25 hours and 58 minutes

We actually had a whole day without an aftershock yesterday! According to geonet here was a 3.4 at 10.32 on Saturday night, then nothing significant until 12.30 this morning, when we had a 4.6 (which actually woke me up – normally I’ve been sleeping through everything less than a 5, but it was quite shallow and went on for a long time). Perhaps the end is in sight?

Life has been getting back to normal in other ways too. I’ve been back at work for a week now, and the students are back this morning, so it’s feeling like an ordinary day. Last week was a bit odd – it was really hard to get back into the rhythm of work. Probably just another side-effect of stress and tiredness – everyone I talked to was feeling the same way. If it’s possible for an entire city to suffer from depression, I reckon that’s what happened last week. The first week after the earthquake everyone was busy responding to the emergency, but by the second week the adrenaline was running low and everyone was just tired, anxious, and having trouble concentrating – basically depressed. It’s not surprising, really – even if you’re not all that scared by the aftershocks, you still get that jolt of adrenaline every time one hits, and having that much adrenaline in your system for such a long time isn’t great for your mental health! But after a reasonably quiet weekend, seismically speaking, everyone (including me!) seems so much more awake this morning and ready to get into it.

I’ve been into town a few times now, and it’s both better and worse than I expected. If you went by the pictures on TV, you’d think the whole city centre is devastated, and it’s not. There are plenty of streets where there was no damage, or nothing worse than a few broken windows, which are rapidly being replaced. But every so often you see a damaged building – some with just a few bricks crumbling from the facade, others where whole walls have collapsed, and some that have already been bulldozed and the rubble removed, so there’s just a gap and you’re trying to remember if there was actually something there before. Then there’s the buildings which look ok from the outside, but have a red notice on their door (the council inspectors attach a coloured notice to buildings once they’ve checked them. Green means safe to enter, yellow means restricted entry (i.e. the owner can go in and retrieve their belongings, but definitely not open for business), and red means absolute no go.) And there’s cordons everywhere, so navigating around the city centre is a bit of a challenge – you start to go down a street and it’s closed off, or the road is open but the footpath is closed. There’s moments of dismay and delight as you find out what businesses have survived: Liberty books is open (yay!) but further along the block Smith’s is closed (majorly – the building has lost part of its upper floors) but planning to reopen in a new location (yay!).

We had our first post-earthquake meetup on Tuesday night (it’s funny how there’s this whole “this is the first time I’ve done x since the earthquake” feeling to so many things – even something like getting into a lift feels like an achievement :-)). We’d originally cancelled the meetup, not knowing if anything would be open, but the Dux reopened pretty quickly and enough people were keen to have a meetup that we uncancelled it. I reckon we should cancel meetups more often, because we had a better turnout than we’ve had for ages :-) It was a great night, and nice to feel like we were doing something normal again.

I managed not to acquire any books at the meetup, but I haven’t been so good at resisting temptation since then. On Saturday MrPloppy and I went into town and decided we needed a bit of “retail therapy”, so I may have bought one or two books (ok three, but one was second hand, so it doesn’t count, right?). Then later that afternoon Boreal dropped in on her way to Hanmer, and left me a huge box full of books, several of which have already migrated to Mt TBR… Oh well, you can never have too many books 😉

In among all the earthquake drama, I almost missed the fact that spring is definitely sprunging. The trees outside my office window are tinged with green, there’s blossom and daffodils in the park, and a definite hint of warmth in the sun. Of course, those down south under a blanket of snow might not be feeling so positive about the season…

Another step towards normality

They let staff back onto campus today to start the cleanup now that all the buildings have been certified safe. But first we had to attend a safety briefing, and we all had to sign in and sign out so they knew exactly who was in which building in case of aftershocks. All very dramatic, but it’s nice to know management are so concerned about our safety (even if the concern is probably more about not being sued…)

I was a bit worried about what I’d find in my office, because I’d seen the photos and videos of the damage in other parts of the campus, but I got off incredibly lightly – just one filing cabinet had fallen over:

(The trays of videos sitting on the ground were there already – the cabinet they normally live in got damaged a few weeks ago, and we’ve been waiting to get it replaced)

There are quite a few cracks in the interior walls of the building, but we’ve been promised by the engineers that they’re not dangerous (I seriously hope they’re right!!!). Here’s my favourite one from my office:

There were about half a dozen of us from our department who’d made it in to work, so we teamed up and cleaned up all the offices of people who hadn’t been able to come in, and the common areas. It was weird – some offices were completely untouched while the office next door would be a complete mess. There was no way of predicting what you’d find when you opened a door. It took us all morning to get our department back to normal, plus to help out a bit with another department upstairs.

Even though the damage wasn’t as bad as we’d imagined it might be, it was still surprisingly emotionally draining work, so once the basic cleanup was done we all headed home. Jenny and her husband offered me a lift home, but as we were walking to the car we noticed that a Chinese restaurant on the edge of campus where we’ve often had lunch was open. We decided we needed a treat, and went in for lunch, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed – it was so incredibly normal being in there, just like it was an ordinary work day. Yet another assurance that life will return to normal eventually.

Exhaustion and fear

The stress and lack of sleep is really starting to hit. Yesterday was probably my worst day – we had a couple of really big aftershocks at about midnight which really spooked me, so another night of very little sleep, and despite there being only a handful of aftershocks during the day, I was on edge all day, especially yesterday evening as it started to get dark again. After three days of feeling reasonably blazé about the aftershocks, suddenly my stomach was in a knot and I was jumping at the sound of cars going past. Yet today, despite being woken by one of the biggest aftershocks yet this morning (it was “only” 5.1, but was centred much closer to Christchurch and very shallow, so felt huge) I’m feeling really calm and relaxed again – probably (pause here for another wee aftershock…) because I was only woken a couple of times during the night so I got the closest thing to a proper night’s sleep I’ve had since before the earthquake. H, on the other hand, was fine yesterday but is feeling really anxious this morning.

Fear’s a funny thing. I’ve been terrified of earthquakes since 1991, when I was in Westport for an “earthquake swarm” – three 6.x eathquakes in the space of a week, with aftershocks for months afterwards. Like this one, there was no loss of life, and very few serious injuries, and the damage was much less because it was in a small town with mostly low wooden buildings. It may have just been the timing (I had just moved there a week before to start my first real job after university, so I was already feeling a bit anxious about my plunge into proper adult life), but they left me a nervous wreck, and ever since then the slightest tremor has always set my nerves jangling. Even going into the earthquake simulator at Te Papa, which I knew was completely controlled and safe, left me a bundle of nerves for about an hour afterwards.

Yet the earthquake on Saturday morning, ten times bigger than the Westport ones, while of course being incredibly frightening at the time, seems to have almost cured my fear of earthquakes. It’s like the worst has happened, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so I can relax now. My first reaction to an aftershock is not panic, but instead veers between curiosity and boredom – “I wonder how big this one will be”; “Oh, that was a different type of shake than the last one, that was interesting”; “bother, not another one, I just sat down”; “I can’t be bothered going to the doorway, I’ll wait and see if it gets bigger first.” Not that they aren’t scary at times (especially the big ones – and some of the aftershocks we’re having are big enough that if they were independent earthquakes rather than aftershocks they’d be news stories in themselves), but it’s a more rational fear, not that total panic I used to have. Even the anxiety I was feeling yesterday was more about tiredness than actual fear.

It makes sense in a weird sort of way. When H was going through therapy for his anxiety disorder, they taught a technique called “task exposure”. The theory is that when you’re afraid of something, a lot of the fear you feel isn’t actually fear of the thing you think you’re frightened of, but of the feelings that fear brings (the old cliche is right: the only thing to fear is fear itself). You think about whatever frightens you, and you anticipate how frightening it will feel to encounter it, so you start feeling even more anxious. But if you actually expose yourself to the thing you fear, you realise that the fear you feel isn’t actually as bad as you’d imagined it would be, so it starts lessening your anxiety. And that’s kind of what’s happened to me. For all these years I’ve been dreading another big earthquake, and imagining how frightening it would be. But now I’ve been through a big one, and it wasn’t really that bad. It was scary, of course, but I survived. So now I don’t have to be frightened about how frightening it would be. Of course, ideally task exposure is supposed to be done in a controlled way, increasing the exposure in small increments, but that’s a bit tricky to achieve with earthquakes 😉

Anyway, life is slowly going back to normal. Or maybe it’s just that the abnormalities are starting to feel normal. Buses are running again (I never thought I’d feel so happy to hear the sound of a bus go past as I did yesterday morning when I heard the first one – it was so reassuring to know that things are starting to get back to normal again), and we had our first mail delivery yesterday. We’re still boiling drinking water, but we’ve got into a good system with that now: we fill the big stock pot with water and boil it for the prescribed 3 minutes, then whenever we want a hot drink we can just bring it to the boil again and ladle water into our mugs. We use the same pot of water to fill the sink to wash dishes, and have filled a bottle from it to keep in the bathroom for brushing our teeth (though I have forgotten a couple of times and used tap water – no sign of gastroenteritis yet though, so I think I got away with it). Although we’ve got running water in our part of town, we’ve been asked to conserve water while they’re restoring the supply to the rest of the city, so we’re not having showers, just washing in the basin (although I did have a quick shower yesterday – I couldn’t cope another day without washing my hair!), and we’re avoiding washing clothes.

We’ve been given a schedule of when staff are going to be allowed back onto campus to start cleaning up. They’re letting us on building by building, and we have to have a safety briefing first. Our building was supposed to be allowed in tomorrow, but they’ve now held us back until Friday because of this morning’s big aftershock, which has meant they have to re-check all the buildings for structural damage again. Participating in the cleanup is voluntary – we’ll be paid whether we go in and help or just stay home – but I think most of us will be wanting to get in and see just how bad the mess is. From the photos they’ve been posting on the university’s website, I’m expecting my office is going to be in complete chaos – I’ve got a lot of free-standing filing cabinets I don’t expect to be standing any more, and I hate to think what’s happened in our resource room with its shelves of books and stationery!

Thanks again everyone for the messages of support – it really helps to know everyone’s thinking of us. I got a lovely phone call from Nephew #1 on Monday night – he said if we were scared by the earthquakes we should go and stay at their house.

State of emergency day 2

As predicted, we didn’t get a lot of sleep. There were only 3 or 4 aftershocks big enough to wake us, but they were also big enough to make it hard to go back to sleep afterwards. I didn’t really sleep properly until about 6 am, when it started to get light outside, which somehow made me feel safer (yeah, totally illogical, I know, but my brain was doing this weird connection along the lines of “it was dark when the first earthquake happened, so big earthquakes must happen in the dark, so when it’s light there won’t be a big one” and I couldn’t talk myself out of it), and I ended up sleeping through until nearly 10.

After a late breakfast we decided to brave the outside world, and walked up to the wee supermarket up the road. We’d originally been intending to get groceries on Saturday, which of course we hadn’t been able to do, so we were starting to run low on a few things (like something for dinner that wouldn’t involve creating loads of dishes – we have to boil the water to do the dishes, so we’re trying to minimise the amount we need to do). The supermarket was open, though several shelves were empty, either because they hadn’t had any deliveries (so there was no bread or milk), or things had been damaged falling off the shelves (the bargin bin was full of slightly dented cans), or just because everyone in Christchurch suddenly realised their emergency kits were lacking a few things (so things like batteries were in short supply). The woman on the checkout told us the cleanup yesterday had been a huge job.

Otherwise, the day’s been another surreally normal one. The aftershocks are pretty few and far between now, so we’re starting to relax a bit. The only real discomfort is that the weather isn’t great, and we haven’t got the fire going (just in case there’s another big aftershock) so it’s a bit cold. But we’re wrapped up warm (in fact, H is sitting watching TV in a sleeping bag) so it’s not too bad. Must be horrible for people with holes in their walls though.

It’s been a weird sort of day

We were rudely awoken this morning at 4.35 am by violent shaking. H was already leaping out of bed and heading for the safety of the doorway (all those stories I told him about the last big earthquake I was in obviously stuck), and I was right behind him. The shaking was strong enough that I had to hold onto the bedstead to be able to walk the couple of metres to the door without falling.

Standing in the doorway (and hanging onto it for dear life!) we could see the streetlights outside flickering on and off, and hear things falling all over the house, and the sound of breaking crockery. Each crash I heard I thought “there’s another insurance claim”. All the doors along the hallway were swinging wildly open and closed – really scary!

When the shaking finally stopped (according to the earthquake drums it lasted about a minute, but it felt *much* longer!) and we’d calmed down a bit we switched on the lights (the power was still on at that stage) to survey the damage. Surprisingly, there was very little. Most dramatic was that all the recipe books had fallen off their shelf in the kitchen, and were spread across the oven, bench, and floor:

A few things had fallen off shelves, all the pictures on the walls were crooked, and a couple of plates that were sitting in the sink were broken (accounting for the sound of breaking crockery I’d heard) – a heavy jar had fallen off the windowsill onto them – but there was surprisingly little actual damage. The really weird thing was the things that *hadn’t* fallen over – a delicate china vase H inherited from his grandmother had turned itself round 180 degrees but was still sitting safely on the shelf, the tea and coffee jars that sit on the shelf next to the recipe books were still there, despite all the recipe books falling down, and a glass was sitting precariously on the edge of the coffee table but hadn’t fallen. And weirdest of all, the cats seemed to have slept through it. George came wandering out (I think more to see why we were up so early (and more importantly whether it involved breakfast) than out of any fear), and Saffy was fast asleep in her beanbag and only woke up when we turned on the light to check she was ok.

While Christchurch gets earthquakes quite often, they’re usually tiny, and they’re usually not actually in Christchurch – we just feel the edge of earthquakes in other areas. So my first thought was that if it felt that big here, wherever the earthquake actually struck must be really bad. We turned on the radio to see if there was any news, but the announcer (in Wellington) was just commenting that she’d felt an earthquake, and wondering where it was. We were trying to re-tune to a local station when the first aftershock hit. It was quite a big one (though felt tiny compared to what we’d just been through!) and knocked the power out. Looking out the window, it was obvious the lights were out all across the city – we’re on the flat, so we can’t actually see the city lights from our place, but you always see a glow in the sky from the direction of the city centre, and there was nothing.

About now I started thinking what a good idea an emergency kit would be… :-) It was pitch black, so I found my cellphone, and used the torch on that to find the gas lamp and a real torch. The torch turned out to have corroded contacts, so I couldn’t get it to work, but at least there was a fresh canister for the gas lamp, so we had a decent source of light. No radio though – I found a pack of the right size batteries, but there weren’t enough.

The aftershocks kept coming, so going back to bed wasn’t really an option. H tried, but every time he started to drift off there’d be another aftershock which woke him up again. I didn’t even bother trying – I just got dressed, pulled the beanbag into the doorway and sat there with the lamp and a book and tried to read between the rumbles. Dawn took a really long time to come!

There was a lot of traffic for so early on a Saturday morning, which puzzled me for a while until I realised that with the power out, there’d be alarms going off all over the city, so of course all sorts of business owners (and IT people!) would be going to check on their businesses. Plus of course people would be checking on elderly relatives and so on.

When it was finally light we could properly check the house for damage. We found a few more things that had fallen over, but to our amazement still no real damage. I was starting to think maybe the earthquake hadn’t actually been as big as it’d seemed – maybe it was just the darkness that had made it seem bigger and scarier. But then, as everyone else in NZ started to wake up and turn on the news, my cellphone started getting messages from family and friends from all over checking if we were ok (thanks everyone by the way for thinking of us, and apologies if I couldn’t reply – the network got overloaded after a while and while messages were coming in, I couldn’t send any or phone anyone). That was when we realised that it was a lot more serious than we’d thought, and that Christchurch was the centre. We still didn’t know just how bad it was though – there’s very little damage around our area, so we assumed it would be similar across the rest of the city.

I dug out the camping stove so we could boil some water for a hot drink, and we settled down to wait for the power to come back on. And waited, and waited, and waited… Finally it came back at about 10ish, and we could turn on the radio and TV, which is when we saw just how badly the rest of Christchurch had been hit. We were so lucky! Even though the epicentre was to the west of the city (in Darfield), it was the city centre and the eastern suburbs that sustained the most damage. I assume it’s something to do with the underlying soil – we’re on reclaimed swampland on this side of town, whereas the east has much more sandy soil. Whatever the reason, somehow we got away with trivial damage while whole walls were collapsing in other parts of Christchurch.

The rest of the day was so weird. Everything seemed so normal out here (except there were no planes taking off and landing because the airport was closed – oh, and the street lights stayed on all day – their timers must have been messed up or something), but on TV we were seeing pictures of the destruction in the central city, just a few km away. It was hard to believe we were in the same city as the one on TV where a state of emergency had just been declared, and search and rescue teams were digging through rubble searching for victims. The radio was telling us to boil drinking water and not flush the toilet – hard to remember not to do when everything seemed so normal. It would be easy to think it was just like a normal lazy Saturday if it wasn’t for the aftershocks jolting us (quite literally!) back to reality every so often.

I still can’t believe it really. I think it won’t be until I’ve been into the city myself and seen the damage (all those beautiful old buildings gone! I glimpsed so many of my favourites on TV and on Stuff) that it will really sink in.

(Here we go again, just felt another aftershock…)

As far as work goes, it looks like I’ll have an unplanned holiday for the rest of the week. The university has been closed until probably the 13th while they check the buildings are safe. They’ve already found quite a bit of damage, though nowhere near as bad as it could be – they’re estimating about $1.5 million. Term was supposed to start on Monday, so they’re delaying it by a week, and in the meantime staff have been told to stay home unless senior management call you in to help with cleanup (which will mainly be technical staff, I’m guessing – there’s been chemical spills in labs and things like that that will need specialists to deal with them).

I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight – I’m utterly exhausted (I’ve been up since 4.30 after all!), but there’s still aftershocks every couple of hours, so it’ll be hard to stay calm enough to sleep, or to stay asleep once I’m there.

But really, we were so lucky, both H and I and the city as a whole. Nobody died, there were very few serious injuries, and most buildings are still standing. When you consider that this was a similar sized earthquake to the one that hit Haiti, we got off so incredibly lightly. That’s the difference between an earthquake in a relatively wealthy country with building standards designed with earthquakes in mind, and a poor country with almost none.

Just a quick note to say we’re ok

7.1 earthquake in Christchurch this morning, and some major damage in some areas, but we were really lucky – we got shaken up a lot, and a few minor breakages (2 plates and one ornament is all we’ve found so far), but no real damage, and the house seems ok structurally. The cats slept through it all!

Only just got the power on an hour ago (yay, the internet’s back at last!), and still having a few aftershocks, plus they’re worried our water might be contaminated by sewerage (there are lots of lines broken across the city), so we’ve been told to boil drinking water, but otherwise everything’s ok.