Just before five o’clock yesterday morning, in Dunedin, I was woken by a very familiar feeling – the bed began to shudder ever so slightly, then shudder harder as the walls and ceiling in the house creaked ominously around me. Having grown up in Southern California, I recognised the signs of a major earthquake; this was not a sharp shake but a rolling series of waves, meaning we weren’t sitting on top of the quake, but strong enough that I knew wherever the epicentre was, it was going to be bad. ‘Earthquake,’ I said simply to my partner. ‘Yup’, he said, and put a hand on my side as we waited for it to end. It went on for quite some time before it finally subsided.
Dunedin is 225 miles from Christchurch, which itself was only 30 kilometres from Darfield, the epicentre of the 7.1 Richter scale earthquake, the largest earthquake in New Zealand since the Richter 7.8 that devastated Hawkes Bay in 1931 and nearly completely destroyed the city of Napier. The quake’s centre was only 33 kilometres deep, a shallow quake that is felt more strongly and does more damage than quakes at lower depths. A state of emergency was declared this morning as the city of Christchurch as well as large parts of the Canterbury region is without power, water or telephone. Civil Defence Minister John Carter has announced a decision to evacuate people from the centre of Christchurch –and as I’m typing this I’m watching the Prime Minister on the tellie as he is watching a building on fire, fire crews having been helpless to put it out, water pressure having been out for hours, and just on in the last few minutes. Speculation is that the fire started as electricity is returning and igniting burst gas lines, a worry for other buildings as power is slowly restored to the area. The Christchurch suburb of New Brighton and other seaside area are preparing for possible evacuation. Pipes have been shattered in many parts, with sewage making flooded streets even worse. The quake’s damage has reached even as far as the lower end of the North Island, with burst water pipes in the Wellington area as well. The force of the quake was felt nearly as far as Auckland itself, in the upper North Island.
Christchurch has been severely damaged, the mayor Bob Parker saying ‘There would not be a house or a family in our city that has not in some way had damage done to their person or their property.’ Two men were seriously injured, one when a chimney collapsed on him and the other cut by broken glass, both in intensive care. Christchurch hospital has been treating broken bones, bruises and cuts since early morning. All flights to and from Christchurch have been cancelled until later today. Water is in short supply, and shops themselves hard hit by the quake are struggling to meet demand. Rural areas are as hard hit – without power, milking machines and refrigeration is impossible, livestock being milked by hand as quickly as possible while farmers are desperately calling for generators.
Tama Wharepapa woke her friend Marsha Witehira and literally pulled her by her feet to safety as the wall in her bedroom collapsed. Knee Doherty was woken when the building next to her home collapsed, the back of her own home now gone. Jarrod Booker, a reporter for the New Zealand Herald who lives in the Linwood suburb of Christchurch, was woken when his neighbour’s chimney fell and smashed into a car windscreen. The Christchurch office of Newstalk ZB has sustained severe damage. ‘Basically, the place is destroyed. Desks that were standing up are flattened against the ground. The filing cabinets are tipped over. The building just along the road from us here has been flattened – it’s on the ground.’
Phone lines are down all over the South Island, while mobiles are putting a strain on the communication system. I emailed a good friend who lives in Christchurch, worried about her and her daughter. Dianne managed to email back this morning. She and her neighbours fled into the streets at 4:40 in the morning, terrified. In her house, picture frames were smashed, doors opened and banged shut, crockery and mirrors broke, drawers were tipped out and contents dumped, make up thrown all over the room and books scattered. Her daughter was badly frightened, and the two of them huddled together under a door frame for about a minute while the walls seemed to flex ‘like feathers in the wind,’ she said. The aftershocks continued for the next few hours, her house still wobbling and shaking quite often, but the quakes have become increasingly smaller. They still have no power, water and have been told not to flush toilets. Sirens wailed continuously, so they’ve had little sleep. She’s a nurse at a local Christchurch hospital, and is dreading what she’ll find when she finally makes it into work, as her department had piled up ECG machines, drugs, and equipment onto treatment room beds ready for the place to be re-carpeted this morning. Needless to say, I don’t think the department is going to see new carpets for a while.
On the one hand, it’s a bad quake, one of the worst New Zealand has seen in a long time. On the other, it’s New Zealand, and while there has been sporadic episodes of looting, the vast majority of people are helping out their neighbours in true Kiwi spirit. In the meantime, gale force winds are predicted as a storm moves into the south end of New Zealand, with temperatures dropping rapidly. It’s going to be a very cold night for a lot of people here. But we are all alive, and for a quake of this magnitude, that’s good news indeed.