I lived in New Zealand for 4 years and have felt enough earthquakes to last me a lifetime. I have noticed the mild tremors that only a few people in a room feel, and we’ve exchanged knowing glances whilst the vast majority continue unaware. They are fine, but the bigger ones scare the living daylights out of me. The ones where you hear a loud rumble, accompanied by everything in the house (and the house itself) rattling. The ones where everything falls off library and supermarket shelves and you receive new cracks in your walls at home. The trouble is, you never know if it’s going to turn into ‘the big one’ that everyone is led to believe will be on its way soon (give or take X thousand years). And you never know if it’s a little earthquake that might be followed up by a whopper. It’s a complete unknown which makes you feel insignificant and powerless.
Spending time in Kaikoura and Christchurch recently has been such an eye-opener for me; from travelling the new coastal road and seeing where the old coastal road was, to seeing abandoned buildings with dereliction notices taped to the windows and hearing the stories of residents who still have no sewage provisions and are still using porta-potties in their homes 17 months later.
Whilst staying in Kaikoura with a dear friend’s Mum, I was allowed the dubious but fascinating opportunity of having a look in a house untouched since the earthquake. It has stood like a time capsule since 2016 and like so many others has been marked as unsafe for use as a dwelling or even entry. The whole house has peeled away from the house it’s joined onto, my host’s house.
That half of the house sits on an unnerving and noticeable slant. But an engineer had been in that day to complete a demolition assessment, so clearly it was stable enough for a careful look… we hoped.
The elderly lady who lived there was luckily not in her bed at the time of the earthquake, which dropped the bedroom plasterboard wall onto the bed with quite a force.
In the bathroom a huge crack tore the room in two and all the bottles lay on the floor where they’d been thrown to. Even the bathtub had a huge crack ripping it in half.
As we inched our way into the kitchen and living area, we saw more destruction – this whole section of the building was resting on a considerable angle that this photo of the kitchen looks like I took it totally wonkily, but it was actually taken at a straight angle, which should have been parallel to the ground, had it not ended up on a considerable slant.
It’s amazing how it affects your sense of balance, being in a building that has started sliding on an angle into the nearby creek. It is really quite disorientating and debilitating.
Everything in the kitchen and living room had fallen out of the cupboards and a large crack was visible in the floor next to the dining table. This is where the old lady had been sitting when the earthquake struck, and she was left with her leg trapped in the crack, unable to move until a rescue team helped her out with a large crowbar. What a terrifying wait that must have been, unsure if there was more quaking to come.
Out at the back of the building you can see how much the wall has bowed outwards and how much the steps have come away from the side of the building, where they used to meet the wall.
It was a little bit like looking around a museum and certainly filled me with gratitude for not having been there to witness it at the time. I can’t imagine how disorientating it must have been for Kaikoura’s residents trying to even get across their rooms to safety.
It’s not every day that you have that kind of opportunity, to see first hand the unsalvageable destruction done to peoples’ homes and lives. Talking to the staff at the 3 schools in Kaikoura, it was clear that the issues were far from over for the vast majority of residents.
How very lucky most of us are to wake up in countries were these kinds of natural disasters aren’t commonplace. This is a majestic, magnificent country, but I am reminded that when I left in 2011, I took more than one moment to thank my lucky stars that my experiences here hadn’t included one of these havoc-wreaking quakes.