Living in the shadow of The Big One
Copyright Maarten Holl / Fairfax NZ
It’s weird to think that earthquakes have become part of our lives. It’s normal to keep food supplies and a pair of sturdy running shoes under my desk in the office, along with a list of friends in the town who I could go to, in the event I couldn’t get home.
Normal too, to have quake supplies at home. Strong plastic boxes with basic foodstuffs. A camping stove. Lots and LOTS of bottled water. Torches in every room, and emergency lights that come on in the event of a power cut. We get some bad storms here in winter, and those babies have been worth their weight in gold.
For as long as we’ve lived in the Wellington region of New Zealand, we’ve been aware of the quake risk, in particular, the Big One that everyone fears will happen. The one in the middle of the day when the offices and shops are all full. The one that cuts off the capital from the rest of the country, with dwindling food and water supplies and no way for aid to come in. The one that generates a deadly tsunami.
Sunday night was our first serious tsunami threat, and believe me, I don’t want a re-run of that. Waking at midnight to a gently rocking bed, I could dismiss it as just-another-quake, but then it rocked a bit harder. I scrambled out as I shouted to Teen Son (already awake) and husband (watching TV), and that’s when the jolt hit. Normally, you get a gentle roll, and then either a jolt or a long rolling motion, but this was different. It jolted. And it JOLTED. And then again. Scared? You bet. The house creaked and rattled, boxes fell over, and the grandfather clock stopped. The furbabies mostly ran for cover, apart from Mitten, settled on a pillow, who just watched me with a baffled expression on her face.
Where the quake was felt (across NZ)
Losing the electricity was no surprise, but our emergency lights kicked in. Then came the guessing game of how-big, and how-far-away? Finding our cellphones still worked was a huge plus. The initial reports looked bad, but not that bad. 6.2, maybe. Or 6.6. It finally settled on M.7.5, in a remote part of South Island some two hundred miles away from us. Holy fuck, we said. We were lucky. Lucky it happened at home, while we were all together. Lucky it wasn’t the middle of the day when we could all become stranded, miles from home.
The power came back on almost two hours after the quake, at which point we scrambled to make tea. Hey, we’re English. :-)
However, despite our proximity to the beach, we didn’t immediately think tsunami. We were too busy firing off messages and emails to friends and family to check they were okay, and to reassure them of our safety.
It quickly became apparent, this was a real threat, but we saw conflicting updates depending on where we looked. Some sites advised east coast locations at risk, others included Wellington and Kapiti (where we live). If we did have to evacuate, we needed to be ready.
Our earthquake / tsunami plan needs a bit of fine-tuning, but we had the basics nailed down. Loading the cars with prearranged items. Grabbing warm coats and strong shoes. Extra batteries. Getting the cat carriers ready for use. Figuring out where to go.
Somewhere around four in the morning, I whined that while the quake had been scary, the wait-and-see for the tsunami was worse. It shredded every last nerve.
The alerts were called off around five, and we let out a sigh of relief. Finally, we could get some sleep, apart from the aftershocks still vibrating the house of course.
Some ten years ago, while planning our move from the UK to New Zealand, top of our list of decisions was where to live. The bustling city of Auckland, way in the north? The capital, Wellington, at the bottom of the North Island, or Christchurch, halfway down the South Island.
Auckland was out. We were moving to get away from busy cities. Wellington straddles a number of major fault lines and is at risk from earthquakes, so that was also a no. Christchurch, we said. The population is lighter, it’s more rural, but still with a city’s commerce and industry. As it turned out, I received a job offer in Wellington and that’s where we went.
And in hindsight? Wow. I’m glad we made that decision. The imagery of the Christchurch quake in 2011 still haunts me. The loss of 185 lives. A city centre that has only just re-opened for business in some parts. We are happy with our choice of Wellington for work, and a home in a quiet beachside village an hour north of the capital.
We were lucky again this time. We’ll re-jig our survival kits and evacuation plans, and get back to normal in a few days. We’ll pull faces, and shrug over the aftershocks, and pretend we weren’t scared by them. The offices will re-open for work, and we’ll swap stories over coffee, trading tips for emergency plans, and laughing at our dumb choices. Canned chicken? Great, except none of us actually eat it!
But I know, every time the floor moves beneath my feet, I instantly think: is this the Big One?