Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Earthquake Saga.

Where do I even begin. At the beginning, I guess. "A beginning is a very delicate time." Know then, that it is February 23rd, 2011, one day after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Know that as of 10pm tonight, 75 are confirmed dead, 600 are missing, and the number of unidentified (and therefore unconfirmed dead) bodies is growing, and that rescuers are starting to lose hope of pulling more survivors from the rubble. Know that the persistent aftershocks are constantly shaking the city, sending my blood adrenaline levels skyrocketing and making it impossible for me to sleep last night, as I spent the whole night in a heightened "fight or flight" response mode. Know that 40% of the city is without power, 80% without water, and while most of the major roads are passable, liquefaction has resulted in huge mounds of silt and rivers of water appearing where once stood fields, front gardens, and footpaths.

Know that my mom and dad and I are now out of Christchurch and on the opposite side of the island in the town of Greymouth, but that my thoughts are constantly with our friends the Snowdon family and wishing we could do something to help them, especially after they were so hospitable to us.

~~

Yesterday morning I got up at 7:20am, and woke Malcolm up at 7:30am (and again at 7:45am, when he mumbled something like, "Come back in 15 minutes!", and after a rather unsuccessful attempt to warm up some of my scones from the night before in the oven we got into his car and headed off for the airport. I brought with me my backpack and my sleeping bag, and left the rest of my belongings (in something of a state of disarray, I must admit) scattered on the bed, in the dresser, and on the desk... I figured I would come back this afternoon while my parents were sight-seeing and pack up my things.

The traffic was a little heavy, but Malcolm had me at the airport for 8:35am, and after thanking him and wishing him well I then spent the next half an hour trying to figure out where the heck my parents were; I knew they had come in on a domestic flight (Auckland to Christchurch), but that their luggage had likely been checked all the way from Vancouver, so they were going to have to pick it up from the international baggage collection. After wandering back and forth between the two terminals (thankfully, it's not a very big airport), I finally spotted them in the International Meeting Area. I gave them my "Kia ora! Welcome to Aotearoa!" greeting, and we set off to find a shuttle to take us downtown to the Copthorne Christchurch Central, where we were staying.

Along the way my mom marveled at how much it reminded her of Victoria ("All the trees!") and how the weather was similar to home (it was overcast and a little rainy today, hardly summery), while my dad's eyes took in the phenomenon of traffic driving on the left, and started scanning makes of cars as they drove past, (I'm sure) creating a mental shortlist of the sort of car he would like to rent.

Arriving at the Copthorne, we checked in my parents' bags plus my sleeping bag, and then after phone calls to Grandma Wright and Grandma Taylor to let them know my parents had arrived safely, we headed out into downtown Christchurch to explore the square and find an ATM. One of our first stops after the bank was the Festival of Flowers display outside the cathedral, where my dad and I posed with a topiary moose (how fitting).

Mom and I in front of Christchurch Cathedral

We ended up wandering into the cathedral, as I had never been in before, and was curious about the inside after being in the beautiful cathedral in Nelson. I was not disappointed; inside were majestic pillars designed in the Gothic revival style, an ornately carved wooden altar frame at the back of the knave, and beautiful mosaics on the floor of ships, representing the four ships of the first English settlers to Christchurch. After looking around by ourselves for a bit, we decided to participate in the free tour, led by a kindly old retired English doctor, whose dry wit yet endearing and friendly personality made all the dates and names he was spouting come to life for us.

My dad wanted to climb the cathedral spire ($15 for a family), but because of the rain and low cloud today I dissuaded him from it, as I figured we wouldn't be able to see much anyway. We left a donation in the church's collection box of $20, and as we made our way out I could hear the bell across the square start to ring noon; inside the church, the midday mass commenced, and we decided to go in search of some lunch.

My mom's first words about lunch were, "I don't want to eat sushi!" (ha), so I took her and dad across the square and down Worchester St., as I knew a few restaurants existed around the corner of Worschester and Manchester Sts. We looked at a Spanish restaurant in an old brick building, but deciding the prices on the menu posted by the door were too expensive, headed back across the intersection to The Raj Mahal, an Indian restaurant I had walked by many times in my travels between the YHA and the bus stop, and figured it looked like a good place to try, as it wasn't busy, but I knew in the evenings I had seen it packed, so the food was likely good. We entered and had our pick of seats; we chose one in the corner with windows on both sides.

It's scary when I look back at it now, but the choices we made in deciding all these little, seemingly inconsequential decisions (when to eat lunch, and where to eat it) likely saved our lives.

We dug into our appetizer platter and drinks (coke for me, water for mom, a Kingfisher for dad), and sat and discussed our plans for the afternoon; my parents wanted to go have a ride on the city tram, and I decided I would head back up to Heathcote and pack up my belongings, and then meet them back at the hotel, as by then it would likely be 2pm and we could check into our room. My dad was once again starting to scan cars passing outside, commenting on the different makes and models, when things started to go horribly wrong.

I heard the earthquake coming before I felt it, and likely felt it a little bit before my parents did, as I knew what to expect... it started with a dull low rumble, and then a few slight vibrations, before turning into a roar; I looked up (I was facing the window), and saw the asphalt and gravel outside on the street rippling. My first thought was, "Oh, hmm, yes, another aftershock; well, my parents are certainly going to get the authentic Christchurch experience!" Then suddenly, I was jolted sideways in my chair, and I watched as the brick building across the street (the one housing the spanish restaurant) suddenly had is wall fold and crumble to the ground... I realized at that instant that this was no piddly little aftershock.

My memories of the earthquake itself are somewhat disjointed; I remember the shouting, the shattering of glass, and the roar of tumbling masonry and stone; my mother says it was deafening to her, but I don't remember the overall cacophony; I remember distinct sounds. The glass windows surrounding us shattered outward, causing my mom to dive under the table, and my dad fell out of his chair onto the floor. I looked up, still trying to sit in my chair and hold onto the table, and saw the decorative plaster moulding of the building above the sidewalk outside buckle and fall down toward me; I remember thinking, "The building is falling down on top of us," and then suddenly being thrown from my chair by an upward thrust, and then falling down hard onto the floor, striking something on the way down, and having my knees cut by the broken glass and grit rolling around on the floor. My mom grabbed my hand and screamed at me, "Get under the table!", and I thought, "Well, the table is pretty small, and if the whole building comes down it's not going to protect us", but I allowed her to pull me under, and I started to count like I had been instructed in school earthquake drills: "One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand..."

When I got to "seven one thousand" the earth stopped moving; we were in near total darkness, and choking on a thick white dust that filled the air, coating everything it touched. The restaurant staff started calling, "Are you alright? Are you alright?" to their patrons. I answered in the affirmative, and then they started calling, "Get out, get out!" I scrambled to find my backpack, which had shifted several feet away from where I left it, and grabbed my mom and I's coats from the floor. My mom was scrambling around, trying to find her purse, which she found after about five seconds, as we could hardly see, and it too had been thrown several feet away. We got up and picked our way across the floor, keeping our heads low; the entire front of the building had collapsed, and there was no longer a door; a window frame was preserved enough that we were able to climb up over the sill, shimmy sideways between the half-empty pane and some iron rods, and then stumble over the fallen bricks and mortar from the upper storeys.

Do you remember footage from 9/11? That's what I felt like I had stepped in to. I had grit in my mouth and was coughing up dust, and all three of us were covered in a white chalky powder. Outside, the church across the street had collapsed, sending its makeshift scaffolding from the first September earthquake tumbling into the street, along with its stonework and mortar. I turned around, and took my first good look at the building we had just crawled out of... and found myself almost disbelieving that we had just emerged from that pile of rubble. As we left my mom pressed at $20 bill into the waiter's hand; she didn't feel it was right to leave without paying for our appetizer.

The restaurant we were in. We crawled out the broken
window in the centre left of the picture.

The restaurant we were in. We were sitting approximately
behind where the tree is.

The annex attached to the restaurant.

The church across the street from the restaurant

The building (or what's left of it) housing the Spanish
restaurant we originally considered eating at. I'm glad
we chose the Indian one instead!

Here our senses were assaulted with the sensations of a war zone; hundreds of alarms, sirens, and buzzers going off, the muted sounds of glass and brick and mortar continuing to fall, and the dazed and shocked looks on people around us, as they milled in the street. I saw tears and hysterical cries, and fought the urge to panic or fall victim to emotion; I forced myself to make sure we had all our belongings, and then decided our best course of action would be to walk in the middle of the street back up Manchester St., and then make our way over to the hotel, as I figured a) it was a modern building and may have survived, and b) Victoria Park across the street was likely a safe place to be when the inevitable aftershocks started to arrive. The first one arrived just as we set out, causing more shouting and falling of mortar and bricks from the buildings around us.

I tried to focus on the task at hand as we picked our way down the street, but there are images here in my mind I know I will never be able to erase. We saw people working frantically to remove stones and mortar from the tops of cars that had been crushed by falling buildings, and I knew simply from glancing at some of them that the people inside those cars were unlikely to be alive. We saw one woman being helped away from a car, blood streaming down her head and coating her arms and legs, mixing with dust to create a dull red-brown stain. A man staggered in front of me, his eyes glazed over in shock; I asked him if he was okay, and he told me he worked in an office building just down the street: when the quake started, he ran for the door, and a woman in front of him made it out, but her brother, who was running out behind him, did not, as the building collapsed on top of him, and the man could do nothing but watch helplessly. I asked him if he wanted a sip of water, and I dug my metal waterbottle out of my backpack, and also gave him a piece of candied ginger, as I figured the sugar would do him some good. He thanked me, then abruptly got to his feet and walked in a daze back the way he had come, toward his office building.

We kept going, turning left up Armage St, and witnessing more physical signs of the quake; huge cracks had appeared in the road, tram lines had been sheared in half as if cut with a giant butter knife, curbs had pulled away from the asphalt, and entire sections of the road were buckled up or depressed under. We could smell and hear a leaking natural gas pipeline, and this, coupled with another severe aftershock (and the testament of a resident, holding a bandage to his bloody head and saying that this was definitely a more severe earthquake than the one in September) only caused us to hasten our pace to Victoria Park. Once arriving there, we were greeted to the site of several hundred people milling around in shock and confusion, and an ever-growing river of cloudy, greyish-brown water; the water mains had ruptured, and their contents were now spilling into the street. Liquefaction was also occurring, as sediment underneath the ground was forced upward with the fresh water, creating mini volcano-shaped cones of sand with water pouring down their sides.

A (relatively small) crack in the road

Buckling of a footpath

Broken water mains flooding Victoria Park

The hotel staff was having everyone congregate in one corner of the garden, and when my dad went over to ask about collecting our bags from the luggage room right inside the front door, we discovered the hotel (apparently a model of efficiency) had already moved them up to our room on the third floor, and clearly no one was going back into the building for the moment. The staff advised us to stay put in the park until they could further advise us on what to do.

An office building on the corner of Armage and Columbo Street had people trapped inside on the upper storeys; my guess is the stairwells had collapsed or were impassable. They had hung fluorescent vests on the balcony to attract the attention of disaster relief teams, and a group on the fourth floor affixed paper reading "HELP" to the windows. A young woman approached my dad and asked him if he could take a picture using his camera of the sign and then e-mail it to her; it turned out she was a reporter from The Press, Christchurch's newspaper, and I got talking to her about what we had just been through in the restaurant and what we had seen and experienced on the street.

Cordoning off the CBD

The same building as above, showing the messages
 taped to the windows saying "HELP".

The cellular phone networks were swamped as everyone attempted to call everyone else and see if they were okay; after several attempts I managed to get through to Arthur, and instructed him that while we were all okay, we needed him to call everyone in the family and let them know we were okay. Sitting on the cold metal wrought-ironwork surrounding a few trees in the park, I was super-sensitive to the tremors from the ground, and becoming increasingly cold; I wished I had worn pants instead of capris.

Looking down Columbo Street, I could see the spire of the cathedral lying broken and twisted in a pile of rubble; it made me sick to my stomach to think people may have been in the spire when it crashed to the ground. Suddenly, the ground began to shake violently again; we watched as the building next to our hotel shook precariously, developed a huge crack, and its entire corner fall off onto the street with a deafening crash. My dad looked up Columbo Street, and couldn't believe his eyes; either the entire Christchurch Central Business District sank, or the uptown section rose, as there was now a twelve-foot difference between one half of Columbo Street and the other.

Looking down Columbo St. The broken base
of the spire of the cathedral is visible just
left of the centre of the picture.

The building beside the hotel before it lost its corner...

... and after.
We were told to back further away into the park, and when it became clear that there was no way we would be getting our bags back with aftershocks like that occurring, we took heed to the instructions of the hotel staff and started making our way to Hagley Park, where we were told emergency shelters would be erected. As we walked away, I could see the disaster response team cordoning off the central business district with a thick band of police tape. Along the way to Hagley Park, we passed more liquefaction, more damaged buildings, and paused to listen to the first details of the earthquake from a car stereo playing on the side of the street. In crossing over the Avon River I noticed with a jolt it was flowing the wrong way, and full of the same muddy brownish-grey water.

Buckling of a road near Hagley Park

A tree that fell victim to liquefaction in Hagley Park

The flooded Avon River

After staying in Hagley Park for an hour, it became apparent that this might very well be where we would be expected to spend the night; in a place with no sanitation facilities, no shelter, and no chance of hearing anything more about getting my parents' belongings back. At this point, I took charge, and suggested we walk to Heathcote, as I had managed to get through to Ilya (thank god he was okay), and he said that while the chimney had come down into the house, we could likely stay in the sleep-out out back, which hadn't suffered any damage. Our decision made, we consulted our maps of Christchurch to determine we were walking in the right direction, and headed off.

The ten kilometres between downtown Christchurch and Heathcote seemed endless; partly because we were all in shock, not really knowing what to do, and partly because of the huge amount of damage and constant tremors of the ground around us. As we walked we saw more shattered buildings, more belongings and sales goods scattered about, more bends and belts and buckles and dips in the pavement, and more liquefaction water/silt volcanoes spilling out everywhere. With no power, traffic lights were out, and some corners were already manned by police officers directing traffic.

Once we crossed over and started heading down Ferry Rd toward Sumner, however, things became very quiet on the road; the bridge had been blocked off to vehicular traffic, and for the last three kilometres we were the only passengers on the road, save for two motorbikes and one cyclist. As we got closer to Heathcote, I began to see that the damage was not abating, but growing; entire houses had collapsed, brick fa├žades littered the ground, and clay ceilings had fallen through. One of the most harrowing was the KiwiRail coal train which had been going through the Lyttelton tunnel when the earthquake struck, causing the engineer to throw his train into full emergency to avoid crossing over the road on the overpass that he was sure would have collapsed, therefore sending him careening over the side into traffic. As it was, he didn't stop in time, but amazingly, the overpass held; the engine is on one side, and several coal cars are resting on top. We had to walk under this overpass to reach Illy's house, and my mom made us run, as the side wall of the overpass had cracked and it could have possibly fallen at any time.

I held my breath as we approached 24A Flavell St; Illy had said the house was still standing, but I was afraid the aftershocks in the time since would have taken it down. However, it was still there, and I found Illy in the back garden sleep-out, sweeping the floor to get ready for us, having salvaged the canned food drawers and cutlery drawer from the kitchen. I introduced him to my mom and dad, and then I cautiously entered the house to see about retrieving my belongings.

It was so sad (and scary) to step into that house. Here was a place I had felt so at home, so comfortable, and to see it completely destroyed was heartbreaking. Everything had fallen off the shelves in the kitchen, leaving a mass of broken glass and jam on the floor almost half a foot thick. (I especially regretted this as mixed into that carnage was the peaches I had spent yesterday canning.) The living room was covered with dust and littered with bricks; Penelope's office was inaccessible due to a fallen bookcase blocking the door; the master bedroom was a jumble of clothes, furniture, and bedding; the bathroom in a similar state of chaos, with everything from the cabinets thrown across the floor, and the remaining bricks from the chimney threatening to fall down into the bathtub. My room was total chaos: the ladder to the loft was now bearing a significant amount of the bed's weight, and two dressers and a bookcase had fallen over, spilling their contents everywhere. Oh, how regretted not packing up my things beforehand!

With the help of my dad, we carefully began to salvage my things from the bedroom, a task made all the more dangerous by the tremors that kept rocking the house and forcing us to run outside as fast as we could. In the end, I think we got most of my things; I was unable to find my razor or two DVDs lent to me by Craig, but it was simply not feasible or safe to continue searching.

We had salvaged bedding and pillows for the sleep-out, and Illy was just boiling water on the camp gas range to make us all cups of tea when Vaughn, Kat, and Malcolm showed up; after all the introductions were made and we had convened in the sleep-out for a cup of tea, it was decided that everyone would come up and spend the night at Vaughn and Kat's, whose house in the hillside suburb of Cashmere was three years old, likely has its picture in the dictionary next to the definition "earthquake-proof", and had rooms for us all to sleep in.

We loaded up Penelope's car and Malcolm's car, and with Vaguhn and Kat riding Vaughn's motorbike, Ily, Malcolm, and my mom in Penelope's car, and my dad in I in Malcolm's car (poor dad, he had to drive on his first day here!), we carefully made our way down the dark streets in the rain toward the hills.

If anyone is wondering about Kismet, she survived the earthquake with Illy in the lounge of the house, but ran off as soon as the shaking had stopped; Illy let the neighbours go before we left to keep an eye out for her, and left some crunchies out for her in his sleep-out.

Up at Vaughn and Kat's house, we divvied up bedding and rooms, and cooked a passable meal of pasta and sausage using their gas range (after thoroughly inspecting it for leaks). My parents were humbled by the Snowdon family's hospitality; I suppose I should have been, too, but I simply knew being with them would be an exercise in us all pulling together to help each other, and it was far better than being down in the park.

We sat huddled in the living room until 11:20pm or so, bracing ourselves for the aftershocks that kept shaking the house, and marvelling the number of places in Christrchuch below that still had power (we didn't). We also pooled our information: apparently the earthquake was a magnitude 6.3, less than September's 7.4, but this one was far shallower, at a depth of only 5km. The epicentre was placed at somewhere just below Lyttelton Harbour, which explains why the Snowdon house experienced such violent shaking; it was just on the other side of the mountain range. Reports of deaths were already coming in, including those of two transit busses crushed by falling debris from buildings, and the 22 worshippers at the midday mass at the Cathedral, crushed under falling pillars and limestone.

At 11:30pm we all said goodnight; my parents went to sleep on an air mattress in another room, with Illy in the room below them; Kat and Vaughn went to their bed in the room below the living room, and Malcolm and I bedded down in the lounge, I on a extremely comfy bed-chair contraption, and he on a mattress on the floor. I hardly slept all night, however... each aftershock brought a jolt of adrenaline surging through my veins, and I lay there tense and in a permanent "fight-or-flight" response mode, ready to jump and run for it should another violent earthquake erupt.

In the morning we all decided on our courses of action: Vaughn went to work (he works in construction); Kat went to see a friend; Malcolm went downtown to see if he could help with moving liquefacted soil; and Illy, my mom, my dad, and I drove in Malcolm's car to Ashburton, a community about 80km south of Christchurch, to see if we could rent a car (we knew there was no chance of getting anything open in Christchuch). Along the way we passed petrol stations with queues 30 cars long; there was a huge run on petrol.

When we got to Ashburton and to the rental place I had been able to look up on my computer using my vodafone wireless key (which was also how I was able to update my facebook status to let people know I was okay), we found the agency only had one car left; people from Christchurch had been calling down to purvey a rental themselves. The deal done, we took Illy out for lunch to a Robbie's (the same restaurant chain I went to with Craig, how ironic), and enjoyed the luxury of a warm meal, electricity, and running water.

The exciting part of today for me was having to drive Malcolm's car back to Christchurch while my dad drove the rental; I wasn't expecting my first real right-hand-drive experience to be turning onto and navigating a busy highway into an earthquake-damaged city! With Illy as my co-navigator, however, we made it back to Cashmere and to the house safely (with a few minor issues of riding the rumble strip - my lane tracking isn't used to driving on the left - and reaching for the window wiper control instead of the signal switch). I can't say the same for my parents; they got a little lost, and ended up back at the house twenty minutes after us.

By 5:20pm, and after another big aftershock, the three of us had said our goodbyes and thank-yous, and were loaded up in our rental car, heading out of town for the town of Greymouth... "Getting the hell out of Dodge" as I called it. Due to my frazzled nerves, however, I screwed up and neglected to see that we were heading for Lewis Pass over the alps instead of Arthur's Pass, as we had originally intended to go, upsetting my parents as they were really looking forward to seeing it. Sigh, I'm sorry... this vacation is really not woking out well for them, now is it?! However, we may go see Arthur's Pass tomorrow as a side-trip.

Halfway through the drive my dad pulled over and let me drive the rest of the way to Greymouth while he rested in the back seat; now we are situated at Noah's Ark Backpackers in the Leopard room, and I am down here in the dining room typing this, where I have been for the last three hours (it is now 2:15am). I think I'm finally allowing my nervous system to come to terms with what it has been put through these past 36 hours. I'm completely on edge; every time I hear a low rumble, every time I feel the floor shake from someone walking by, I'm convinced it is an earthquake and my heart leaps into my throat in fear. I hope I am able to relax enough to sleep tonight, because god knows I am exhausted and need it.

I'm very grateful to be out of Christchurch, but I know my nervous system is still there, and my heart is there, too, with Malcolm and Vaughn and Kat and Illy (and Edward and Penelope, who found out what happened only this morning and are flying back from their vacation to see what can be salvaged from their ruined home). I hope I can think of something, no matter how small, that we can do for them.

I am off now, to try and sleep and not dream of earthquakes. Goodnight.

~Carolyn~

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