24 February 2011


We were looking at apartments.

We had arrived in Christchurch just two days before, landing at Christchurch International Airport after a hellish four flights. Jeju to Busan, Busan to Osaka, Osaka to Auckland, and Auckland to Christchurch - and with each transfer we had to go through a set of customs, collect our bags, re-check them, and then go back through customs to try to catch our flight. At Osaka, we found ourselves sprinting through metal detectors led by a flight attendant to the gate where the plane was being held for us.

Two days later, and I had checked in with my new school (the University of Canterbury) completed enrollment, and started finalizing my loan. I had met with one of my professors already and talked about the course of study on Melville I was planning. Things were looking well on their way. So we went looking for an apartment for this year: someplace by the beach, cheap, and clean.

The first two places we looked at were not very promising. There was a small house with a big room to rent and a big house that had only a small room to rent. But we'd been checking TradeMe (the New Zealand equivalent to eBay) quite a lot and had a nice list of places to investigate, so we walked on.

The next place we were looking at was at 58 Marine Parade, right along the coast in the east of the city in New Brighton.  We got there early, and so the owner (Murray) wasn't there to meet us. A current resident of the house was there, though, and she showed us in. The double room to rent was grimy, and the carpet was covered in dark reddish stains. Even though the place was a fair size and right on the beach, there was just no way it was going to work out.

Lizzie and I chatted for a few minutes about whether to just leave now or to wait for the owner.
Another resident showed up who seemed friendly enough, and we spoke with her as she grabbed her laundry to take to the laundromat. She left, and we stood for a moment in the kitchen near the front door.

Then everything started moving.

I think that my idea of earthquakes was basically straight from television: a combination of old Star Trek style tilting of the camera while people hold on to things and shows like Lassie where people swayed slightly and declared with wide eyes, "It's an earthquake!"

This earthquake was not like that.

The walls rose independently of each other and started lurching back and forth, like the roof was in the grasp of a giant and being wrenched from side to side. Everything in the kitchen - dirty coffee mugs, plastic plates, an old vase - started juttering on the shelves or fell to the floor with a crash. The dance of furniture on the floor joined with the rattle of the windows in their frames to make a shuddering rhythmic clatter.

Lizzie ran outside to the front yard, while I leapt a step back and braced myself under the big wooden doorway leading into the kitchen - I had a vague memory from Scouts that if you were inside then you were supposed to get under something like this and away from windows.

The quake lasted about ten or twelve seconds. I stood there and watched Lizzie, and still had time to notice the lamp hanging from the ceiling was swinging wildly back and forth, and the door to someone's room had burst open and I could see their shelves being emptied of books and DVDs in a steady cascade. I swayed back and forth.

After a few moments, it was done. Lizzie and I ran to each other and said, "An earthquake."

There appeared to be little damage to the house (a few cracks in the walls), and we were okay. A chimney had fallen from a neighboring roof, and smashed through the fence. The resident who had just left came running back to check on things, poking in among her room, and all of her things were okay. No one was hurt, although it was very easy to look at the damage and imagine how differently things might have been.  If we had stood under the chimney - next to that wall - near that shelf.

There was a thick cloud rising up around us as we stood in front of the house. It seemed just like smoke, and I worried about a fire. But weirdly, it didn't smell like smoke. It was thick and gritty, and in a moment I realized it wasn't a fire, but plaster dust. The resident of the house called our attention to the home next door: their entire southern wall had just broken free and collapsed into rubble. A couch was visible in their denuded living room, and the owner was staring at the damage with a wistful smile.

Lizzie and I weren't sure what to do. The resident left immediately, laundry in hand, cheerily informing us that Nostradamus had predicted the big one for March. "Just wait 'til then!" she said with a thick kiwi accent and a smile as she marched off.

We knew that there had been a big quake here in September, and small aftershocks since. But we'd never been in an earthquake before - was this a big one or an aftershock? The cavalier attitude of these locals made us think that the whole thing might not have been a big deal to anyone but us.

After some deliberation, we started walking back down the street, to head to our hostel in Linwood. We chuckled about the experience.

At the bus stop, we sat and waited for a few minutes. Were the buses running? We asked an old man sitting there if he knew. He shook his head - a few of his friends arrived with canes and slow steps, and they exchanged words about where they would go. One of them mentioned that the damage was pretty bad this time.

We didn't know it then, but the damage to Christchurch was the worst it had ever been.

It was in September that the quakes started. A 7.1 quake struck at 4:35 am on September 4th, with its epicenter 40 km west in the small town of Darfield (pop. 1,300). It took almost everyone by surprise, even though seismologists had been warning about quakes for years, and major quakes had struck even within the first few years after colonization of the area in the 1840s and 1850s. The September quake injured two people and caused a heart attack in a third - damage was estimated to be between $2 and 3 billion. People counted themselves lucky, all told, and rode out the minor aftershocks of 3.0 to 5.0.

The Richter Scale is a logarithmic scale. Each number is ten times the severity of the previous - so a tremor of 4.0 is ten times the size of a 3.0, and the 6.3 earthquake on February 22nd was only a little more than a tenth of the size of the 7.1 September quake. However, damage depends more on the depth of the quake than the Richter severity.  Shallow quakes cause more damage.

The February quake was very shallow.

As we walked back along Marine Parade and then down Pages Road, leaving New Brighton and heading for our hostel in Linwood, we slowly began to absorb the fact that this was a terrible disaster - not just a little tremor to be laughed at.

Every house we passed had some damage, and every other house had severe damage - a collapsed small wall or stoved-in roof. And in only a few minutes we started to encounter buildings and homes that had been completely reduced to piles of bricks and wood. Outside of one two-story home a family scrambled to haul out some clothing for the night, and a man sat at the curb covered in dust. The rescue workers told us he had been trapped. There was nothing we could do to help, we were advised. We moved on.

It was eerie walking by taverns and clubs where we had walked a half hour ago, and find them now in pieces. Over and over again, we picked our way around heaps of bricks and mortar, crushed from the quake and strewn over the sidewalk. Emergency crews were busy everywhere, and had used the minutes since the quake to cordon off the most dangerous areas with tape.

A supermarket we passed (PaknSave) had a parking lot full of people huddled in groups, with people lying under blankets and paramedics giving first-aid. I can only imagine how it must have been inside, with shelves of cans and bottles tumbling down on people's heads.

A few people offered us information as we walked on, telling us that the city center had been very badly hit. The steeple had fallen off the Christchurch Cathedral, the most prominent landmark. Big areas were on fire. People were missing. And all the while, smaller aftershocks continued: 3.0 and 4.0, shaking everything just slightly and making still-frightened people clutch their loves ones.

Pages Road was a mess. The force of the quake had liquefied the soil below the roads and pavements all along the way, and forced it up through cracks in the asphalt or low areas, leaving huge areas of the street covered in a thick grey sludge. In places, the entire street was covered in the muck. The water mains had also broken everywhere, flooding the streets. Lizzie and I rolled up our pantlegs, held onto our shoes, and waded through knee-deep mud and water. Cars were waved back or allowed through variously, depending on the damage. The bridges were slightly askew, with the asphalt at either end torn up with gaps and holes.

The worst thing was a simple thing: a woman, running. Fifteen minutes after the quake, she passed us. She was perhaps thirty, and sprinting as fast as she could in her socks down the sidewalk, her shoes in her hand. As she ran by, I could hear a harsh wheeze of her breath, and her face was stark with terror. I knew she must be running to check on her parents or partner or children. I hope they were okay. I hope she is okay.

Our hostel (Drifter's) was in Linwood, just outside of the city center. It was moderately damaged, with no one injured. The front door and stoop had been rent badly by the shaking, and were impassable, and the chimney had been shaken free of the house to fall on the smaller bunkhouse behind. These damages and the slight shifting of the house (filling it with cracked plaster and damaged shelves) were the whole of it.

When we first got back, people were still circulating around and questioning each other. Everyone was unharmed. No one had much information. A few rumors circulated, and everyone could see for themselves the plumes of smoke coming from downtown and the helicopters circling with suspended buckets of water. We saw a few looters climbing in and out of windows in the neighborhood, but there was no trouble.

After an hour or so, the hostel owner (Peter) and I got busy fixing some of the damage, and we were shortly joined by the friendly neighbors. We pulled the remains of the chimney from the roof of the bunkhouse (forty or fifty bricks), sweeping away the dust and mortar. We used some extra sheets of roofing and a tarp to cover over the damage; one of the neighbors mentioned that it was likely to be a semi-permanent fix since materials would be scarce for months. We picked loose bricks from the wall where they seemed likely to fall, and a few other neighbors rigged up the front steps and roof with stones and beams so that they wouldn't fall any further.  Most of the building seems structurally fine, although it will need serious repairs.

Small tremors continue, every hour or so.  Some are strong enough to rattle the glass.

Information has trickled in, over the radio, from neighbors, and in an emergency newspaper. 75 people are dead, 300 more are missing. The damage is estimated at more than $12 billion.

Many backpackers and tourists fled immediately, catching flights arranged by the government for cheap. The city center is cordoned off and there's a curfew in place, both for safety and to stop crime. Power has been restored in many areas - it just was restored here in Linwood early this morning. Water service will be off in most places for several weeks; we haul it from a central place a few blocks away.  Some stores are open.  There's a sinkhole around the corner that keeps getting bigger from morning to night.  The local butcher's has been crushed to the ground, and now it's starting to stink with the smell of rotting mutton and fish.

The day before the quake, Lizzie and I got dinner at a small fish-and-chips in the neighborhood.  A little fat Vietnamese boy and his mother served us.  When we heard that a fish shop had collapsed and killed two people, we were both sad, thinking it might have been them.  Somehow it would have been worse.  But it wasn't.  The next day we saw them loading up a minivan with bags of flour and bottles of oil.  The little boy looked bored.

We're not sure what we'll do next. My university is closed down for at least a couple of weeks. We have some boxes being shipped here, so we'll probably travel around for a little bit, then come back to Christchurch and make some final decisions. Stay here? Go somewhere in the States? Not sure yet.

We are safe and healthy, though, and more cannot be asked. I will update when we know more.

More pictures of the earthquake are available here.  A visual timeline of the quakes and aftershocks is here.

UPDATE 10:50 P.M.: Current numbers are 98 confirmed dead, with an additional 226 missing.  More than a hundred people were trapped in the Canterbury Television building when it collapsed, and 22 more were trapped in the cathedral, and rescue crews generally believe they won't find any more survivors.  Minor tremors continue every hour or so.

UPDATE 2/27:  Five days after the quake, and we're in Dunedin, six hours south.  The death toll has climbed to 145, and it seems as though none of the 200 people still missing will be found alive.  Here in Dunedin, we have every amenity again - and no crashing walls to avoid.  They have bunk beds here, and when people climb into bed beneath me, it feels like the ground is shaking slightly.

FINAL UPDATE 3/4: 163 confirmed dead, an uncertain number missing (the 200 total missing might include many of the dead). Fatalities are estimated to probably be around the 200 mark when all is settled.


  1. I'm so glad you guys are ok! I've been reading terrible news stories about a group of Japanese students that are trapped somewhere. I hope everything works out for you.


  2. That's so scary. I'm really, really happy you guys are okay. Stay safe!