You freeze until you register what’s happening: a long, strong earthquake shaking the bed east-west-east. And shaking. During that everlasting two minutes, you stop, drop and cover under a table or doorway.
The shaking stops and you put on random clothes and locate the bug-off bag in case you have to leave.
Immediately a series of aftershocks begins.
Earthquake routine: texting
Ever since the first Christchurch earthquake in October 2010 you keep your cellphone by the bed, fully charged. (To hell with the screen-free bedroom.) You text your children. You text your sisters. You text other apartment owners. You text friends. You answer text after text. Nearly everyone is OK.
You don’t call because you know that the cellphone system will be overloaded—you just send a short curt signal of love: xxx.
But some family have hurried to high ground, and others are stranded in Kaikoura with its broken roads and rivers and communications. Where are they? What are they doing?
Sucking up news
You consult geonet.org.com:
NZ Daylight Time, Mon, Nov 14 2016, 12:02:56 am. Depth, 15 km. Magnitude, 7.5 . Location, 15 km north-east of Culverden.
You download the Geonet app. Now it pops out information about every aftershock. Poppity-popp! Poppity-popp! They are almost continuous.
You turn on Radio New Zealand. Two calm, competent, familiar women reporters are giving updates, humanising experiences, urging commonsense, calming fears, and giving a tsunami warning. (Oh Radio New Zealand, we need you! And the government wants to cut your funding!)
Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. You feel useless and confused. You escape into sleep for a couple of hours.
Return of Responsible Rachel
You wake up, text some more, do Facebook, shower (we have water! we have sewers!), make breakfast (we have gas! electricity! food!) Ferries are stopped—wharves and a rail bridge damaged.
You visit a few key people in your street and all is well. You do other Responsible Things.
Hey, we’re OK! For decades Wellington people have feared The Big One, knowing that our city squats on a major earthquake fault. We have just had a big one, and it was OK.
Every earthquake is different, and feels different in different places. 7.5 on the Richter scale is a very big earthquake, bigger than the first one that devastated Christchurch, but it’s different. Our 76-year-old reinforced concrete building stood firm and so far has survived without a scratch.
Not so fast…
You can’t settle. Everything you planned to do today is off. Gym closed, schools closed, city centre forbidden as buildings are inspected. There’s liquefaction near the harbour. Tsunami warnings go off and on. But the rubbish truck arrives on schedule, lovely lovely man making everything seem normal.
Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp.
Then the extent of the damage starts to emerge. Two people have died. The main highway from Blenheim to Christchurch will take months to rebuild. Friend’s house is trashed. Railways closed. Stories. More stories.
Waiting, waiting, waiting
Thank you God. Our two precious people are still with us.
They have a story. I don’t have a story. I am just a blob in a building.
Wow! We just had 4 entire minutes between aftershocks! Then poppity-popp, here we go again.
I am fine fine fine. My family is fine fine fine.My house is fine fine fine. My city will be fine again — even if this is a beginning of an era, not an episode. This is a mere hiccup compared with the Kobe earthquake (which did traumatise me a bit) or the endlessly recycled torture inflicted on the people of Canterbury for the last six years.
Wellington had been New Zealand’s designated Earthquake City. Everyone knew we were sitting on a major fault line and were due to be shattered any time soon. We felt shocked and guilty when Canterbury was hit by apocalyptic quakes instead. Hey, wrong address!
I’ve completed certain mindless tasks. Erased markings on the score of Donizetti’s Requiem that our choir sang yesterday. Did a load of laundry. Played solitaire.
Feeling another quake as we speak
Oh god that’s the tsunami hooter! I’m OK, I’m on a hill — but what’s happening on the beaches, in the harbour? Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. And again. My heart speeds up in time with the shakes.
When in doubt, write
There’s nothing I can do for anyone else right now. Even talking on the phone is self-indulgent today. I want to stay close to home. I want to visit my daughters but I don’t trust the city to sit still long enough for me to walk to them. Anyway it’s pouring and gales are forecast. So I’m doing what comes naturally: writing.
In the process I have discovered various feelings and thoughts.
- I feel like a fraud, an imposter
- I’ve got survivor guilt because my city, Earthquake City, is sort of probably OK
- I feel selfish and narcissistic and petty and unimportant because I’m writing my own boring story (which is not a story) for no good reason
- I feel useless and unworthy and again guilty because I’m not out there helping
- I feel a tiny shudder of PTSD, remembering Kobe
- I feel stupid because I can’t think of anything better to do than write
- I feel lonely, even though I could go and have a cup of tea with my friends next door.
Do not feel sorry for me—that was not my point!
As a writing teacher I know that this is a good thing to do: to write about your troubles. Not venting over and over again. Just purging those queer irrational thoughts and feelings once or twice. It is OK, it is normal to have abnormal thoughts and feelings in difficult times. And writing about them makes it easier to move on.
Except in this case, the earth will do the moving.
There! See! I made a joke! Told you writing was a good thing!
I would delete this blog post, except that it is an example about what you might write (for yourself alone) in a time of earthquakes. Write anything, however boring, however strange. It’s for you, not for other people. Writing helps.