Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Out of the Rubble, Mud, and Dust

Just one week ago, at 12.51 pm on Tuesday 22 February, I was working hard on editing the manuscript of The Gathering of the Lost (The Wall of Night Book Two) and calculating how many pages I would need to complete per day to meet deadline. At the same time, I was also looking forward to the UK launch of The Heir of Night on 3 March.

And then the world began to shake.

The world had been shaking a lot since 4 September when the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, with nearly 5000 aftershocks recorded, but this was different. I felt the difference immediately and made it to the sturdy, timber doorway of my study. From there it was just a matter of riding out the 6.3 magnitude quake that was to wreak so much devastation throughout the city.

I was fortunate in that I did manage to ride it out, braced in my doorframe, and that after it was over, my 90-year old wooden house was still standing. Or maybe it wasn’t luck, because although old masonry buildings generally did not survive this earthquake, timber houses are lightweight and flexible, so better able to withstand the shaking. Timber houses of this vintage also tend to have heart wood frames, i.e. both flexible and strong, as well as the traditional NZ corrugated steel roof, which is also lightweight, which—unlike tiles all over town—did not go flying off.

I knew a quake of such severity in the middle of the day was going to be bad in terms of death and injury, but there was no time to think about that, because as soon as the shaking stopped the liquefaction began. Liquefaction is when subsurface sand gets forced up by groundwater and flows everywhere as a mix of black “mud” and water. In this case, it burst through the ground like a fountain and half my house was surrounded by it in less than a minute. Very scary—because of course you don’t know whether the tide is going to stop or keep on coming until it’s inside your house.

Fortunately, it did stop, although it was still up to a foot deep in places along the driveway and around the garage. Very shortly afterward, the sirens began to wail, and if there are sounds that characterise that day, it is the constant sirens, the sound of helicopters overhead and the intermittent drone of airforce planes coming in to land—as well as the sounds of gridlocked traffic and frustrated drivers along our street, which was the only one still passable for north-south traffic in this immediate area of the city.

My earthquake aftermath, besides being without power, water and sewer for some days (we’re still without sewer), has been digging out the liquefacted material for the past 6 days. I’ve done reports on my blog, while aware that my personal story pales into insignificance with that has been taking place in the cordoned-off central city. One quarter to one third of the buildings in that area have collapsed or partially collapsed, with one major fire and over 300 people missing.

My personal experience has been one of tremendous help and support from neighbours, friends and passing strangers—although I’ve heard less positive stories—and I have also been deeply moved by the level of international support. We have emergency teams on the ground from Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan, the UK and the USA, additional policing support from Australia, military support from Singapore, and a specialist body identification team from Thailand. And the really amazing thing in this too often fractious and bloody-handed world of ours: apparently they have equipment that is designed, and they are all trained, so that they can work together effectively. A ray of hope in a dark time.

Given we don’t have a postal service up and running yet, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t do a giveaway this time. I’d love it though, if you felt able to comment to show your support. And donations, whether small or large, to appeal funds such as the Red Cross NZ Earthquake Appeal will be very gratefully received.


Cath's Chatter said...

Glad you are okay Helen.
I'm up in Auckland and was glued to the TV for days, mostly with tears streaming down my face. It has been just so sad to watch.
We've made several donations to the red cross and at the supermarket and post shop they had buckets out for donations so dropped some coinage in there also.
Our local Resene shop is also taking donations of canned goods so will probably make a drop there on Thursday when I next go into town.
My daughters class at school just got a nice girl from ChCh start on Monday too.
My heartfelt best wishes and prayers are with ALL Cantabrians and I hope you all continue to stay safe (and no more big quakes)

Helen Lowe said...

Thank you for your support, Cath. Things are pretty tough here right now and I know we all appreciate how people such as yourself are rallying around.

Terri Garey said...

Oh, Helen, how absolutely terrifying for you, and how heartbreaking for your country. So glad you and your home made it through!

Cindy L said...

Helen I am so glad to hear that you are okay! I cannot imagine what you must be going through right now! My heart goes out to those who have lost so much.

Helen Lowe said...

Terri, At the time, I was scared but when it is all happening all you can do really is brace yourself and hope--but afterward I found my brain just kicked into the 'what needs to be done next' mode. I think I didn't stop saying "ok-ok-ok" for the first fifteen minutes after the quake: 'ok, I'm all right'; 'ok I need to switch the water off at the street'; 'ok, now I need to get the ladder and switch the supply tank in the roof off'; 'ok, now I need to switch the power off to avoid the risk of fire.' So even when the liquefaction was fountaining and flooding everywhere it was still just: "Ok, great, it's stopped short of coming into the house."

I think it's only now, a week later that I've really started to 'feel' things--but I'm trying to keep that ring-fenced too, because we still all need to keep it together right now.

Helen Lowe said...


Thank you for your thoughts and your support. I feel incredibly lucky and well off compared to so many others, who have lost everything, their homes and possessions, businesses/jobs. And then there are all those who have died in the central city and the truly harrowing stories of people having amputations on site to free them from collapsed buildings. Compared to that, what is six days of digging out mud?

"Seregil of Rhiminee" said...

It's nice to hear that you and your house survived the earthquake. I can imagine that it must have been a scary experience.

Nicole Murphy said...

Thanks for sharing this Helen. The benefits of building in wood have been noted.

Such a terrible thing - I hope the city recovers. I've never been to Christchurch but hubby has twice (was there in January) and he loves it.

Go Kiwis Go!

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

I'm glad you are safe. Much love to those that didn't make it through unscathed.

Helen Lowe said...

Seregil--every time I feel like complaining, I remind myself that I'm here. And the house seems to be ok but it's been shaken up a fair bit so will need a structural engineering check to be absolutely sure.

Helen Lowe said...

Nicole, given that NZ, like Japan, is earthquake prone, I would now never live in anything but timber with an 'iron' (ie coloursteel) roof again. Masonry houses, even new ones, have really suffered, even in the more lightly hit areas.

I think the city will come back, but it won't have the historic element that we all loved because all those buildings are pretty much gone from the central city--and quite a few from the 'burbs as well.

Barbara E. said...

I'm originally from California, and have been through a fair amount of earthquakes, but luckily for me, never anything serious. My heart goes out to all those suffering such losses in New Zealand and I happy to hear that you came through without much damage to your home and with the help and support of your neighbors and friends.

Helen Lowe said...

Melissa--thank you for your good wishes: those who didn't make it, or who have been badly injured, are in all our thoughts right now. The nation marked two minutes of silence yesterday to honour them and all the rescue workers.

Helen Lowe said...

BarbaraE--yes, I think a lot of our earthquake know-how originated in California! And definitely, so far, so good, although there's still a long road ahead.

Brenda Hyde said...

I can't imagine what it must be like for everyone there, and how scary for you. Living in Michigan-we don't really get any extreme weather, so I've never been in anything other than an ice storm. I hope things dry out soon for you and everyone there. The outreach around the world has been very cool.

nymfaux said...

just wanted to send some hope and good thoughts!!!

I'm so glad you're safe and well, and will be thinking good thoughts for everyone over there!!!