Katherine Hayton | Earthquakes and Anniversaries
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04 Sep / Earthquakes and Anniversaries

Today is the 4th anniversary of the Christchurch Earthquake. Not the one that closed down the Boxing Day sales. Not the one that caused mass chaos, closed the central city, rerouted 2/3 of the traffic flow, spilled 400,000 tonnes of liquifaction silt onto the cities lawns, footpaths and roads, and brought a terrible and undeserved end to 185 vibrant lives. Not the one that brought a miserable mid-winter to a populace already shaken to the edge of their tether. Not the one that came as an early Christmas present just when everyone hoped it all may be settling down again, but the one that started it all.

The one that triggered not only the events above, but also the other 13,000+ aftershocks that have rattled our small city to its bones. Aftershocks like the magnitude 2.1 earthquake at a depth of 6km that we had this morning at 4.15am. 13,000+ plus one.

On Saturday, 4th September 2010, I woke up around three-thirty in the morning. I routinely swing between bouts of insomnia that keep me awake until the wee hours of the morning, and insomnia that plunges me into a deep sleep as soon as I fall into bed but wake me in the wee hours of the morning. I was in the latter stage at the time. I am again today, which probably means its a seasonal thing or something. Whatever.

I was knitting, my hobby at the time, and watching the penultimate episode of The Tudors season one. When the earthquake hit, the whole house started juddering. I waited for it to pass. We live on the pacific ring of fire, a huge fault-line run diagonally through our entire island. We’re used to having an earthquake large enough to feel every year or two. Still, at least our South Island volcanoes are extinct – not like the North Island. At least, we’ve been led to believe that. Experts can be wrong too, you know.

I waited for about twenty seconds by my internal count – or two seconds in official clock-time – and then realised that this one wasn’t going away. In fact, it seemed to be gathering momentum in an unsettling way.

I leapt off the couch and ran for the nearest doorway – advice drilled into me as a child which “they’ve” changed their minds about now as I found out later. I had to pull the door open as I’d closed it so I wouldn’t disturb my partner. In case he was missing the fun I yelled “Earthquake!” at the top of my lungs. A cry which he didn’t hear over the roar of the earthquake.

I lodged myself with my back jammed against the doorframe where the door joined, and my arms braced against the doorframe where the door wasn’t. And I mean lodged. My back held the impression for a good half-hour afterwards.

Above I’ve referred to the roar of the earthquake. I should probably mention here that I didn’t have any experience of sound during this period of time. I know that the earthquake was loud because I didn’t hear the brick chimney fall onto the concrete driveway just over the road. I know it was loud because I didn’t hear books popping off the shelves in the spare bedroom – 2kg books not paperbacks. I know it was loud because I didn’t hear an entire bookshelf collapse in the front room, falling onto my spare wardrobe and disintegrating both structures.

My memory of the earthquake is characterised by these dichotomies. On one hand there are entire senses that are missing. On the other this is the strongest memory I have. There’s an instant transportation when I think of it, something my other strong memories don’t have.

Even the memory of watching the hearse carrying my mother’s coffin away from the church and with it the final realisation that I was never going to see one of the people I loved most in the world ever again – a memory that’s making me cry right now as I type – doesn’t have the instant attachment of emotion that this one does.

Maybe deep sorrow doesn’t flood through the human body as fluidly as instinctive fear.

As the earthquake started to ease the “STOP stop STOP stop STOP stop” that was beating time to my pulse also let up. I looked to my left. Nothing in the kitchen had fallen. It was over.

And then the whole house lifted up and was shaken – hard – back and forth, back and forth. The cupboard doors all swung open, slammed shut, swung open, slammed shut. I tried to wedge myself in harder and instead almost lost my footing altogether. There weren’t any words left in my head, just wide-eyed terror.

The lights went out. It was pitch dark. My eyes wouldn’t adjust.

Back and forth, back and forth. My fingernails dug into the wood of the frame. At some point I knocked my head so hard that an egg rose up on the back in the hour that followed.

One more jolt probably would’ve tossed the crockery out onto the floor. The plates had rocked out two inches over the edge. The glasses would’ve fallen, but the front ones were out on the bench from where they’d been used the night before.

And then it started to ease again. And finally rocked to a stop. A second before the final shake the lights flickered and came back on, whatever connection had been knocked out was knocked back in. They went out again with the first aftershock and stayed out, but for a few minutes we had light.

For months we told our stories of what happened. Where we were, what damage our houses suffered, what fell down, what bubbled up. There was the one in Kaiapoi whose house was a wreck, the one in New Brighton who had to shovel a driveway back into their property, the one who hadn’t even woken up and had to have a knock at the door and a talking to when a worried friend got sick of no response to their phonecalls and paid a home visit.

We told our stories compulsively while the aftershocks worsened our house damage day by day, and our office tried not to take it personally when it felt like the whole of Christchurch hated us because of our profession. We banded together into the had-been-there hadn’t-been-there groups. We tried to find out who was worse off than us, who was better off than us. We tried to turn it into the event that happened in 2010, to let it go and let it be gone.

The realisation that the Earthquake had no intention of going was slow-dawning at first. It wasn’t until February stirred everything up again – except 185 times worse – that I understood that we’d all been incredibly lucky (for unlucky people), and I also began to comprehend that this was a long way from over.

So it’s four years down the track. Our central city is still in the process of being turned into flatlands. Things open up every day – new homes, new shops, weird and odd little attractions that turn despair into opportunity. It’s still projected to be another two to three years away from completion, but the progress is now visible everywhere. Roads are under true reconstruction instead of the slap of tar and crossed fingers that happened initially (so we could all at least have roads to travel on.)

And every time a large truck goes by and the house shakes; every time a train passes by our building and the meeting room vibrates; every time there’s a noise I can’t immediately identify – even for a split second – my brain screams “Earthquake!” My fingernails dig in. And I brace.

Lets hope four years from now I just think, “Oh – a train.”

By Katherine Hayton in Katherine Hayton's Blog

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