare centres. The ship Canterbury went back and forth to Wellington replenishing supplies and equipment of all kinds. The Navy also set up a desalination plant to provide clean water especially for the eastern suburbs – hardest hit this time round. They were delighted to be able to test the process because they hadn’t, so far, had the opportunity to do so in a real emergency.

From Moana S and J made a day trip back to Christchurch to deal with urgent matters. They took with them some supplies that we had bought in Greymouth the day before for my neighbours: long-life milk, milk powder, cat food, candles, paper towels and batteries. When they returned to Moana in the evening they were able to tell me what they had seen and heard.

Their rented house had sustained minor damage and there was no water, power or sewerage connection. They confirmed that the deck of my house was leaning, and had no power, water or sewerage connection. I was moved to tears to hear that the neighbours, and their friends, had gone in and cleaned up the silt that had covered my garden and garage floor, and even gone through the house lifting up the furniture, cleaning out the fridge and freezer, putting books back on the shelves and leaving all tidy. They even straightened the pictures on the walls.

On Tuesday 1st March, at 12.51pm, one week from the disaster, the country stood for two minutes silence. All over the world expatriate Kiwis were doing the same. Here the cameras were trained on the view down Worcester Street from the Art Gallery to The Square, where the broken cathedral stood as it had for well over a century. On the gallery forecourt there was a simple cairn of broken bricks, masonry and a living frond of green fern – symbols of a city’s hurt and also of hope.

The statue of John Robert Godley, one of Christchurch’s founders, which had stood in The Square for a century or so, had, ever since the first terrible shake, been lying prone where it had fallen off its plinth. Some days later someone noticed that there was a cavity in the plinth, and within the cavity there were two time capsules. One was a hand-written letter in a glass container, which had shattered, and the other was a sealed canister. These items were carefully retrieved and sent to the experts at the Canterbury Museum for examination.

Much later

On Friday 18th March, 2011, a memorial service was held in Hagley Park, attended by Prince William, many dignitaries, and several thousand people on the grass in the bright sunshine. It was a most moving occasion – I confess to several unashamed tears as I watched video of devastation and heard tributes and stirring words. Music too – Dame Malvina Major, Dave Dobbyn. Hayley Westenra among others.

My house still stands, but it is cracked and mis-shapen. It is to be demolished and re-built, maybe this year if I am lucky. There have been more than 14,000 quakes since the first one on 4th September, 2010.

A Maori phrase has become popular since the earthquakes: kia kaha! Meaning “be strong”. Christchurch people have shown themselves to be strong, and resilient, and compassionate in spite of terrible events. They have been tireless in their efforts to help themselves and each other. They have kept their sense of humour. They are standing strong.

Kia kaha, Christchurch!

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