An honest and heartfelt read from the Christchurch earthquake
An account of the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake by Ian Lowe
BEING IN THE middle of the Christchurch earthquake was the most frightening experience of my life. It was a category 6.3 on the Richter scale. So I could hardly believe the intensity of the Japanese earthquake that triggered the catastrophic tsunami. It was a category 9. Since the scale is logarithmic, the Tokyo event was about 500 times more violent than the tremor that devastated Christchurch.
I was in the city for the annual tour of the Honest Trundlers, a group of mature-age cricketers. The trip began wonderfully, with final-over wins in our first two games. I had played a useful role on the field and was feeling cheerful. On Tuesday, 22 February 2011 we were scheduled to play our third game in Rangiora, about fifty kilometres north of the city, but there was heavy overnight rain and the pitch was unfit for play. Most of the team took the minibus and headed out to Mount Hutt.
I chose to stay at our city-centre hotel and work on a report I was writing. I had received comments on the first draft, so I pounded the keyboard all morning. With the work completed except for tidying the footnotes, I went downstairs hoping to meet a colleague for lunch, but I couldn’t see him in the foyer.
While I was looking around a man came in wearing a name badge with a logo I recognised: the New Zealand professional engineering body. He was on his way to a seminar with local experts to discuss how Christchurch buildings had coped with the September 2010 earthquake. Another cricketer arrived in the foyer, but he wasn’t interested in lunch and said he was going for a walk. So I strolled down High Street and decided to patronise a small shop called Coffee Culture. I went inside, paid for a toasted panini and a flat white, and sat down to read a newspaper while I waited.
THEN IT ALL went to custard. There was a noise like an onrushing train, the floor heaved, things started flying around the small shop. The staff were screaming as the counter lurched violently. I saw other customers diving under tables, so I quickly crouched under mine. The violent shaking only lasted about ten seconds, but it seemed a lot longer – plates and cups crashed to the floor, walls swayed and the ground rose and fell under me. I could die here, I thought. When the shaking stopped I again took my lead from the locals. I covered my head, ducked and ran out into the street. I could see that the building was severely damaged. While the coffee shop was littered with debris, the offices upstairs were a chaotic jumble of fallen beams. A man called for a ladder to rescue trapped people, as the stairs were blocked by debris.
I met James, another cricketer, who had been in an internet café and also taken shelter under his desk before making his way into the street. He had done better than me: he had used the internet but left without paying; I had paid for lunch and left without being served. ‘I don’t suppose I can go back in and ask for a refund,’ I said. There are times when mordant humour is the only way of coping.
I was worried about the risk of aftershocks and suggested we leave the relatively narrow street for the comparatively open space of the main square in front of the cathedral. He agreed and we set out in that direction. We had just reached the first intersection when there was a violent aftershock. Chunks of masonry fell from buildings and we were glad to be in the middle of the street. I fell to the ground, as did many others. We picked ourselves up and moved on to the square, where we saw the ruins of the cathedral spire, flattened cars and injured people being treated. Hundreds of people were standing around in the comparative safety of the open square, gazing in disbelief at the devastation.
About half an hour after we reached the square, Civil Defence authorities used a loudhailer to tell us that the central area was being evacuated. They told us that we would not be allowed back to our hotel, and must move either to Victoria Park, by the river, or Hagley Park, further away on the western edge of the city. We opted for the shorter walk, edging nervously past buildings that were seriously damaged to the riverside park, and took up a position well away from buildings and trees. The river was swollen, flowing swiftly and carrying lots of debris in its discoloured water. We could see people trapped in a tall office block, out on balconies signalling for help, waving fluorescent vests; apparently the fire escape stairs had collapsed. They were eventually rescued by helicopter.
About an hour later the crowd in the park was again told to move. This time we were ordered to set out on the long trek to Hagley Park where, we were assured, emergency responses were being organised. The hour-long walk west revealed the scale of the devastation, as we passed collapsed buildings and streets littered with masonry. A car parked in a city street had grey sand up to the top of its wheels – the first time we saw the effects of liquefaction.
Two more large aftershocks occurred while we headed out of the CBD. The second forced me to hang on grimly to a timber railing to stay upright. Trees swayed alarmingly above us. We had seen enough fallen trees to be very worried.
At the park we found that the municipal golf course had new water hazards, large areas of grey sand and crevasses extending deep into the earth. There were lots of people, but no facilities of any kind. Desperate for a pee, we relieved ourselves in a small clump of trees, reassuring each other that the Christchurch police had more important things to do than worry about Australian cricketers pissing in the bushes.
MY MOBILE PHONE was in my hotel room but James had his, so we sent messages home to reassure families that we were safe: ‘Shaken but not stirred,’ I joked. I later discovered that the system was so overloaded that my message did not reach my partner in South Australia until about 4 pm local time – five hours after I sent it, but fortunately only ten minutes after she was horrified to be told of a devastating earthquake in Christchurch with heavy losses.
About two hours after the earthquake we got a text saying that the other three cricketers who had been in the CBD were all safe, but had been directed to another park on the east of the city. One had been in his hotel room when the earthquake hit. He gathered his passport and wallet to head down the fire stairs, pausing only to shout at a group standing by the lift, pointing out it wouldn’t work without electricity. A second had been in a coffee shop at the other end of High Street, where he had eaten most of his lunch before the shop began to fall down around him. The third, the man who told me in the foyer he was going to have a quiet walk rather than lunch, had been strolling down a city street when two buildings on either side collapsed about twenty metres in front of him.
RATHER THAN STANDING in the park doing nothing, we decided to walk towards our friends. James had a small map, so we were able to plot a route around the CBD and avoid the area being cleared of people. Amazingly, at one of the roadblocks we bumped into a cricketer we had encountered on our first day in Christchurch, in his day job as a police officer.
We worked our way through the chaos and had almost reached our destination when we hit a dead end, a street closed even to those on foot. While we were plotting a way around the obstacle, we got new instructions to head back to the western edge of the city, where the Mount Hutt group would be waiting with the team bus. The route back took us past crevasses snaking for a hundred metres along roadways, holes big enough to swallow cars, more collapsed buildings and fallen trees.
About 5 pm, more than four hours after the earthquake, we were finally all together, hugging each other with relief that we were unharmed. By this time my system was suffering badly from delayed shock. Fortunately we were outside one of the few buildings in the city centre that still had running water and the motel owner kindly allowed me to use a toilet.
WE WERE ABLE to escape the city. I was tired, cold and hungry, after walking around the city for four hours. Like the others, I was just wearing what I went out in at lunchtime, but it was a cold and miserable day. Rescue was at hand. The cricketers we were meant to be playing that day arranged for us to go to the Rangiora area, where we were plied with alcohol. I found great comfort in a large malt whisky. We were lent warm clothing and fed a hearty meal by the local farmers and their wives while we watched endless footage of the disaster on TV.
We were billeted in four different houses for the night, then brought back together for a sensational breakfast the next morning before heading into town to buy some essentials: a shirt or two, underwear and socks, toiletries, small backpacks to carry our scant belongings. I also had to buy a watch, since mine had been left behind in the hotel. I had reasoned that I didn’t need to know the time while I was having a lunch break.
We must have provided a significant economic stimulus to this small country town. I estimate we spent about $3000 between us, just getting enough gear to survive another day or two. Like most of the others, I had left my passport, camera, keys and clothing as well as my cricket gear in the hotel room. It was destined to remain there until June, as the building was too dangerous to allow people in to recover belongings. It was August, nearly six months after the earthquake, before they reached me. Remarkably, the camera and laptop seemed no worse for the experience – when I powered up the computer, the documents I had been working on were still open – but the watch’s condition was terminal. The window of my hotel room had shattered, so everything inside was exposed to the elements for months.
We headed to Christchurch Airport that afternoon to see if we could fly back home. We were in luck. A Pacific Blue flight had a group of twenty who had not turned up, so we were able to buy seats and be rushed onto the plane. Australian immigration authorities agreed to let us back into the country with photo ID and after answering questions from our passport applications. I was grateful for my last-minute decision to take my wallet with me when I went out for lunch, rather than just money. Without my driver’s licence I would have been in the same position as the two Dutchmen in our group, who had to fly to Wellington to get emergency travel documents from their embassy.
Back in Australia I had to recreate the work I had done in the hotel room that fateful morning. The report, which would have been finished on the afternoon of 22 February had the earthquake not intruded, took me another week to prepare.
The New Zealand government had disaster plans for two events that were thought possible: a major earthquake hitting Wellington and a volcanic eruption in the Auckland region. They had not foreseen the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake in Christchurch. There had been one in September 2010, which did a lot of damage to the city centre but no serious injuries because it happened at 4.30 on a Sunday morning. The experts did not predict the violent aftershock that rocked the city in February 2011. The CTV building, which collapsed with terrible loss of life, had been assessed as safe after the September earthquake.
Christchurch is now counting the cost: 180 people dead, hundreds injured, about a quarter of the buildings in the CBD destroyed, and as a consequence a city centre that won’t function normally until at least the middle of 2012. There are plans to rebuild, but with much more compact buildings to reduce the risk of earthquake damage. The city’s two largest hotels were so badly damaged that they cannot be repaired and will need to be carefully demolished to prevent damage to other nearby buildings.
The Honest Trundlers intend to go back in February 2012, for their usual tour, but not to stay in Christchurch – Rangiora is the likely base.
I HAVE REFLECTED on what seems to be an increasing incidence of disasters across the globe. At one level an inevitable consequence of population growth is that more people live in the path of a natural disaster. There have been events as extreme as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami or the 2011 Japanese earthquake in previous centuries, but they affected smaller populations. Better communications systems alert us to catastrophic events in the rest of the world, meaning we are much more aware of disasters as they happen. The technologies we now use pose additional hazards.
In the case of the Japanese tsunami, the loss of life and destruction of property by the wall of water were appalling. Even those coastal towns that were prepared with seawalls were swamped by the huge wave. But the nuclear power stations in the coastal zone caused another set of problems. Control systems automatically shut down the power stations when the earthquake struck, but the tsunami swamped them and destroyed the cooling systems. The consequent explosions spread debris over a large area. It has been estimated that the amount of radioactivity released from the crippled Fukushima precinct is comparable to that from the Chernobyl disaster. As a result a significant area of land will be off-limits to humans for decades, perhaps centuries.
Earth scientists are also warning that the tectonic plates are destabilised by extreme events, setting off a chain of consequent disturbances. They see a chain of serious earthquakes around the Pacific Rim, up to and including the category 9 event off Japan that triggered the disastrous tsunami, as all being linked to the 2004 Boxing Day undersea shift. That event also caused a tsunami with even greater loss of life. Nobody suggests that the system has settled down.
At another level some natural disasters like floods, severe bushfires and tropical storms are becoming more likely as a predictable result of climate change. Scientists were warning twenty-five years ago that we would see stronger tropical storms, extended dry periods, heavy rainfall events, extreme heatwaves and so on. Some have suggested that the melting of terrestrial ice has increased the mass of ocean water pressing on the seabed, possibly triggering the recent spate of undersea earthquakes.
The jury is still out on that hypothesis, but there is no doubt that the 2003 Canberra bushfire, Cyclone Yasi and the 2009 Victorian bushfires are what climate scientists were in the 1980s warning us to expect. Those who deny climate change are delaying our response and exposing us to more danger. We still tend to see each disaster as a separate and unpredictable event, rather than joining the dots and reacting to the pattern.
First published in Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving