Getting the news out, James Norcliffe

Surviving 7.8: New Zealanders Respond to the Earthquakes of November 2016
Phil Pennington and Radio New Zealand
HarperCollins, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775541103


New Zealanders, Cantabrians in particular, have, over the last half-dozen years, become reluctant experts in earthquakes. We have experienced the wobbly ones, the shuddery ones, the bumpy ones, the noisy ones that just go whack – a whole hitherto unknown taxonomy of geomorphological effects. The Richter scale has become as familiar as the bathroom scales and referred to as often. One of our favourite websites is Geonet, and glib, hackneyed epithets like earth-shattering and world-shaking have taken on a whole new oh-so literal meaning.

Thus, when, just after midnight on November 14, 2016, we were woken by a long rolling shake that seemed to go on and on forever, my wife and I knew at once that we were experiencing another Big One, but we knew, too, that it wasn’t Christchurch this time; it was farther away. Our first thought was the Main Divide, our second thought was Wellington, and we were immediately concerned for friends and family in the capital.

We were wrong. This quake had struck much closer: North Canterbury and the communities that made their homes there, most notably Kaikoura. In this region, the quake was devastating and measured at 7.8: far more powerful than the biggest Christchurch quakes. Landscapes buckled, the coastline rose, and human constructs – roads, railways, bridges, buildings – wrecked.

Such a catastrophic event is immediately a story, an ongoing story which, in our information age, needs to be told even as it is unfolding. Phil Pennington, a senior Radio New Zealand (RNZ) reporter, was one of the first from national media on the scene. Surviving 7.8 is his and RNZ’s account of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. I add RNZ as a co-author because, on the cover, the spine and the title page, the RNZ logo is affixed directly to the right of Phil Pennington’s name. The title and subtitle are instructive: New Zealanders Respond to the Earthquakes of November 2016. The book is almost entirely focused on how the events affected the people caught up in them, whether they were locals or tourists, first responders or, as mentioned, the media representatives themselves. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is following Pennington and his colleagues as they seek to bring the full picture of what is going on via RNZ. Thus, the people covering the story become part of the story.

One of the first casualties of an earthquake is communication: physical in the sense of roads and railroads, and technological given that both wire and wireless networks are disrupted with power lines and cellphone towers tumbling. Pennington and his team flew in by helicopter; his Christchurch colleague, RNZ reporter Conan Young, found his way north by road blocked by a massive slip near Waiau, while another reporter travelling south by road could only get as far as Seddon. However, being at the scene itself was only as good as the ability to relay messages out. A running, near comic theme throughout the story is the description of the difficulties Pennington and his team, fellow reporter Tim Graham and video journalist Bex Parsons-King, had trying to find coverage to get their audio and pictures back to Wellington.

For by far the most part, though, Pennington, the professional communicator, gives the narrative over to those he meets. True to its subtitle, Surviving 7.8 reads as an oral history in the mode made famous by Studs Terkel. The spoken words of those who lived through the earthquake are transcribed, I imagine, quite faithfully, questions are edited out, and participants are often allowed to speak at length. While Pennington does supply continuity and context, this is done lightly, so that the overall effect of reading the book is more akin to listening to an extended podcast.

Skilled operator that he is, Pennington orchestrates this material well. The story is essentially chronological and told in a day-by-day, hour-by-hour sequence. Sections are headlined with teaser quotations from later transcripts. There is immediacy in this telling and a keen human interest in the variety of voices and viewpoints presented. The light editing gives each voice an overheard quality, revealing both facts and character.

And we hear from a wide range of people: residents, medics, marae organisers, farmers, tourists, those involved in rescue and first response and many, many more. And then, those involved in such quintessential Kaikoura occupations as paua and crayfish fishing and, of course, the whale-watching and swimming-with-seals operations. With drastic environmental damage to the shoreline, and road and rail links devastated, these people face an uncertain future.

These voices are mostly philosophical, speaking of resilience and acceptance in the matter-of-fact way that suggests salt of the earth. A few scum of the earth are mentioned in passing – the looters, vandals and thieves, but Pennington doesn’t get to interview these.

Pennington and RNZ are to be congratulated for this often moving insight into how ordinary people respond to such an extraordinary event as a 7.8 earthquake. A generous footnote: sales from the book will contribute towards the Red Cross November 2016 Earthquake Appeal.


James Norcliffe is a poet and author of children’s books.

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Posted in History, Media, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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