Letter From The Eastern Suburbs – An Earthquake Story

Destroyed shops on Linwood Avenue

A year ago few of us had ever heard of the word “liquefaction”, let alone knew what it was. Today, it’s part of our everyday language – particularly if you live in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch.

At 12.51pm on Tuesday February 22nd 2011 our lives in Christchurch were changed forever. A huge 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit and wrecked our beautiful little city.

I was at home that morning writing an article for NZ Today on Lyttelton. I had been over there several times researching my story, including the day before, taking photos of the old port town. I thank my lucky stars the earthquake didn’t hit 24 hours at that exact moment, as I had been standing on London Street in Lyttelton under the Lava Bar, which was severely damaged in the quake. In later photos, I saw there was a ton of rubble sitting around it, under which I almost certainly would have been crushed!

What was left of our pantry

On the Tuesday the 22nd however, I had just sat down on the sofa to have a cuddle with our little 4 ½ month old kitten Sammy who had been acting like a nutcase all morning. I will never forget the sound of the oncoming quake…. an ominous roar followed by a rumbling shake that rocked the house. At first I thought it was merely another aftershock that would soon pass. That’s not what Mother Nature had planned though. A huge jolt then hit the house like a freight train and rattled the windows and doors and turned the house upside down. The painting above the dining table where I had just been sitting crashed down onto my laptop. Every cupboard opened and their contents were thrown across the Rimu floor. Light fixtures swung so violently that, not only the light bulbs, but also the glass surrounds shattered and fell to the floor leaving bare wires in their place. By this stage our kitten had hastily retreated to its hiding place behind the sofa, leaving me with deep scratches and blood-smeared arms. I didn’t know whether to run or hide or just stay where I was on the sofa. The nearest doorway had glass sliding doors and as the floor was already littered with the remains of our crockery and glassware, I wasn’t too keen on heading across the floor barefoot to stand in the doorway with doors that were violently slamming open and closed. I figured if it was my time to go,  then so be it and stayed on the sofa and watched the chaos unfold. The windows were shaking so much I thought they would shatter and outside I could see the road bending and buckling and liquefaction spurting out of it like mini volcanoes. Once the shaking stopped, there was an eerie silence for a few seconds. I swear you could have heard a pin drop from 2 miles away. It felt like the world had just stopped moving. Then it woke up with a bang. Alarms went off, people were screaming, car engines started and an array of activity started in the street outside.

Van sinking into the road on Badger Streeet

I managed to walk on the floor using the sofa cushions to get to my shoes. Next was to find the kitten. Luckily his cage was nearby and once secured safely inside, it was a mad dash for the door and out onto the street. People were everywhere, streaming out of houses, running down the road or stopping to hug one another and check that someone was OK.

The roads were a mess. Huge holes and mounds were everywhere and the street was rapidly filling with muddy water pouring from cracks and drains. Our tidy, quiet little suburb of North New Brighton now looked like something out of a war movie.

Chaos on Beach Road

I don’t fall apart in times of crisis, in fact it’s the opposite, and I get super calm and organised and have an ability to rally the troops together to get things done. I took up post on the corner of the street outside our house and started directing traffic and people safely across the road to avoid the huge holes. Most listened, some didn’t and paid the price with cars and motorbikes being swallowed by sinkholes. We warned one motorcyclist in particular not to drive down the road, and even tried to block his way, which was met with a lot of cursing and back chat from the guy. Sure enough, his motorbike started to sink and he was then quick to scream for help to dig it out which fell on deaf ears. One neighbour just reminded him that we had warned him and to perhaps get off the bike and walk home instead.

Two cars stuck in sink holes on Flemington Avenue

And so life continued that way for several hours. I lost count of the number of frantic mothers with terrified kids in prams we helped carry across the road safely. Eventually my other half turned up muddy and wet on a borrowed mountain bike. I hadn’t been able to make contact with him or any of my family or friends at this point as the phone lines were all down and cell phone reception was jammed to the max and not even texts were getting through. My only line with the outside world was a small wind up transistor radio that we had. I learned through this that, although we had it bad in the burbs, it was nothing compared to the city centre, where buildings had collapsed and people were still trapped and many believed to have been killed. My other half owns a business just outside the 4 Avenues in Sydenham, which is an area badly damaged in the September 4th earthquake. I was worried in case the building had been damaged or he had been doing deliveries around town, which was not uncommon, so it was a relief to see his familiar face amongst the sea of strangers.

A motorbike almost totally swallowed by a sink hole on Beach Road

I have only lived in New Brighton with my partner since the September 4th earthquake. Before this, I had a 6th floor apartment in the centre of town behind the cathedral. However, a flooded flat and a constant stream of aftershocks on the 6th floor sent me packing and I escaped to the burbs. I am ashamed to admit that since moving in, I have never introduced myself to my neighbours. Not one of them. I had seen the lady directly next door to us a few times, but only to wave to, never to have a conversation. However, after 4 hours standing on the street corner with most of them, I now knew names and where they lived, how many kids and where all their families were around town. It took an event like this to bring our neighbourhood together, and I discovered a lot more over the next few days.

Liquefaction on Beach Road

Being in one of the suburbs to the East of the city, North New Brighton was one of the most affected. We had no power, water or sewage after the earthquake, and liquefaction could be seen everywhere. Our street resembled more of a BMX track than a road, so much so that we couldn’t even get the car out of the driveway, and still can’t now, 2 weeks after.  Aftershocks were constant too. I think about 70 in the first 24 hours followed by a steady stream of them in the days to follow. Some were small at around only 2 or 3 magnitude but the 4’s and 5’s had us yelping and running for the door.

Time went so quickly that first day of the quake, and as evening came around, so did the realisation, that without power or water, things were extremely limited in terms of cooking, washing and basic things like using the toilet! Our house, other than losing most of the plates and glasses, was relatively unscathed. A few cracks here and there but compared to some in the neighbourhood, we were lucky. We have a huge BBQ in the back garden and also a few camp stoves too, so we went around door knocking down our street letting the neighbours know they could cook things at our house if they needed to.

Evenings were spent with our neighbours, Joka & Dennis

Over the next few days there was a steady stream of neighbours through our garage, which had become the makeshift kitchen, cooking up the remains of their fridges and freezers. I swear if I have to eat another lamb medallion in the near future, as we had a huge stack of in our rapidly defrosting freezer, it will be too soon! I was amused to find that instead of the usual Christchurch greeting of, “What school did you go to?” it was now, “Where were you when it hit?”

Although we saw no officials of any kind for several days, the neighbourhood got together with shovels and wheelbarrows and began digging out the mud from the streets to clear the drains, followed by people’s gardens and driveways. People appeared at our doorway constantly asking if we needed help or water or food. Then help from outside the area appeared – people from as far away as Oxford and Springfield turned up in the street with huge containers full of drinking water, and others with fresh home-baked muffins, which were gratefully accepted and consumed.

What was formally the distinctive wedge building of the Kasbah Pub on Marine Parade

The sense of community sprit was huge. In the face of all the devastation around us, our neighbourhood had rallied together and had come out fighting. The elderly in the area were constantly checked on after every aftershock, water was collected for those who couldn’t get it for whatever reason, toilets were dug in the back gardens, houses kept an eye on for looters for those that had fled the city and evenings were spent together at one of the houses huddled by candlelight around any working radio, usually with a glass of wine or a beer in hand. The community as a whole became stronger and tighter.

It was only after about 4 days that we first saw any sign of life from authorities. First the EQC and Red Cross guys turned up on our doorstep to inspect the outside of the house to check it wasn’t going to fall down – most people had made their own decisions by this point though and had either left the houses badly damaged or stayed to keep watch in ones that were ok. Then the fire service did the same.  A steady stream of helicopters flew overhead which was a noise I would become accustomed to over the next few weeks. Later that day a port-a-loo appeared on the street corner, a welcome relief for some from the buckets or holes in the garden. On day 6, diggers and trucks driving past on the street made the house shake and woke me up at 6am. At any other time I would have been as annoyed as hell at being woken up so early, but in this case we almost cheered at the sound of the roads starting to be dug out. It was only on Day 9 though that they finally got rid of the mounds and holes in front of our driveway.

Building on Stanmore Road

Still, through all of this, we had no power or water. The neighbours were out in force helping each other during the day and socialising at night. We managed to borrow a 4-wheel drive and were lucky to be able to escape the area taking some of the neighbours with us, to head over to family and friends in other parts of the city for a shower and a decent hot meal or cup of tea. It was a surreal experience during these outings. Driving from what we now referred to as the war zone in our neighbourhood, to other parts of town where it looked like nothing had happened. Coffee shops were open and overflowing with people catching up, supermarkets were full of people doing their weekly shops, and streets and people looked shiny and clean.  I almost felt guilty being there, and at the same time upset and angry that life seemed to be carrying on as normal with no cares in the world.

I found a new appreciation for my iPhone during this time. Internet on my mobile was a way of staying in touch with friends and family around the world and providing daily updates on the situation in the area and Christchurch as a whole. Checking Geonet was now the first thing I did in the mornings to see what magnitude the aftershocks had been overnight. Everyone communicated via Facebook, finding out information and offering help to those in need. And then there was the light relief such as a new found page on Facebook entitled “You know you’re from Christchurch when….” -hilarious little anecdotes to cheer up the day. Some of my favourites were, “You know you’re from Christchurch when…….. Rangiora has the best nightlife in Canterbury or ….. you have to race the dog into the garden for the prime pooping spot or …… you were once shamed for driving a dirty car, now you’re judged for having a clean one, or one of my favourites ……. when your celebrity crushes are now Bob Parker, the Chief of Police and  Jeremy, the sign language guy.

All that's left of the fish and chip shop on Bowhill Road

The radio was also a constant source of amusement for me during all of this. With no power, this meant no TV to watch. When visiting other people, they always assumed we wanted to watch the news, which at first we did to see exactly what was happening but after a while though, I began to dread seeing the news as it all looked so bleak and helpless. One of the national radio stations was broadcasting across several networks, and they had a constant stream of updates over the first week, and call- in shows at night. It was interesting to hear the people calling in. People in all states, calm, collected, agitated, grief-stricken, scared, those offering help to anyone who needed it, those searching for loved ones or friends and then those who thought the world owed them something.

As much as our little neighbourhood was rallying together, there were several neighbourhoods that weren’t. I discovered that these tended to be in the poorer areas of town where most of the people were on some kind of benefit, in state housing and just expected everything to be handed to them on a plate. It was quite common to hear, “I’ve got 6 kids and no one is coming around here to give me food” or, “I’ve got liquefaction in my garden and no one from the council has come to dig it out yet”. I got quite angry at times listening to the selfishness of these people and even phoned in to the radio station one night to state my point of view. Even in the best of times, these are the people who sit back and wait for Government handouts, these are the people who do bugger all about trying to find a job, these are the people who think that childbirth is a means to get more money off the state, and it’s these people that were constantly whinging about having nothing when the earthquake hit and in the weeks after.

More damaged buildings on Stanmore Road

We were all put in a difficult and exceptional circumstance, yet it was interesting to see who got going to help out and who did not. I was outraged when I was told a story of one of these families heading down to the welfare centres to not only get free food, then switching clothes outside to get more free stuff, but then spending the money they were given, not on any food, but on alcohol, and still then sitting in the front garden complaining to anyone who would listen that they had nothing, and that no one had helped them! It’s a shame in times like this that these people can’t do something to help out the city they live in. There is a whole generation of ‘job dodgers’, as I call them, who couldn’t care less about anyone but themselves, but that if they actually made an effort, would see that they could make life for someone around them a little happier in the interim.

Fresh Choice at Parklands

There were definitely times in the last 2 weeks that I almost lost the plot. I cried my fair share of tears for those that had died, were still trapped in buildings and for the families that had lost loved ones, houses and businesses, and simply for the position that we were in ourselves. Stress and lack of sleep got to everyone and we all had days when we just wanted to curl up in a ball and pretend it wasn’t happening, but despite that, we managed to get through it and stay strong as a community and do what was needed to be done.

Thirteen days after the earthquake we got power and water back into our neighbourhood. The relief at having something so basic almost reduced me to tears again. The water cannot be drunk however, actually has a slight yellow tint to it, so we are still on the bottled stuff for the time being and continue to have showers and do washing at friends and families houses.  Port-a-loos are still a feature on our corner as we’re still not allowed to use our toilets or sewage system.

Nothing was safe from the power of the Earthquake. Even the drains were pushed out of the roads

Life is slowly getting back to normal though and I wonder what will happen in our neighbourhood now that everyone is back to relative normality again? I have seen very little of many of the neighbours since the power returned. Most are getting on with their lives and possibly back at work. Who knows? I have still seen the neighbours next door a few times, but nothing like the 5 or 6 times a day just after the earthquake and there have not been any evenings together since either.

Whilst writing this article, I walked out onto the street to just stand and observe the comings and goings of everyone. There are still helicopters flying overhead every now and again, trucks thumping up and down the road making the house shake like an aftershock, road workers you see occasionally digging up something or wetting the roads to stop the dust, and strangers I have never seen before, driving down our street not even bothering to throw me a glance, let alone wave or smile. No sign of the neighbours, no sign of that community spirit that held us all together so strongly in the immediate aftermath. Everything appears almost back to normal. Only the road still bears the scars of what had happened. And then, out of a driveway half way up my road, a neighbour’s car appears. I know who lives there now and I wait to see which way he goes. He drives my way and as he gets closer to me, he slows and winds down his window, waves and asks if I’m ok and if I need anything. I smile and say, “Good” and “No thanks” and he drives on his way, leaving me with a little warm glow of happiness that maybe it wasn’t all just a temporary thing. Maybe that community spirit will still be there, at times in the background, but still there, just in case it’s ever needed to be called upon again.

from NZ Today Magazine – March/April 2011 – Issue 39

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