Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Blog4NZ: The Earthquakes - a Personal View

The idea behind the Blog4NZ initiative is to signal to the world that the wonderful country of New Zealand is very much 'open for business' and to encourage travellers to book their tickets and get on down there a.s.a.p.. You can find out more here: http://blog4nz.indietravelmedia.com/. The idea is to look forwards to the future and not to focus on the past, particularly the earthquakes themselves. I, however, have nothing else to focus on. I have never been to New Zealand (see my previous post: http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2011/03/blog4nz-world-teachers-blog-resurrected.html) so I'm blogging here through the eyes of my youngest nephew, Tom, who was living in Christchurch at the time of both quakes. His story, told here in his own words, vividly illustrates the anguish and devastation caused by these natural phenomena and explains what it was like to live through them. Far from dissuading people from travel to New Zealand, however, Tom's story should serve as a spur to everyone to visit and to help re-build the economy of this beautiful country peopled by, in Tom's words, 'kind, loving souls who were always going out of their way to help others, especially when the earthquakes happened'.

Tom left home in the UK in March 2009 at the age of 22. It was his first foray in to long-distance, long-term travel, and some family members suggested that he would probably be back home in three weeks! How wrong they were!! After spending a year in Australia, Tom moved to New Zealand, first to Auckland, and then on to Christchurch, which he loved. He was looking for somewhere a bit more low-key and smaller than Melbourne, where he had been previously, so Christchurch fitted the bill. He liked the fact that he could get to the city, the beach, or wherever he was working within 20 minutes by bus. And he particularly liked the people - always the people! He remained in the city after the first quake hit to help with the clean-up in his adopted home. Back in Europe, his family were all worried about him, but, at the same time, very proud of the decision he made.

This is Tom's account:

"When the first quake hit on September 4th at 4.35am, it was an experience that changed my way of thinking about life, the world and myself. My understanding of earthquakes has dramatically improved. An earthquake is not as simple as, 'bang, bang, shake, shake - did you survive or didn't you?' It's a slow and quite sadistic event. I awoke to everything moving. For about five seconds I just lay there not knowing what was happening. Was I dreaming? Was I being attacked? My brain hadn't contemplated what was actually happening - it hadn't caught up with the reality of the situation. Then I heard the sound of glass smashing. It felt like a slap in the face. Survival mode kicked in. I got up to run, but as soon as my foot touched the jelly-like floor, I collapsed. I scrambled to my feet, but then went down again as quickly as I'd got up. The noise was so intense, so violent, so crippling. I found my way to my feet and was falling for the third time, but I had made it to my door handle so managed to hold myself up with that. As soon as I touched the handle, everything slowed down. The giant train had passed leaving only a couple of ripples behind it.

Then, hearing the sounds of sirens, alarms and my housemates shouting, I rushed out to see if everyone was OK and to try and make sense of it all. Seeing glass on the floor and everything out of place, but knowing that my friends were OK, was a giant relief. Minutes later we heard another rumble and I know now that you have about two seconds to brace yourself and hope that it's a small shock.

The aftershocks continued for two to three months, going from seven or eight shocks a day to two or three and then none. The best way to describe it would be that it's like a ball bouncing from a great height, and then bouncing less and less and less, with the slight twist that the ball had been bounced a little harder on the seventh or twelfth bounce - kind of like a heart monitor.

For a couple of months after the quake, I would lie in bed each night just about to go to sleep and the noise of death would come to me and my body would clench up. Is it another big one? Is this the one? Sleep was very elusive during those months. You could tell that this was affecting not just me but the whole of Christchurch. I would walk into the supermarket in the days and weeks following the quake and people's expressions were always ones of sadness and sleep deprivation. The earthquake was the hot topic of conversation. There's not much else to talk about after such a big event, I guess. Christchurch needed a big hug, that's for sure, and probably, more importantly, a good night's sleep.

As for the infrastructure of the city, it wasn't as bad as I had thought. Where I lived, in St. Albans, we nicknamed it as 'the chimney capital'. One in three houses had no chimney. We got off lightly. Other areas had a lot of liquefaction where the ground had been sieved and all the sand and sediment had risen to the top. A couple of buildings had collapsed, but the only death had been due to a heart attack. So, as 7.1 magnitude earthquakes go, we had been very lucky.

So, as time went on, the shakes slowed down and people began to go out. They started to smile again. Life was getting back to normal, but every so often, there would be a shake just to keep you from forgetting. By December, I was sleeping and enjoying myself again. Then, on Boxing Day, we had another quite big aftershock which reminded me to always be on my guard. Then there was nothing really until February 22nd at 12.51pm. I really did feel that the quakes were all over.

I had always thought to myself, 'If another big one comes, will I know when to run?' We had had so many aftershocks that they had become the norm. First the noise, then the shake, and then ... nothing. So, we shrugged them off, but this time... I knew. The noise was back. The violence was back. In a split second, I ran out of my room to the lounge. The fridge door had been thrown open and all of the contents had been chucked out on the floor. Every cupboard was open. This was incredibly scary. I turned and looked at my housemate, Jackie. She screamed, 'Get out!'. So, jumping over everything to get to the front door, we escaped and leaned against the wall outside. Everything stopped. Then the noise of the alarms and the sirens started up. Seconds later, there was another aftershock. I watched a neighbour's car lift up off all four wheels. Then I heard one of the most sickening noises I have ever heard, or ever hope to hear. It sounded like a house collapsing, but, in fact, it was much worse. The wall connecting a whole terrace of houses had fallen down. Who knew how many people were under there?

I've learned a lot about earthquakes. The damage caused depends on many factors including the depth, the nagnitude, the force, the location and the time of day. The 7.1 was longer, but much deeper than the February quake. Being so shallow, the February one did so much more damage. Roads twisted, giant trees felled, rivers flooded - pure devastation.

Finding out that all of my friends and housemates were OK was a massive relief, but knowing what had happened to the city and to all those people who had died was very hard to get my head around. For two days I couldn't speak. The mental toll of earthquakes is so destructive - so numbing. I was lost. I didn't know what to do. We didn't have water. We didn't have toilets. I had to make a big decision. I found out that I, like many other visitors to Christchurch, was being offered a way to leave the country. I thought it was probably my best option. I had just an hour to say my goodbyes and then, after two years away, I was on my way home.

Now back in the UK, I still kind of feel that I ran away, but what could I do? I just wanted to see my family. That's all I wanted.

After everything that's happened, I would head back to New Zealand in a heartbeat. The people are fantastic. The country is so beautiful. There is so much more that I have to see. I will go back to Christchurch. I owe it to myself and to the people who helped me during a very difficult time in my life. My friends are still there coping with the aftershocks. I want to see them again.

As for travelling, I want to see every golden beach, every snowy mountain, every beautiful sea. I want to see it all and I will. The world is so small and time is so short. When it rains, I won't complain. I'm alive. So many are not. My problems are tiny compared to those of millions of people around the world. I'm going to live my life, that's for sure."

And so I post this on behalf of our nephew, Tom, who went away a boy and came back a man - a man who we're all so very proud of!

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