Tuesday, 22nd of February: 2 of our grandchildren, Fran, aged 6 and Igor, aged 12, were staying with us. On Tuesday morning we went with the children into the middle of Christchurch. I dropped my husband and Igor off at Science Alive, and parked the car at the Farmer’s car park. Then I walked with Fran around the center of town: we went to the Art Gallery, the library and spent quite some time on Cathedral Square, looking at the children’s gardens created in connection with the Ellerslie Flower Show, displayed just outside of the Cathedral.
We left again at 12.40 and drove to the Science Alive building to meet with my husband and Igor. We parked behind Science Alive and walked across to the Mc Donald restaurant on Moorhouse Ave. We were standing at the counter to order, when the earthquake hit. The lights went out, people screamed, food and machinery started to fly. We were thrown around, bashed against the walls, little Franny fell, but we somehow managed to stumble outside. We were all incredibly shaken, but the strangest thing was that, as we were cowering on the grass strip outside, the traffic lights turned green and all the cars drove on, as if nothing had happened. A few young blokes ran back inside the restaurant to get the food they had left behind.
We went straight away back to the car. As we clambered in the car the next aftershock happened and all the parked cars around us started to hop up and down and bounce around the parking lot, which would have been amazing had it not been so frightening.
We drove in the direction of our son’s school. The roads were flooded, mud volcanoes spewed silt everywhere, walls had peeled back, people were sitting dazed on side walks, the road looked like corrugated iron, the Heathcote river had risen half a meter, nearly overflowing. We collected Bob from school. Fortunately the quake had hit at lunch time so most children had been outside. We drove home to Lyttelton the long way over Dyers Pass, because we knew the tunnel to Lyttelton would be closed. We had to dodge truck size boulders on the road up the pass, in Rapaki, a huge boulder had rolled down the Port Hills and smashed right through the front door of a house and rolled straight through the house, exiting at the other side, leaving the house in 2 halves.. Arriving in Lyttelton we could see straight away that the damage was massive compared to the last earth quake in September.
We drove up to our house, which looked OK from the street. On closer inspection we saw that the concrete foundations had split and parts of it had sunk into the ground, separating from the wooden house structure, leaving gaps between house and foundation big enough to stick my arm in. The brick archway, which separates dining from living room is at the point of collapse, with big gaps between bricks. A wall sized bookshelf has fallen and and the house is littered with broken food, lamps, pictures etc.. We could see from the structural damage that it would be suicide to enter the house. We drove down to the Rec center in Lyttelton, which doubled as the Civil Defense post. More aftershocks sent roofs rattling around us, meanwhile little Fran was hysteric with fear, crying and shouting for her Mum.
With no house to stay the night it didn’t take long for us to decide to drive with the children to Nelson to our relations. Normally it takes 30 minutes from Lyttelon to the Northern outskirts of Christchurch, but it took us three hours, as there was bumper to bumper traffic, the roads were either closed or wrecked, bridges gone etc. At 11 at night we arrived in Nelson, absolutely shattered and numb. We barely slept that night, relieving again and again the terrible shake and jumping up with the slightest sound.
The whole of Wednesday we spent in Nelson, where it was warm, sunny, peaceful, people walked around leisurely without a care in the world, which was great for the little kids, balm for our nerves, but all my husband and I could think of were our friends and our house in Christchurch.
On Thursday morning we left Nelson for the 6 hour drive back to Lyttelton. The closer we came to Christchurch the more apprehensive we were, going back into the ‘war zone’. Hundreds of cars were leaving Christchurch in all directions.
When we finally arrived back at our house we saw that a team of engineers had been and ‘red-stickered’ it, making it officially unsafe (“entering this house can lead to injury or death”). Back at the Rec Center we met our neighbour, who had decided to leave town for a few weeks, and he offered us his house for that time. His house was checked by engineers and is 100% sound (it is a Lockwood House). As he was only leaving Friday we had to get accommodation for one night and were offered a cottage for the night at the other side of the harbour in Diamond Harbour. We had the choice of a big list of houses which people had offered for free. We spend a slightly better night there.
Friday we moved into the neighbour’s house, which is very beautiful, clean and spacious, and we can look down into our own garden! By that time we were still in the same clothes we had been in when we went to town with the children on Tuesday morning. The only other thing we had was our wallets. So we started getting things out of our house – fortunately we had left some windows open, and we perfected a system, where I hung into the house, leaning on the window sill, my husband grabbing my legs and by using a rake, and later a brush tied onto the rake I managed to pull things towards me! Fortunately all the cupboard doors had flown open and the contents emptied on the ground, so I could rake clothing and food and shoes and some other items towards me. Obviously that left us with very odd assortments of clothes, but who cares!
As there was no water supply, we all went to the water tanker once a day for our ration, meeting lots of friends at the community center. A Navy boat was in the harbour, purely by chance, so they set up their tents, and we had a great lunch bbq with everyone – great sense of community. By eight o clock we were all shattered, staring into space, feeling as if we had run a marathon. We were thrilled to see that our cat Belle had survived the quake, even if she, like all of us, is very nervy.
On Saturday we spent a lot of time trying to get hold of engineers to find out more about the fate of our house, but no-one seems to know. We got the paper from the only shop open in Lyttelton, every other shop has been destroyed. By a stroke of luck this shop is where Bob has an after school job, so he was there slaving his guts out, as there were continuous crowds of people. My husband and I were just sitting down for a cup of tea to read the paper on our verandah, remarking how this was the first time since the earthquake that we had a quiet minute, when a Red Cross worker came running up to say we had 5 minutes to evacuate the house, the hillside was unstable and everyone had to get out!! We grabbed a bottle of water and were on the road again.
Back to the Rec Center, where they had been told that the evacuation would be over night! Just then we met English friends of ours from Lyttelton who were off to Wellington for a few days and gave us the key to their house! While they were packing we went to the modified iconic Lyttelton Summer Street Party, which had originally been meant to happen on London street, but now had shifted to the school play ground. Local bands were playing, the local restaurants were having free gourmet bbqs, offering free coffees and chocolates and fruit – using up all the foods that otherwise would spoil. It was great, if slightly bizarre sitting there. Fortunately an hour later the evacuation area was confined to another valley and we were able to return home.
One week after the earthquake: At lunchtime everyone in Lyttelton gathered at the firestation, where we observed 2 minutes of silence, at the exact time when the earth quake happened a week ago. We stood together with all the fire fighters, police men, army, navy, oversees rescuers, volunteers and residents, and indeed silence seemed more appropriate than words. These 2 minutes of silence were observed around New Zealand and in part overseas
I have lost track of exactly what we did in the last few days – the days seem to flow past in an endless round of collecting water (still no water in our house, could be weeks), talking to people, recounting/reliving all the traumatic moments again and again, trying to contact engineers about our house, government departments about lost jobs, Red Cross about long-term accommodation till we know the fate of our house, etc.
A few impressions:
The aftershocks are continuing steadily. In this wooden house they sound like sonic booms under the house, violent and sharp, but more bearable than they were in our old house, where the house seemed to rattle, groan and screech much more. The aftershocks are very distressing. After a major earth quake we, like everyone here, are extremely jumpy. The slightest unexpected sound sends the body into flight reflex, the adrenalin gets pumping, you have to force yourself not to scream or run or cry, I always feel it like a kick in the gut. Experiencing this 10-12 times a day, including the night, leaves everyone drained, exhausted and tired. In the newspaper they published a list of acute stress disorder symptoms, and my husband and I have gone through every one of them: numbness, tiredness, irritability, insomnia, disconnectedness and recurring flashbacks. We are aware that we need to take it easy and look after ourselves and each other, and we are doing the best we can.
Yesterday my husband and I felt for the first time that we had some spare time and energy to try and help others. Here in Lyttelton the list of volunteers is over a hundred long – more people than are needed. So we looked on trade-me, where people are asking for help. There was a family asking to help get stuff out of their house into crates so they could store it till they could get the house repaired. The place was in a suburb close by, only 10 minutes drive from here, in Heathcote. We drove there in the morning at the time mentioned. When we arrived at the house it looked terrible – half of the roof collapsed, holes in the wall – it looked extremely dangerous, a real death trap. The idea of walking into this house gave us the creeps, it looked far worse than our house. We were very relieved when no-one turned up and we went home very quickly again, realising that it probably is safer to try and help through established channels like Civil Defence etc. We enrolled at the Civil Defence in Lyttelton as volunteers and my husband delivered food to an elderly couple in the afternoon and got their prescription to the pharmacy etc.
A couple of nights ago a man and his daughter turned up on our doorstep from near Belfast with a massive box of food donated to all people who had to shift from their houses. Fortunately we had enough food, so could give most of it to the Red Cross.
Last night we had an impromptu meeting with Board members of Project Lyttelton. We met in the garden of the only church that survived the quake in Lyttelton. Only half of the Board could attend, other had left town, had lost houses, businesses, etc. We started by telling each other how we had fared over the last week. Some had spend the first few days in their houses, crying a lot, too tired and stressed to tidy up the mess, going to sleep in beds still strewn with debris that had fallen on them. The owners of the only operating shop/dairy in Lyttelton said they were utterly exhausted, because the hundreds of people that come to the shop every day mainly come to talk and off-load their stories. The owner, who is also a Local Council Member, said he was being interviewed by an international newspaper, and whilst in the midst of saying things like “We will rebuild, we are strong, etc”, he broke down and started crying. Another board member, who is a camera man for NZ TV had just spend 48 hours filming in the worst/poorest parts of Christchurch and was harrowed by what he had seen. We met to see whether there was something we could do in Lyttelton. A few ideas were floated, but the most immedeate was that people needed a place to meet and talk.
So the day after a friend and myself sat up a gazebo on the grassy flat in Lytteton, with tables and chairs, water and snacks and a sign “Join us, have a chat”. We had brought down bits and pieces of felt and wool and buttons and material and started to embroider and sow little hearts and handed them out to people passing by. We had company the whole day, older people walking their dogs, children on bikes, mothers with toddlers. We handed out hearts to prison wardens and guitar players and the local school teachers. In the afternoon we had dozens of children making their own hearts, little boys sowing on buttons, making hearts for their Mums, it was wonderful and heart warming. We were there till 5, and went home with a great sense of achievement. We hopefully will keep it going for as long as it is needed, we have organised a roster of dozens of people now.
2 weeks after the earthquake:
Helicopters circle above our house and Lyttelton daily, making sure no more huge boulders are on their way into town. One street in Lyttelton is still evacuated because of impeding rock fall, another street is evacuated because of land movement of the street above, they are afraid the street will slip down, which is not a comforting thought!
The days fly past without much of a rhyme or rhythm, so here are again brief impressions of life in an Earthquake zone:
The main thing that reduces everyone to tears here is the kindness of folks from around the world who come and help. The other day I managed to nab a bunch of engineers to come and have another look at our house and it turned out they had come from L.A, San Francisco, Vancouver and India! They confirmed that our house will be able to be repaired, unfortunately it could be weeks and months before we will get an official assessment, without which we cannot start re building as any interference before will void our insurance claim.
A couple of days ago we farewelled the 2 huge Navy- boats which had been anchored here by chance on the day of the earthquake for a training exercise in Lyttelton port. Their presence in town made a huge difference. On the first days, when we were completely cut off, they had a small field hospital on board for people from Lyttelton who got hurt. For the first week they put up their tents and cooked lunch and dinners for everyone, which always was a very social occasion.They helped enormously with clearing broken buildings and tidying up and securing unsafe spots and just talking to everyone. We all felt safe because we felt protected by them. So- hurray for the Navy! We stood in the pouring rain with a cold, stiff Southerly wind, waving and cheering our lungs out to say thanks and good bye!
Yesterday the council put on what was advertised as a free sausage sizzle, but was more like another party with tons of food and drink and cakes and ice creams and chocolates as well as a concert of a crooner with a guitar who played lovely (and schmalzty!) Elvis and Cliff Richards etc. songs. Everyone sang along, from small kiddies to oldies, and a grand time was had by all (my freind and myself stitching of course!).
The generosity of all and everyone is wonderful: the local bottle-store (another shop that miraculously survived) handed out free gas bottles for all, so that everyone can use their BBQs for cooking.
We have continued the heart stitch meetings, but have shifted to the coffee stall on London street, which has become a bit of a meeting place. We had a couple of days of high media exposure, and ended up pinning a heart onto Ryan Nelson’s broad chest. He wore the heart in the evening for a TV 1 interview on the news. The same day I ‘accosted’ a group of soldiers in uniform (there seem to be more soldiers around here than civilians!), having a friendly chat with one, when he introduced me to General Jones, who turned out to be the head of the NZ Defense Force! Nice chap! Next up was the Minister of Defence! By that time we were a bit over celebrities!
The next day another group of semi-official dudes (Why is it always blokes?!) walked past. We called them over and joked around and a chap in shirt sleeves remarked that he had seen the Minister of Defence last night at a function wearing the heart. I quipped saying that unless he was a minister he certainly wouldn’t get one of our precious hearts when an aide came over to me informing me I was talking to the Minister of Internal Affairs, so I did after all have to hand out a heart!
We go into the third week now without water, which is not that nice. Even those households that have water have to cook the water, because so many pipes broke that there is no guarentee that the water is clean, it may all be mixed with untreated sewage, so boiling is the order of the day, and it even after boiling it does not taste very nice. No water of course also means no showers, no washing machine, no proper toilets…
The aftershocks seem to be petering off, but when they come they are quite violent. Those sonic booms under the carpet lift the house and drop it again, make my heart race and pump adrenalin through the body and after several of those ‘attacks’ a day we all feel exhausted and jumpy.