After The Earthquake
Christchurch and the Earthquake.
Thursday 24th February
We are now at Aukland airport with a few hour to kill before catching the next flight to Papeete and so we thought we should update the blog with more details about Christchurch and the earthquake. You will have seen most of the news on the BBC and other media outlets, these are our personal experiences and impressions.
As we have said already Christchurch is (was) a lovely little city easy to get around on foot but with a free shuttle bus running in a circuit between the north and south. On Tuesday morning it was raining gently, the first rain of the holiday, and after a leisurely breakfast at the motel we had walked into town in our pac-a-macs and enjoyed the art gallery which has some very nice paintings some conventional or impressionistic which we liked, and some modern, not to our taste but interesting. It is a very well designed gallery with lots of space and huge windows, clearly very well built as it was unscathed in the earthquake and used as headquarters of the Civil Defence organisation coordinating the rescue operations. We then walked to the nearby Cathedral but did not go in as the Rough Guide suggested attending Choral Evensong at 1730 in the evening. Christchurch was founded by a group of mainly Anglican clergy in the mid nineteenth century led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and named after Christchurch College in Oxford. It has it’s own “public” school whose boys wear striped blazers and ties and provides the choirboys like English cathedral cities. We then walked to the Air New Zealand office in the south of the city to confirm our next flights, doing some shopping on the way. The plan was to take the shopping back to the motel in the north before visiting the city museum in the afternoon and so we caught the shuttle bus. We were to the south east of the city turning back to the Centre when the earthquake struck at ten to one.
The bus was almost stationary and stopped with all other traffic at once. Phil remembers seeing a “wave” move across the ground which went up and down about one foot and the bus swayed about two or three feet from side to side. It was a good place to be as the suspension smoothed the shaking. Then a few seconds later buildings began to crumble with bricks, mortar, masonry and dust falling onto the pavements and road. We saw several buildings collapse but not the major ones in the city centre and we did not see anyone killed or seriously injured. However it was clear that this was a more damaging shock than the previous one (Sept 4th 2010) which had damaged and weakened several buildings but not killed anyone. Some witnesses have said to the media that they did not understand what was happening, but we knew at once what was going on. It was surreal rather than scary and we had to sit for a few minutes with the bus still shuddering to think what to do next. The road ahead was blocked, although some traffic started to move, but we decided to get out and walk keeping as far from walls, shop fronts and buildings as we could. We did not see any panic or screaming, people were stunned and shocked but behaved sensibly. The city clearly had contingency plans for this, within minutes earthquake wardens in yellow surcoats appeared on the streets to direct people away from obvious danger. Fortunately we had a map to guide us around the periphery of the city and back to the motel. About ten minutes after the first shock there was another and we felt the earth move under our feet. This is when we saw the water and silt welling up from cracks in the buckling tarmac on the roads and pavements. At first we thought this was due to fractured water mains but it was not. In fact much of Christchurch is built on reclaimed land and old river silt. Earthquakes cause a shockwave which forces water and silt up to the surface. One it has broken through the water obeys the law of gravity spilling over the streets and down the drains depositing silt and sand in addition to the rubble and dust.
It took us perhaps an hour to walk back to the motel. This was undamaged structurally although some crockery and glass had been broken and they could not open our room door as drawers from the kitchen units had been shaken out to jam the door. We waited outside (it had stopped raining) not sure whether we wanted to go in as there were several aftershocks some of which were quite severe but not as bad as the first two. Another building collapsed up the road. The trouble with aftershocks is that you do not know as it happens whether it is another small tremor or the start of a bigger one! However the very helpful motel staff got our door open and we plucked up courage to go in although we had thought of sleeping out side or in the car by the road. We were lucky that we had chosen a modern well built motel and felt safer on the first top floor than on the ground floor. At first we ran out with ever aftershock, then we moved to the doorways (recommended if inside) but there were no further very big shakes and we gradually grew more confident to ignore the little ones.
We had electricity and so could watch the news unfold on TV, boil a kettle and had light at night. We did not have water except some we drained from the hot water tank and we could not flush the loo. We had bought some food, bread and fruit for breakfasts and managed to buy some sandwiches, crisps, and chocolate from a service station before they ran out, otherwise all shops and restaurants were closed. Fortunately we had the Runchman gin and tonic but otherwise it was back to survival tactics, what to eat and drink, no water for washing and poor sanitation. We did have free WiFi and so could send texts, e-mails and update the blog. After eating our sandwiches we invited another English couple to join us for a drink and spent a disturbed night in bed. Roz slept in her clothes, woke when her tummy rumbled and our dreams were interrupted by the occasional real rock and roll.
The reactions of the Christchurch population was impressive. The emergency services, police, fire brigade ambulances moved in very quickly followed by cranes, bulldousers and heavy lifting equipment. Regular assessments were given over the TV, the Mayor of Christchurch in particular was clear and concise despite the mayhem around him and the Prime Minister competently lead the national response. Troops were mobilised and the centre of the city, where the devastation was worse (about half a mile from us), cordoned off. The advice was for anyone not directly involved with search and rescue to leave the city centre clear for the emergency services, to go home, and to look after themselves, their family, and neighbours. There was a phone number on the TV next morning for medical volunteers to ring. We did not think we could be of much use, not being familiar with the local medical arrangements, but did ring the number. The answer phone asked us to leave a message but the voice mail box was full. This satisfied our consciences and reassured us that adequate medical expertise was available. The general public, while distressed, reacted stoically, perhaps like Londoners in the Blitz. The prevalent attitude seemed to be “something dreadful has happened but it is no good sitting in a corner and crying, we must sort it out, and then get on with our lives”. Of course we did not meet anyone who had lost family or friends, or had them missing, for whom the experience must be terrible.
For us Wednesday was a day of waiting. Christchurch Airport had closed immediately after the earthquake until runways had been checked, but it gradually reopened to emergency, domestic, and then international flights by the afternoon. Most of the city remained closed but some supermarkets managed to reopen for essential food supply and some garages were able to supply food. Our flight to Auckland had to be changed to an earlier one in order to catch our connection on to Tahiti but we are now back on schedule.
We feel dreadfully sorry for the people of Christchurch. Most have no running water and many have no power. The centre of their beautiful city has been destroyed; we very much hope that they can recover. Phil has written most of the above and now hands over to Roz so that she can have her say
As Phil says this was a most surrealistic experience . I remember thinking what interesting people there were on the shuttle bus. A slim girl with Rasta hair was sitting in front of us and a great big woman with shaved hair and tattooes and bulging supermarket bags plonked herself beside her and started to offer her crisps and fizzy drinks which the young Rasta girl declined and then looked pointedly out of the window. Next a wiry sunburnt man with an eye patch got on and off we went. Then it hit. I felt we could have been part of a House of Hammer Horror film. In my mind there was only the bus and the road ahead with dust on either side and though this cloud I saw buildings crumbling whilst we juddered and shook and the air was full of rumbling and crashing. We just got off the bus dazed and I don’t know what became of the other passengers. Phil and I held hands and walked gingerly over the cracks and mud and then there was another great shake and we clung to each other in the middle of the road. Mothers clutched their children and some people were in tears. I saw a woman with a bleeding lip but nothing worse. After that I could never quite relax, every faint tremor alerted me, even though mentally I felt calm my body was primed. Any small movement or noise put my pulse up and I’m ashamed to say I even jumped out of bed when my own tummy rumbled! It rumbled quite a lot since rations were rather limited on the first day and of course water shortage was a big problem. We were asked not to flush the loos or wash ourselves. Our landlady suggested we crapped in plastic bags but fortunately it did not come to that. Later advise was “ If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” Of course any effluent would seep out of broken sewers onto the roads or into the river.
The day after the quake we ventured out a bit and other people were walking around in a lost sort of way. In our quiet little road everything would look OK till you suddenly saw a precarious Church tower or a lilac bedroom wall with no bedroom attached. In the wedding dress shop all the manikin brides of Merivale had tumbled down into a heap of white lace and silk with arms and legs sticking out at odd angles. The super market which opened later in the day still had slippery floors where numerous bottles of wine olive oil and sauces had cascaded down, In fact we saw CCTV footage of the inside of an off-license and saw the shelves bulge before their entire content crashed down in a heap of booze and glass. The New Zealanders are amazingly efficient, Within 24 hrs the airport was functional again. We got up at 3 am on Thursday morning to catch our plane . It was a very eerie experience driving through the city at night. Only when the plane had left the runway could I relax, I was so relieved to be leaving Christchurch and yet so very sorry to be leaving all the poor people behind. It will be years before they can rebuild the city and they will live in daily fear of another quake.