When the Earth moved: NZ earthquake, Nov 2016

When we first decided to move to New Zealand, we thought about all the many aspects of the move: missing our families, being so cut off from the rest of the world and, if we wanted to deal with earthquakes. As you can read in my previous post about this, it wasn’t something that we were overly concerned about. However, it’s easy to be nonchalant about natural disasters when you haven’t truly experienced it.

Up until 11:59pm on Sunday 13th November the earthquakes we had experienced were small, something to almost laugh about. One shook the house on my birthday in June when I happened to be wearing my Chewbacca mask, we laughed, posted a status update to Facebook and carried on with our evening. It was an amusing side note to our life here, nothing that troubled us.

At 12:02am on Monday we awoke to the house moving around us and the sound of precious picture frames smashing on the floor. It took me a few seconds to realise what was happening, and for one sleepy moment I thought that Mr S was jumping up and down on the bed. As I quickly awoke and the heavy wardrobe was walking towards us, I understood what was happening – an earthquake that was getting stronger by the second.

Despite the well-publicised ‘drop, cover and hold’ mantra that will keep Kiwis safe in the event of an earthquake, I admit that we froze. We should have got under the dining room table and stayed there until the shaking subsided, but we sat up in bed like idiots, waiting for the house to collapse around us.

As the adrenalin kicked in and the shaking stopped we frantically discussed what to do. I should probably point out that we live in the Tsunami Zone, the area that will be flattened if NZ is hit by a wave big enough. If there is an earthquake that is over 60 seconds long or so strong that we are unable to stand, we have to evacuate, because a tsunami is coming.

Even though we know this, and have an evacuation route planned, and emergency rucksacks that contain safety equipment, water and food ready to be grabbed, I stood there, faffing like a moron. Eventually (it was probably only a few minutes after the quake, but felt like ages) we turned on Radio New Zealand to see if a tsunami warning had been issued. Social media and the radio presenter had some contradictory information, but we eventually figured out that we were in danger and had to leave the house.

Another earthquake hit as we quickly dressed and grabbed more food and water, not knowing how long we would be gone. We jumped in the car and saw some other families beginning to leave their houses too. Mr S drove us to the top of the nearest hill, ensuring we were completely out of the tsunami zone and we settled down to wait. There were a few people up there with us until a definitive announcement was made about a tsunami warning for the entire coast of New Zealand, and we were suddenly joined by hundreds of people wrapped in blankets and down jackets, all of us obsessively refreshing Twitter to find out the latest news.

We were able to return home at 4am, very tired and feeling frazzled. Despite being exhausted, I couldn’t sleep for a long time – I was so scared. In the UK the ground stays where it is supposed to, solid beneath your feet. This was a new and terrifying experience, not being able to rely on the earth to stay still is an alarming prospect.

It’s just over 2 days later and we’ve had over 1500 aftershocks, some almost as strong as the initial earthquake. The adrenalin and fear is calming down and I am coping much better with this altered state of mind. It’s strange to walk around the city and not be able to go down certain streets – the building structures have been compromised and are too dangerous to stand close to. Mr S is working from home – his office hasn’t been given the seal of approval by the building inspectors yet.

As more details emerged following the quake, us Wellingtonians realised how lucky we were – Kaikoura has been without power, water and sewage systems since the quake and state highway one (the road out of the town) has completely collapsed. It could have been so much worse for all of us – the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch was not quite as strong, but happened at lunchtime when office workers filled the CBD, children were playing outside at school and tourists were sightseeing. Hundreds of people lost their lives that day, but only 2 deaths have been reported in the past few days.

The emergency services, civil defence and our own Wellington emergency management office have done an incredible job, proving that we can weather anything when we are working together as a community. Long may that Kiwi attitude to life continue.



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