Ten years. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years. I am commemorating the anniversary by reposting a student project from my time at Christchurch’s Design & Arts College. It is an editorial about my experience of the Christchurch earthquakes and, in particular, the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck at 12:51 p.m. on February 22nd 2011, the quake in which 185 people died and which changed the Canterbury landscape forever. I have included a transcript of the original interview below, as well as an introduction and footnote about the project. Note: the “book” referred to in the text was a student project and, sadly, was never officially published. All words and drawings are my own.
Christchurch, the Garden City of New Zealand, was violently shaken awake by a massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake on September 4th 2010. The series of aftershocks that followed culminated in a frightening and destructive 6.3 magnitude earthquake on February 22nd 2011. Many people lost their lives. Homes and heritage buildings were destroyed. It is a period in history which will, no doubt, be remembered as both the breaking and the making of Christchurch.
This book gathers together memories and experiences of a group of local graphic design students from the Design and Arts College of New Zealand. It is a snapshot of life defined by the two main earthquakes; six months that changed lives and landscapes forever.
Describe your experience on the 22.02.11
I was at home on my own. When the earthquake hit, I found myself standing in a doorway watching all the books and DVDs on a tall bookcase empty onto the floor. The house was shaking violently and I could hear furniture crashing and glass smashing. It was sensory overload. Everything — and I mean everything — was shaking and it was an effort not to fall over. When the shaking finally stopped, I remember walking around and around inside the house not knowing whether to tidy up or get in the car and drive away or just give up and cry.
What were your first thoughts after the two big earthquakes?
The September quake struck in the middle of the night. The bed, the house, the whole world shook and shook and it seemed like it would never stop. It was beyond terrifying. James, my husband, and I stayed in bed. Because everything was shaking so much, it didn’t even occur to us to try to get up. Our first thought (which we had simultaneously) was to pray — and we had to pray really loudly because the noise around us was deafening and seemed to be coming from everywhere. Was this the end of the world? When the earthquake finally stopped, I remember thinking: wow, the house is still standing! We turned on the light. Wow, the power is still on! The mess was incredible but we were alive — scared half to death but alive.
February’s earthquake was not completely out of the blue but it was a lot more violent than the first one. I’m pretty sure I went into shock. My first rational thoughts? How bad was it this time? Is everyone okay? And then I started making phone calls and sending texts. I knew it was much worse than September but I didn’t know how bad it was until I turned on the TV. We live six kilometres southwest of the central city and our suburb is near the fault line. If I hadn’t been on holiday, I would have been just leaving school and walking down Manchester Street, one of the hardest-hit areas.
Who did you try to contact first?
James, who was working in an area of Christchurch that turned out to be relatively untouched by the quake. Then I started contacting friends and family (after all, we’d had the dress-rehearsal for this disaster in September). I was talking to a friend who lives 50 kilometres north of Christchurch when the first big aftershock hit. She had just enough time to warn her husband that another shake was on its way. Freaky.
What have you lost in this?
Personally, I haven’t lost anything of significance. Nobody close to us has died (although more than a few people have had miraculous escapes). Our house is still standing, if a little cracked in places. We lost a few things — china, glasses, a piano keyboard — nothing much. I did lose my sense of feeling safe for awhile but that was worse after the first earthquake. I’ve become more philosophical since February’s big one. Crazy, really, considering that the second quake killed so many people and did a lot more damage.
We have lost the D&A College building. It’s badly damaged but still standing, and we’ll eventually be able to retrieve property left behind, but we won’t be going back to study. The school is only half a block from the Cathedral and it’s such a mess in there. No, we won’t be going back to our once beautiful, historic Art Deco building. It’s very sad.
What did you have to live without? Did you lose power, water, sewerage?
Power stayed on, for which we are very thankful. We were without running water for nearly two weeks. Sewerage doesn’t seem to have been a problem. We were lucky.
How did it affect your daily routine?
What daily routine? Everything becomes very basic and everything slows down. Just having to boil water slows things down. For the first couple of weeks, we thought twice about going to the toilet (it was such a performance — I won’t go into details if you don’t mind). And the queues. Queues for everything: water, petrol, food. Most of all, though, your priorities change. You think about staying safe and staying in touch with people more. You don’t take anything for granted.
How are things now?
It’s been nearly a month since the 6.3 and things are far from normal. Water’s back on now but we still have to boil it. As I write this, there are still people without water, power or sewerage, so I’m not complaining.
Because of the cordons, many people haven’t been allowed to enter the central city to see what, if anything, is still standing and that’s left me feeling very cut off from the city and I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years. You try to do what you’d normally do but your options are severely limited. The D&A College is off-limits; many favourite cafés, restaurants and live-music venues are in the Red Zone, as are the best bookshops, art supply stores and music shops; Christchurch Art Gallery is Civil Defence HQ and the Arts Centre is seriously damaged. We hope they will reopen or relocate but everything is so uncertain.
How did you cope?
I’m not sure that I did cope. I have a wonderful husband who reassures me, holds my hand and doesn’t seem to mind too much when I lose the plot. You cry, you laugh, you make tea, you do the dishes, you open a bottle of wine, you try to sleep, you stay in touch with family and friends, you hope and you pray. I became an information junkie for a couple of weeks, watching TV and scanning the Internet for any news about what was happening. And listening to talkback radio helps in a crisis too; something about the shared experience is very comforting.
How has this affected your family and friends?
Some are coping well; others are over it and ready to pack their bags and leave. A few people have no homes to go back to, a number of people have lost jobs and others have bumps and bruises to show for Christchurch falling on them. Some have lost loved ones. It’s made us all a lot closer to each other. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been.
Were there any defining moments?
On the day of the quake, I was very concerned about one of my best friends who worked in the city and was in one of the most seriously damaged areas. She’d normally text me within minutes of such a strong earthquake and I hadn’t heard from her. News reports started estimating the number of dead and, as the hours went by, I really did think she’d been hurt or worse. She finally contacted me about 6.30 that evening — having spent nearly five hours walking home because traffic jams made it impossible to drive anywhere. That was a very scary few hours.
Seeing the spire missing from the Cathedral was another defining moment but there have been numerous others. One of the streets shown repeatedly on the news in the early days of the disaster was Manchester Street, just around the corner from D&A. The buildings were so badly damaged that it took me a few days to recognise them. The ANZ Bank Chambers, a really beautiful old building, was another destroyed by the quake. That realisation came with photographs showing a large copper dome lying upside down on Lichfield Street. The city will never be the same.
How are you coping with the ongoing shocks?
Some days, I’m okay; other days, I’m a nervous wreck. What you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve lived through an event like this is that aftershocks are earthquakes in their own right. They’re not all insignificant little window rattlers; some are very strong and very frightening. One of October’s ‘aftershocks’, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, was strong enough to bring down a tall bookcase at our house which had been secured to the wall. The other thing is that aftershocks often trigger memories (psychological, emotional, physical) of the really big quakes and that can be almost as traumatic as the original events. Oh — there goes another one…
How do you feel about Christchurch now?
I appreciate the city a lot more than I used to. I’m a lot more attached to it than I thought I was. And I’m really hoping that an even more beautiful city will rise up out of the ashes, so to speak. You take your chances wherever you live, whether it’s floods or fires or earthquakes. I don’t think we’re more prone to earthquakes than we were before September.
Have you considered leaving Christchurch?
I think everybody’s thought about it at some point or other. Just to get away from the shaking would be nice. But not permanently, no. If anything, I realise how much I like it here. It’s not just a city I’ve ended up living in by default. Christchurch is home.
What would it take for you to leave Christchurch?
I really don’t know but I do know it hasn’t happened yet.
Which quake affected you the most?
As far as I’m concerned, we’ve had five really big quakes since September and all have left their mark for different reasons. The first big one was out of the blue and unimaginably scary. Then there was a really strong quake the following Wednesday, the first major one I’d experienced by myself. I didn’t like that much either. That knocked my confidence for a long time. There was the October aftershock that brought down the bookcase; coming home and finding that on the floor was very unnerving. Boxing Day was a difficult day too; it felt like the ground was never going to settle down. And now February’s earthquake has had an even greater impact, more than all the others put together. I was shaking for an hour following that 6.3 (numbers really don’t mean anything). And people died this time.
What have you learnt about earthquakes?
That you need more than magnitude to know how big an earthquake is. Ask anyone in Canterbury; we’re all experts now. Magnitude is meaningless without knowing its depth and where it is centred. I’ve also learnt that earthquakes are ongoing nightmares that sneak up behind you when you’re not looking and pull the rug out from under you just when you thought things were settling down. It’s amazing how mad you can get at a force of nature. Sleep deprivation can make you a little crazy too.
What, including luxury items, would you put in your next survival kit?
Our survival kit includes batteries (for radios and torches), LED lights (we don’t want to rely on candles during aftershocks), face masks (for when the silt turns to dust) and paper plates (when washing the dishes is simply not possible). We now also have large buckets and plastic bags on standby (for when the ‘bathroom’ is out of order). This time around we’ve included bottles of drinking water (to supplement the many litres of tap water we’ve stored around the place), and baby wipes and facial cleansing cloths (luxuries when you have no running water). Thinking about it, we really should put some chocolate in there as well. And wine — lots of wine.
Has anything positive come out of this earthquake for you?
Yes, definitely. In amongst all the bad stuff, you find out who your friends are, so to speak, and you figure out what’s really important. And I think Christchurch now has an incredible opportunity to reinvent itself.
Everyone in and around Christchurch has a story to tell and our stories are still being written.
There can be no definitive final chapter. We will grieve, we will rebuild and we will move forward. We will never forget.