Earthquakes and Irony on the Shaky Isles

A bit hectic this week and people have been asking so I figured I’d give some information/ context on what we’re dealing with here – at least from a personal perspective. Even after many years in New Zealand, coming from one of the most stable pieces of land on the planet (the good ole conservative rock that’s Ireland), means this earthquake stuff can still be a bit new to me.

Around midnight on 10 November, New Zealand’s south island was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Normally, at least in my experience to date, when an quake occurs at night, you screw your eyes tight, snuggle deeper under the covers and wait for it to pass.

Unless it keeps going.

And boy, did it keep on going!

This particular quake went on for over a minute by which time we were all out in the hallway sheltering under the door jam (usually the sturdiest area in the house). Finally, it eased off but aftershocks kept rolling in over the next few hours. Nobody really got any sleep that night.

In most respects of course, we were exceptionally lucky. Although quite violent (the ground lifted in over three meters in places), the quake was centered in an area of the south island that had a very small population. Two people died but if it had happened at a different time and in a different place that could have been dramatically more. In Wellington – the closets city – because we’re on the coast, a tsunami warning went out with sirens going on and off irregularly. Many people evacuated to higher ground – not easy with the aftershock, others remained in bed. It was a complete shambles with mixed messages and nobody clear on what the safest course of action was.

When daylight came, the extent of the damage in Wellington began to become clear with damaged buildings, and lots of broken glass (this would have showered down and probably killed – or at least seriously hurt – people in the streets had it happened during the day). The city centre was blocked off until the city and government officials gave the all clear (which turned out to be a remarkably bad idea). Although the aftershocks had declined , a huge storm blew in over the subsequent two days, flooding parts of the city, the main roads in and out of the city and causing numerous landslides in areas already weakened by the shakes. Many people going into town for work ended up getting stuck and unable to make it home (we had two people stay over at our place). Conflicting messages kept coming out from the media. It’s safe/its not safe! Come in/ stay home!

After three days, a sense of normality returned. The storms stopped, the roads dried out. The tremors had reduced to an occasional perceptible shake but that was it. Everything seemed okay until, suddenly, people started being evacuated from buildings and told to go home. First it was one building, then two, then over ten and by the last count, somewhere between 20-30 buildings. It turns out the building owners and the government departments had demonstrated far more optimism than they had any right to. Many of the buildings considered safe turned out to be a major risk hazard. Three significant buildings in the inner city have now been programmed for demolition as they can’t be saved. There’s construction work going on all over the city and bizarrely, the most damaged buildings are those which were most recently constructed (to higher standards). A lot of people are asking questions that no-one seems capable of answering.

irish-earthquake

And there there was us:
Fortunately, our house is located on a hill inland from the sea. As a result, we didn’t have to deal with the whole tsuanmi issue. In addition, because I’m a complete paranoid, I’ve been carrying out major house strengthening work (removing the brick chimney, increasing the strength of the roof, screwing cupboards to the wall etc.) and as a result, we came through remarkably unscathed. At the time we had a lot of books falling off the shelves, food flying out of cupboards but, otherwise, nothing major. A quick look around the structure of the house the following day revealed a number of cracks in our garden wall and paths up to the house that may be a problem in the future but not for the moment at least.

We were also lucky in that we’d both finished our external contract work so anything we had to do, we could do in the home office and hence, didn’t need to go into town. As a result, we missed the flooding debacle, the initial construction work etc.(in fact, I didn’t leave the house for four days). We were also lucky in that although some of the city lost power and communications, we managed to escape all that. Our systems are also backed up on mirror servers in other countries. As long as we have access to a computer we can access most of what we need.

Overall, therefore, we were remarkably lucky and its seemed oddly surreal to be sitting in front of the television, in the comfort of our own home, watching “low-key Armageddon” as our city floundered from one event to another. It’s been twenty days since the quake now and although we still get the odd aftershock everyone seems to have put it behind them. Underneath it all of course, they’re still going around with baited breath and frayed nerves. Generally speaking, I consider myself quite brave and even heroic (except where it comes to actual danger!) but I have no problems saying this whole event scared the crap out of me.

God, the trauma!

You know, this has actually been quite therapeutic. It feels oddly liberating to vent all this onto someone. I haven’t really spoken to anyone else about it (they usually start running away). But, hey! I feel a hell of a lot better!

Eh … How much do I owe you?

Update:
Since originally writing this article, I returned to the city centre for a very short external contract to facilitate a conceptual workshop on – get this – impacts on the Christchurch earthquake sequence in 2010-2013. Ten minutes before the workshop was due to start, the alarms went off and the building was evacuated. I had to escape down the stairwells from the seventh floor.
Now THAT’s irony!

One Response to “Earthquakes and Irony on the Shaky Isles”

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  1. Derek Neal says:

    That pretty much captures how I felt too although I was in a very deep sleep and by the time I realised it was essentially over. A few cracks and a great deal of stress. I find myself clenching my teeth at odd times!