Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Earthquake Comes to Christchurch

Over the weekend I had planned to write a blog reflecting on the week's training and celebrating the end of a couple of weeks hard out swimming with swim camp. Those plans, however, were thrown by the wayside at 4.35am on Saturday morning when the entire population of Christchurch and Canterbury region were violently shaken awake by an earthquake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale - comparable to the recent devastating earthquake felt by Haiti.

The epicentre was only 40km west of Christchurch and the experience was like being in a roller coaster but without the safety harnesses. It was pitch black and when it hit I immediately half sat up in bed, hanging on to Pete and frozen in place, but also ready to run, and waiting for the worst. The noise was incredible. Some have described it as like a train coming through the house. For me, I was sure I could hear every piece of timber in the building moving and it went on for so long and so violently I was convinced that the house would collapse. Growing up in the Bay of Plenty, I've experienced a lot of earthquakes, but they have all been short, maybe 5 seconds at the most. This one felt like it lasted a minute, although later reports put it at around 30 seconds - still an interminably long time when you are frozen in bed waiting for the walls to collapse around you.

As the noise and shaking continued I started going through the thought process of the best place to be.  Pete had called out not to move and I wasn't arguing. We were on the 2nd floor of a two storey building and while we were obviously getting more movement than we would have on the ground floor I figured that, if the building were to collapse, it was much better to drop down one floor (and be cushioned by the mattress of the bed) than to be downstairs and have the top floor drop on us.

Thankfully that theory was never tested.

The shaking finally stopped and we gingerly turned on the light switches to see if we still had power and to survey the damage. Luckily the lights still worked and we got up and did a quick assessment. In the bedroom drawers were hanging out and clothes were on the floor. In the ensuite a couple of bottles had fallen down in the shower. In the study my bike had fallen over and an old collector's plate had fallen on the floor and broken. The filing cabinet was OK and the computer also remained upright. The wire holding a picture on the wall had snapped and it had dropped to the floor but the picture was otherwise undamaged. The spare bedroom was also fine - bookcases hadn't tipped over (amazing), just a few of my soft toy zoo had fallen down.

We headed downstairs and prepared ourselves for the worst. The coat-stand in the entrance way had fallen over and we found later that one hook on it had broken off. Amazingly though it hadn't fallen into the large mirror on the wall or onto the hallway table and both those were completely unscathed. Similarly, in the lounge, my tall china cabinet and large collection of ornamental penguins was fine, as was the TV, full wine rack and every other piece I had fully expected to see in a thousand smithereens. The total casualty list downstairs consisted of a fruit bowl, a tiny swarovski cat ornament, a wooden penguin that had toppled from the top of the penguin cabinet and a plastic jug. A box of couscous had emptied its contents onto the floor of the pantry but, in the scheme of things, it was totally insignificant.

Into the garage and, again, very little was amiss. Cupboards had survived and the scooter was still upright. Two citronella lamps had fallen down, spilling the citronella into a laundry basket but, again, totally insignificant.

Outside on the deck we noticed that one of the two tall concrete flame pots had fallen over but, in the dark, we couldn't see if it was broken at all. We assumed it would be and we left that for further inspection once it became light enough to see outside.

Over the next hour and a half we alternated between checking out and tidying up stuff inside and running outside to the parking pad whenever an aftershock came. There were several reasonably large aftershocks, and several occasions where a group of about a dozen people from our block would be all standing outside together waiting it out and making sure we were all OK.

As we made our checks inside we kept scanning the walls, ceilings and floors for any signs of cracking or other breakage. Incredibly, there was nothing. As it got lighter we checked the exterior of the building and our block of four adjoining two storey townhouses looked to be absolutely fine. No cracks or any other apparent damage, something I still find incredible.  Even the concrete flame pot, which had tipped over and was lying half on the deck and half in the garden, was still in one piece.

By 6.00am we had turned on the laptop to scan the news sites and had started texting family and friends to make sure they were all OK. Good news texts were coming back and, on the internet, news of the earthquake was starting to filter through. By 9.00am TV One had suspended its normal programming and would dedicate the rest of the day to live coverage of the earthquake. By then it was starting to dawn on us that this was major.

Damage to building on the corner of Manchester and Worcester Sts
As the day progressed we came to realise how lucky we had been.  At a personal level we had come through it with essentially no damage.  Around the region others had not been so fortunate.  Eastern suburbs, around the river, had experienced liquefaction and many houses had shifted off their foundations.  In some suburbs entire streets of housing look to require demolition.  Older houses lost brick chimneys which, if lucky, fell to the ground or, if unlucky, fell through the roof into the house.  In the CBD older buildings, particularly those with no earthquake strengthening, suffered significantly.

Since then we have had several hundred aftershocks - I think the current count is in the vicinity of 350, including one on Wednesday morning of magnitude 5.1 and which managed to shatter the nerves of many.  They are, however, becoming less frequent and while another large aftershock could still happen, it would seem that the worst is over and the recovery can begin.

As this happens we can all be thankful for many things from this experience.  For me, the big one is that there were no fatalities.  While buildings and possessions can be rebuilt and replaced, nothing can replace a life and so this is a truly special outcome of this event.

The lack of loss of life can be attributed to two things, the timing of the earthquake and our building standards.  It was so lucky that the earthquake occurred at 4.35 am and not 4.35 pm.  If it had hit during the day there would undoubtedly have been people in the wrong place and who would have had something drop on top of them with devastating consequences.  As it was, 95% of the population were tucked up in bed and, in the circumstances, in the best possible place.  With the recent experience of Haiti's earthquake we have first hand experience of the value of our high building standards and the requirements to construct buildings that will weather earthquakes.  Older buildings in the city that have been earthquake strengthened did sustain some damage but, on the whole, can be saved.  Older buildings without that protection are more likely to have been red stickered and will be demolished.

The last few days, then, we've been glued to media updates of the earthquake. I don't know if this sudden insatiable thirst for knowledge makes you feel better or worse. On one hand it helps me to remember how lucky we are, however on the other hand it has thrown the whole routine out and seeing the extent of the damage and suffering so close to home undoubtedly casts a pall over things.

Training, then, has gone out the window.   All of the swimming pools are closed and so there is no swim training possible.  For the first few days it seemed unwise to go out biking - we were being advised to stay at home and the state of the roads in many areas was unknown.  However even though I could still go out for a run, or do a wind trainer session, somehow I just haven't felt up to it.  While I feel OK (not fearful, scared etc) this whole experience has obviously taken a toll on the body.  Maybe I am using all my energy just dealing with all this and therefore don't have sufficient energy for training.

As a result I am being kind to myself.  I am listening to my body and I am trusting that when it's ready to get going again, it'll let me know.

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