Christchurch resident Isa Moynihan recalls earthquakes she has known.
The first was a kind of welcome-to-New Zealand. We’d arrived in New Plymouth in late January, in time for school’s reopening. Early on our first Saturday morning we were woken by a loud rumble and the bed being shaken. We looked at each other in wild surmise, like those guys who discovered the Pacific Ocean from a peak in Darien.
A heavy truck passing, we decided, and went back to sleep. That was 50 years ago, in the days when commercial New Zealand shut down for the weekend and colour television was still a promise.
Several years later, while staying with friends in Queen Charlotte Sound (at the inner, Anakiwa end), I was woken about 3am by what I thought was someone violently shaking my bed. An intruder! A drug-addled rapist! I switched on the bedside light and sat up. No-one visible, overhead light swinging on its cord. Ah! It’s only an earthquake.
Over breakfast next morning, we laughed. “Only an earthquake – what a hoot!” Although we were at the head of a long, fairly narrow sound, the thought of a tsunami apparently never crossed our minds. And we’d never heard of liquefaction in association with earthquakes. So ignorance was not so much bliss as complacency.
My third earthquake was the Canterbury one that woke us all just after 4.35am on 4 September 2010. Another violent bed-shaker. This time I recognised it immediately and clung to the bed head. I was now living in a town house in Ngaio Marsh Village, where major disturbances such as earthquakes and extreme weather events are not usually allowed. But this one had sneaked in early on a Sunday morning, catching everyone unawares.
When the shaking stopped – for the moment – I found that the power was out, and neither cell phone nor landline was working. In the bright moonlight the village houses and narrow streets were dark. No lights showed in the hospital wing, no one appeared outside the town houses or serviced apartments. There was nothing but stillness and complete silence.
I found a portable sensor light and a transistor radio, both with live batteries, unlike the torches I tried, and made my cautious way through the house. A heavy book case had fallen across my computer chair, shedding its load of books and folders. What if I’d been sitting there! Books, table lamps and ornaments were strewn over the floor in the living area, but nothing seemed to be broken.
I drew back the curtains. Outside, bright moonlight but still no people, no sounds, no lights in buildings or on streets. There was another strong jolt followed by shaking. I put some clothes on over my pyjamas, sat within reach of an outside door, and wondered what to do. Stay inside or go out? Be crushed under a fallen ceiling or swallowed up by an opening fissure? Radio New Zealand was providing admirable coverage of what seemed to be a major disaster. It was telling us to drop, cover and hold, but I don’t have a suitable table to huddle under, and if I drop, I may not be able to get up.
Next day the media chatter is mainly excited self-congratulation. No fatalities! Power and water being rapidly restored. Some damage to buildings in the CBD – deserted of course at that hour – that provides a dramatic backdrop for television presenters. The dominant themes are: Weren’t we lucky! And Didn’t we do well!
But this time complacency is tempered by fear of what-might-have-been, and for weeks, lengthening to months, the daily and nightly aftershocks tighten the strain.
At 12.51pm on 22 February, fearful possibility became terrifying fact. Lower in magnitude but closer to the city and to the earth’s surface, this quake produced liquefied suburbs, tumbling boulders, collapsing high-rises, ruined heritage buildings, homeless families, and homes without power, water or even portaloos. It also produced stunning acts of bravery and generosity, as well as an influx of helpers from other countries.
A speedily organised Student Army shovelled foul-smelling sludge from the streets; a Farmy Army rode into town every day with serious machines for re-arranging landscapes; at the time of writing, services are still being restored, often in highly dangerous conditions. But the CBD remains cordoned off, and up to 10,000 homes may have to be relocated because of soil instability. Worst of all, the list of fatalities is over 160 and still climbing.
This time the magnitude of the event and its effects on the whole community involving homes, schools, hospitals, roads, businesses could not be down-played or treated as a heads-up. This was it, everyone’s worst nightmare.
As one of those living in the relatively unscathed north-west area of the city, I try not to feel like the “someone else”: the uninvolved, uncaring lookers-on and passers-by so memorably described by W H Auden in “Musée des Beaux Arts”, inspired by the paintings in that gallery. Suffering takes place, he says, “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” A miraculous birth, a dreadful martyrdom, Icarus falling from the sky, all take place unnoticed by the children skating on a pond, the torturer’s horse scratching its behind on a tree, and the ploughman turning away from the falling boy. For him “it was not an important failure; the sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water … .”
For all of us, I think, this latest earthquake (and now the terrible sequence of catastrophes in Japan) was an important failure: a failure of the trust between us and Planet Earth. Is it possible that this third rock from the sun has become terminally unstable and we have reached the end of days?
No matter how we try to personalise it, this planet is not a beneficent Mother Earth or Mother Nature who occasionally throws a hissy fit. It has a fiery heart and moving tectonic plates that have thrust up mountains and can destroy cities. And it is subject to laws over which it has no control, just like the frail humans who cling to it.
Mother Earth gives us
grass and flesh
flowers and fruit
homes and graves
Mother Nature brings us
sun and snow
rain and drought
calm and storm