Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Random Musings on the Aftermath of Earthquakes

Random Musings on the Aftermath of Earthquakes

In fiction after the earthquake the heroes stop and catch their breath before racing off to save/warn the city/people downstream of the impending collapse of the water reservoir/damn/nuclear power station. Or maybe they are out of there and chasing the baddy (who possibly caused the quake) across the county/state/world before he can do it again. Either that or they congratulate themselves on their survival and start shagging like bunnies.

In real life it is nothing like that. Life becomes surreally normal. I sit here in my house that will probably be condemned, finally catching up on my email backlog, preparing the next issue of SoaringNZ and listening to the rugby on the TV in the room behind me. The power is on, the water and sewer work, the heat pump is keeping us warm. In other words it is a normal Friday night for the McCaw household except that there may or may not be an aftershock.

For many other Christchurch families life is not normal, not at all. People are still in shelters or bunking in with relatives. Many as well as losing their homes have lost their jobs as well. It will be a long time before things are normal for everyone. It is a quiet and non dramatic form of un normality now, not the sort people write books about.

The following are a few thoughts I’ve had over the past week regarding earthquakes and their aftermaths.

A lucky Earthquake

It seems inconceivable that a major city can survive a major earthquake with no loss of life!

Timing of course was everything. The quake struck at 4.35 am Saturday morning. The majority of people were home in their beds. People who had been out and about Friday night clubbing had mainly gone home. The streets that all the masonry cascaded onto in the city centre were mainly empty. No one was in the businesses and shops in the old buildings in the city centre that collapsed. No one was on the roads that opened up into enormous holes.

People were injured by falling chimney bricks coming through ceilings and onto beds. However there had been a short jolt just before the big one and that had woken most people and sent them for cover, or at least out of bed to see what was happening before the big one. There are many stories of beds covered in masonry that people had vacated moments earlier.

All buildings in NZ built in the last 20 years (don’t quote me on that timing) have to meet stringent earthquake standards. Most of them did. Older buildings have been strengthened to meet earthquake codes over a similar time period. Christchurch was shaken, most of it didn’t collapse.

No Loss of Life! Just incredible!

It seems to me that if you are a mayor facing a dubious prospect of re-election, but you can keep your head and say what the people need to hear you say during a crisis, you can probably be assured of getting back in. Bob Parker was the perfect Mayor-under-pressure. He didn’t put a foot wrong. I’m predicting a landslide victory.

One thing I don’t think anybody anticipated with earthquakes was sand. I had learnt back when I was doing earth sciences at Uni, that in a Christchurch earthquake liquification could be a problem. I thought that meant that the ground would become soft and buildings would become unstable because of that. Yes, that is exactly what happened, but these “sand volcanoes” were never mentioned. Everywhere around the city, some places worse than others, thousands of litres of water and sand were forced from under the ground. The ground compressed, water can’t be compressed, something had to give and it all shot up, with force and often through concrete floors.

The world in the aftermath has become a world of sand. HUGE amounts of sand. The gardens, roads, and street side gutters are full of it. As it dries it turns to dust. My fishpond is full of it. The drive way and lawn are covered in it. I can’t keep it out of my house. University students are out all around the city shovelling it up. People are frantically trying to get it out of the gutters before it rains again and causes flooding. Where are they going to put all that sand? Where are they going to put all the rubbish, full stop?

As an aside, we are lucky on so many levels that the predicted back weather for Sunday never came to much.

The Water table
The water table seems to have risen. Our creek bed at the back of the house is a least 30cm (1foot) higher than it was (full of sand) and the water is right up to the top of the banks. During the quake itself the water level came all the way up to the dog kennel way up the lawn. There are many puddles and wet spots around the local farm land from recent rain, but it’s been dry for over a week, they should have gone away by now. John reckons the local river is flowing backwards in places. I don’t see how it could be because there’d be a lake forming somewhere and there isn’t.

The epicentre is actually a line about 30km long. It is not a single spot on the ground. All along that line the ground has offset, sometimes by as much as 8m. See the photo John took of Telegraph Road. The centre line of the road lines up with the outside line further down. That is a huge earth movement. Apparently no one had any idea there was a fault line there. This was not the alpine fault quake we’ve been expecting, this was something completely unforeseen.

Holes in roads

Holes and humps in the roads are probably, beside the sand, the one real visual thing that shows something happened here. I’m not talking about in the central city, I haven’t been there yet and I’m picking that it will feel pretty horrific when I do, but out here in the suburbs where superficially at least, everything looks normal the sand is a giveaway. Even unstable houses don’t look wrong until you are close enough to see the cracks. But driving down a road and hitting a completely unexpected mound gives you a jolt. That wasn’t there last week. You can see the cracks, they’re quite obvious, but the mounds that have risen up out of nowhere aren’t nearly so easy to see. On the plus side, we’ve completely eliminated the problems the city has been having with boy racers and their souped up cars. Those things won’t be able to get out of the driveways at the moment; they’re all super low slung! There’s a silver lining no one predicted.

Boiling water and disaster preparedness

Boiling drinking water gets really tiresome really quickly. It takes a long time for a large pot full of boiled water to cool enough to drink. Ordinary modern kettles that switch off once the water has reached the boil do not boil water long enough to make it safe.

Something I had done, about the only real disaster preparedness I had done, was to put bottles of water in the freezer. I had heard about this on the radio only a few months ago. You fill any empty freezer space you have with plastic bottles of drinking water. It serves several purposes. It makes your freezer more efficient to run if it is full. If you do lose power it will help keep the perishable contents cold for longer. It provides cold water for packing picnics etc AND you have a supply of fresh water for emergencies. I don’t slavishly follow all advice notices. I do not have a disaster kit, but I did have water in the freezer, candles in the cupboard and enough canned food to last a few days. Torches were a bit lacking. Fortunately we never lost power.

Even if the supermarkets manage to open weird things happen with food supplies. To start with truck loads of stuff came off the shelves and got ruined, not just in the supermarket but in the food distribution centres that own the places. Truck loads, tons and tons and mountains of ruined food. Breweries lose stock and the ability to make more. The flour mills that supply the bakeries are all damaged, long before the bread doesn’t get to the empty shelves.

The earthquake happened in the early hours of Saturday. I didn’t attempt to go shopping until Wednesday. The first thing I noticed when I got there was the silt in the carpark, the second, the photos on the windows showing what the place had looked like in the aftermath. You can imagine. Rivers of red wine, glass, a pile of all the nuts and things out of the bulk bins, broken stuff everywhere.

Inside, the fruit and vege section looked like it always did. I guess that stuff is supplied locally and had been restocked. No cereals left on the shelf, no canned baked beans or spaghetti, dry pasta, noodles, flour, sugar, plenty of eggs – again local produce. Hardly any bottle of drink, juices, fizzy drink (except for bins of coke), no bottled water left, strangely no kitty litter (can’t work that one out). No commercial bread although their own bakery was doing sterling work producing various loaves themselves. No muslei bars, plenty of wine (restocked from where?) and only beer in bulk cartons of 2 dozen cans.

So can you see what you need to be stocked up on to survive for a few days after a disaster? Strangely chocolate biscuits were on sale. Chocolate bar supplies looked to be very low too. Comfort food obviously.

To make matters worse the main road and main trunk railway line about 150 km north of town have been completely wiped out in a landslide this morning (a week after the quake) and supplies coming into town are having to be trucked around the slip by a rather torturous route.

We are not a third world country. The earthquake earlier in the year in Haiti was of a similar magnitude to this. Nothing else about the situation is anything similar. The night following the quake there was no one who didn’t have somewhere to sleep with a roof over their head. No one has gone hungry. Some homes are still without sewage and running water but it is very few. Portaloos have been placed on the worst affected streets. Trucks are bringing in water to people who need it.

People will be facing financial hardship if damaged homes were not insured, some have lost their jobs as businesses have been forced to close, but no one will starve. No one will remain homeless. Some of the resettlement etc will not be to everyone’s liking and people will moan, but everyone will receive the basics (and more than the basics compared to Haitian standards) that they need to survive.

Community Spirit
Amazing. Just amazing. People have pulled together in the most wonderful way. Students have created armies out their clearing the streets. People are providing food, places to stay, whatever people need, someone is doing it. So many of the emergency staff have been dealing with their own trauma and they’re still out there helping, fixing, doing.

I feel like the whole country would come and help with whatever we asked. There is nothing to do at our house right now, we just have to sit and wait, but I know if I asked, someone would come.

It is exhausting, all of this, but knowing all of the good will makes such a difference. I was quite impressed seeing how tired the Prime Minister and the Civil Defence Ministers looked on TV the other morning, like they too had been up all night doing the best they could do. And the Civil Defence guy looked even more exhausted the next day. That probably meant more than best wishes from the Queen.

We’re over them. Truly. It feels like you keep biting on something unexpectedly hard so that your teeth are continuously jarred. Then you forget what it’s like, until the next one.


  1. Great post Jill! It's wonderful to hear that everyone is okay and working through it together.

    I had no idea about the sand and can't really picture what that's like at all. Did you mean to post a photo of Telegraph Road, by the way?

    I didn't know that about electric kettles and boiling water! I feel like putting some in the freezer right now but it's full of stale bread that I never know what to do with...

  2. Like Deniz, my freezer is also full of slightly stale bread. So I might put some waterbottles under those and then in a disaster I'll have bread and water.

    A well written and insightful post. As someone who has lived through it too (along with 399000 others) it is nice to read something somewhat light-hearted. I also took a bike safari today around some of the suburbs, which included Avonside, and I can see what you mean about the dust. The wind didn't help either. I am lucky to live in St Albans, my house is stable, I have food, water, electricty and internet. All is okay with the world (it helps that I haven't felt a single aftershock today, even through there's been two of them over 4 that I really should have noticed).