Three years ago tonight, at just about this time, I was sitting in Wellington airport with a storm raging outside, wondering if my weather-delayed flight would be cancelled, and whether I should just give up and ring EdwardStreet to beg a bed for the night. When the wind finally died down enough a couple of hours later for planes to start departing, I was so relieved – much as I’d have enjoyed an evening in Wellington (I’d come up early that morning for a meeting and had spent the whole day closed up in the union offices without a chance to see anything of the city, let alone visit friends), I’d been feeling my usual paranoia that the big one would hit while I was visiting NZ’s most earthquake-prone city. It was such a calming moment (despite the still-buffeting winds) when the wheels left the runway and I was no longer on potentially unstable ground. And even better when we touched down in nice safe, rock-solid Christchurch.
Yes, well, we all know what happened a few hours later. Irony much? 7.1 magnitude earthquake right under our feet, which Wellington folk felt (if they even woke up for it) as a slight tremor. Not that we realised at the time that it was so close – my thoughts (like I’m sure many Cantabrians) immediately sprang to the dreaded Alpine Fault, and I hoped my family down near the southern end of the faultline were safe. If it’s this bad here, it must be terrible at the epicentre. I fully expected that once the power came back on we’d hear about the destruction of Arthur’s Pass and massive fatalities on the Coast.
After a long night sitting in the doorway reading by torchlight (too many aftershocks to go back to sleep), our first contact with the outside world – a text from my brother, asking if we were ok. I asked the same of him (thinking still it was the Alpine Fault), and only then learnt that it was centred on Christchurch (or, at least pretty close). And then, mid-morning, our power came back on, and so began the surreal experience of watching the news coverage from just a few km away, with that weird feeling like it was just some locally-shot disaster movie, but with special effects so spectacular we could actually feel the aftershocks the actors were reacting too. It never really felt real.
Even now, three years on, after so much more destruction, it still doesn’t seem real. I work with images from the earthquakes every day, I’ve talked to people who lost family, friends, homes and jobs, and I’ve been all over the city and seen the damage first-hand, but somehow I can’t quite bring myself to believe it actually happened here. Although the empty city centre has become familiar and almost normal, I still half expect to go into town one day and it’ll all be back how it was. Like I’m just visiting this alternative-universe Christchurch, and somewhere out there is the real Christchurch, where disasters never happen and boy racers are our biggest concern.
It’s been a weird three years.