A shaky Christmas homecoming in Christchurch

28 December 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

A car is going to slam through the bedroom wall any second now. I hear it approaching as the bed shakes against the vibrations of a roaring engine.

It’s something of a relief to wake up and realise it was just another earthquake.

To put it more precisely, it was yet another aftershock from the 7.1 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, on September 4, 2010. Even in a city that’s grown used to the earth moving beneath its feet, the 4.2 and 4.9 ‘Boxing Day quakes’ – as the papers are calling them – were a bit of a blow.

If you know a little about earthquakes, 4.9 on the Richter scale won’t sound like a big deal. It’s enough to get things shaking, and will probably get your heart racing, but, last time I checked, under normal circumstances nothing too drastic has ever resulted from a 4.9. The problem is, Christchurch is no longer a normal city. Since the September 4 earthquakes, it has been racked by aftershocks which cause ever-increasing damage. A 4.9 quake hitting a city with already damaged foundations is a recipe for trouble. The Boxing Day shakes closed down the city centre and sent people literally running for the hills. To date, the aftershocks total over 4100. That’s a lot of earthquakes and a lot of frazzled nerves.

Looking around my mother’s house, you’d think Armageddon was on its way. I’ve never seen so many torches in one place. I look under the sink for washing liquid and instead find endless bottles of water. I sneak into her room to borrow a book and instead discover a food hamper that could feed an African nation. Tinned foods – baked beans, spaghetti, fruit, anything you can buy in a can – fill every shelf in the kitchen.

It all seems a bit dramatic to me but apparently it’s part of my mother’s, and Christchurch’s, new mantra: ‘always be prepared’.

As long as I can remember, New Zealanders have always talked about ‘the big one’:  a devastating and apparently long overdue earthquake. The irony is, people expected it would hit Wellington. Wellington is home to at least four faultlines and is the obvious candidate for a massive quake. Christchurch, with its flat terrain and no recent history of major quakes, is not. TV3, one of New Zealand’s major channels,  even put out a fictional docu-drama a few years ago about ‘the big one’ hitting Wellington.

 Having grown up in Wellington, some of my earliest memories involve earthquakes. As a four year old, I remember crouching in a doorway with my mother and watching my grandmother trying to run to us across the shaking living room. School memories include regular ‘earthquakes drills’ and lessons in how to avoid breaking your neck if the predicted ‘big one’ should ever occur. I’m quite sure schoolchildren in Christchurch received a similar education but I doubt there was the same seriousness attached. In Wellington, you get used to minor quakes and impending doom. In Christchurch, quakes come along once in a blue moon.  It’s a saying I’ve heard time and time again since landing here a few days ago: ‘noone saw it coming’. 

Things sure have changed since I was last in Christchurch. In a few short months, residents have gone from living in relative peace to never knowing when the earth will move beneath them. It’s no wonder people are determined they won’t be taken by surprise next time. My mother and her armyload of supplies may sound like an extreme example, but everywhere I walk there are small reminders of the damage done and the fear people feel. A stall in the local shopping centre sells ‘earthquake charms’ to raise money for the Red Cross, a church is held up by poles on each side and long-life batteries feature prominently in shop displays. There’s still plenty of holiday cheer but it’s clear the recent quakes have taken their toll. ‘Always be prepared’ may be a cliché but, with no end to the aftershocks in sight, it’s all Christchurch residents have to cling to.

As my mother put it: ‘it’s our way of taking control in a world of uncontrollable circumstances’.

Sarah Green is a Masters of Global Communications student and has been a member of the upstart editorial team during the second half of 2010.