At 4.35am last Saturday the city I’ve called home for the past thirty years was hurtled into wakefulness by a 7.4 earthquake. On the Richter scale, this is the same strength as the earthquake that flattened Haiti, just weeks ago. New Zealand is used to earthquakes, as it sits on a mesh of fault lines, but this was different.
To begin with a malevolent growl from deep beneath Christchurch’s pleasant gardens and graceful old buildings woke me. The cat shot off the bed. The growl got louder, and closer, then the house began to swing sharply from north to south. I sat up, and haphazardly reached for the light switch. Darkness. Within seconds the jolt became a furious thrash as something huge and inhuman took me in its hands and shook me from side to side, like a maraca. My arms and legs rag-dolled. Get under the door jam! Climb under the bed! But for thirty seconds I could do nothing but brace myself as best I could…and feel very scared.
Then it stopped. I fumbled out of bed, and got dressed. I called the cat and together we spent the next two hours sitting beneath the door jam in the dark, as the aftershocks came and went. Then I tried the lights again (nothing), the phone (nothing). As daylight faded in, I saw that my book cases were on the floor, the spilled contents mixed with pictures from the walls, crockery from the cupboards, keepsakes from the mantle piece, food from the pantry. “I must conserve water,” I thought, and filled the bathtub.
I realise now how completely unprepared I was for an emergency of this scale. In the dark I’d tried to find a torch, only to realise I’d shipped both my head-torches’ off less than 24 hours beforehand, to India for our Vasuki Parbat Expedition. There was no power, I needed my gas cooker…but no, I’d shipped it to India! Where was my short wave transistor radio, I needed to know what was happening! I’d shipped it to India. Ok! I’ll drive to my boyfriends place…but no! My car was stuck in the garage. The garage had an electric door. I couldn’t get in.
As the day went on, and the aftershocks continued, news of the devastation around the city began to filter through. Homes destroyed, the Central Business District decimated, whole suburbs awash with a muddy/ sandy residue from some process called “liquification.” I realised I’d got off lightly.
It’s four days later, and the power is back on, and phone and water. But there have been hourly aftershocks, including a 6.1 just this morning that set everyone’s nerves on edge as the electricity and phone-lines failed. My bookcases, again, ended up on the floor. The CBD, the worst affected part of the city because it contains many of the largest and oldest buildings, remains in lock down, controlled by the army and the police. Many of the most beautiful and historic buildings which give the city its grace and character, are beyond repair. Already the process of demolishing them has begun I’m beginning to realise my home town will never be the same again.
In two days I leave for India, to meet Malcolm and Paul and try the West Face of Vasuki Parbat. In many ways I can’t wait to leave. Christchurch is a sombre place now and normality seems a long way off. But in other ways I feel I’m abandoning a sinking ship. I’m worried about my home, my cat, my boyfriend. “Go, “he says, “We’ll be fine.” But with satellite phones recently banned in India, how will I know?
What is priority here? I’m struggling to answer this.