Topic: Camping in our house by John Ewen

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Camping in our house by John Ewen was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition. It tells the story of John's experience in the aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake (22 February 2011).

Achived version here.

Electricity, running water and sewerage supplied to our houses are amenities we take for granted today. From 22 February 2011, for nearly five weeks, we did not have them.

We live up Clifton Hill in Sumner, Christchurch. Our house was so damaged by the 12.51pm shock that my wife Laura and I each thought the other was dead. A brick wall fell, crushing the lounge suite and piercing the floor; a collapsed chimney and exploding bedroom window left great gaping holes in walls, and every piece of furniture, everything that could fall over inside, did.

Every cupboard door, every drawer opened and emptied its contents. The floor was ankle deep in broken glass and crockery. Laura had been struck in the back by our large microwave that had torn its wires out of the wall, her foot cut by glass.

The aftershocks continued.

We gathered with neighbours on open ground and snippets of information emerged. The city was wrecked; roads, bridges, essential services were all out. Our own road was deeply crevassed. We would be on our own for some time. So we began to right ourselves, shovelling out the wreckage to clear a space to stand.

(Later we would be asked by our insurance company why we didn’t have a complete list of everything we’d lost, even detailed contents of the freezer!)

We found our little emergency gas ring and gas cartridges, and cooked a basic meal. The priority then was to clear our bed of fallen furniture and broken glass before dark. We had little sleep as sharp jolts continued all night. The worst aspect was not knowing whether the next would be the one that killed us. Little did we know there would be 12,000 more and even now they’re still coming…

The following day our neighbours, who were to be married in two weeks, put on lunch. In their powerless freezer they had crayfish and venison for the wedding meal. They also had a gas barbeque. With a bottle of wine as our contribution, we sat outside dining like kings, but off our plastic picnic set.  

Later, we walked down our hill, looked at the wrecked houses, the deep crevasses across the road, collapsed footpaths, and two parked cars part-buried by slips. We gave thanks that we were safe.

Two sons arrived from the North Island, cleared and took away nearly four tonnes of bricks, patched the exterior holes with plywood and made us as comfortable as they could before they left. We kept clearing and cleaning the house, room by room. For months we would find broken glass, and every fresh shake produced more plaster.

The following Sunday our congregation gathered for a service outdoors near our ravaged church, giving thanks for our safety and praying for the many we learnt had died.

Now a little transistor radio kept us in touch with the outside world. We dug out an old telephone that did not need power and newspapers began arriving again. It became clear that services would not be restored for a long time. People around us began moving out and soon ours was the only occupied house out of twelve. 

We had no immediate family in the South Island, and we did not intend to inflict ourselves on friends for an undeterminable time. It became deathly quiet apart from a neighbour’s house gradually demolishing itself. There were no vehicles, and the nights with no streetlights were densely dark.

Reports came in of looters around the city and one night we woke to a torch shining up from the road below. He made off when we challenged him but it was unsettling. Yet it made us more determined to stay put.

Two port-a-loos had been placed down on the main road, we were told but, both in our 70s, we were not going to walk a kilometre down our steep hill every time we needed to go to the toilet. In our childhood on the West Coast we had been used to ‘dunnies’ with buckets or ‘longdrops’ so it was no hardship for us to use a bucket. I became adept at finding places in our hillside garden to dig a hole for the bucket’s contents.

For those of us who were still in our homes, the Council provided a water tank on a trailer higher up the hill with a notice to boil the water. Daily we made the trek up there with our containers, and if there were other people there we would talk while waiting our turn. 

A woman told me that her son had asked, “What the heck do you do up there all day?”

She said, “I told him that I go to the well and talk to the villagers!”

It sounded medieval, almost biblical.

In fact, we had not enough time during daylight to do everything. Just subsisting took up our day. We settled into a routine. I would fetch water, and heat it up outside in a borrowed ‘Thermette.’ (Few people under thirty know what a Thermette is!) To do that, I had to find dry twigs or small pieces of scrap wood to burn.

Fortunately, the weather was generally dry and mild. We used the heated water to wash ourselves down. Water for drinking and cooking was boiled up on the gas ring; we were alarmed at how quickly we used up the gas cartridges.

Soon, enough of the deep crevasses and holes in our road were filled in to nurse our car down the hill, and every few days we picked our way across the city along ruined roads, past collapsed cliffs and hillocks of liquefaction silt – a 25 minute trip now took two hours – to friends where we showered and washed our clothes.

Then we would find somewhere to buy groceries; the six nearest supermarkets were closed because of damage, some never to reopen. Luckily, our vegetable garden was flourishing; some people felt that the earthquakes had shaken Nature into being more productive, but perhaps all the food from the freezer and fridge that I had had to dig in was the reason.

Later, a wonderful man in West Melton (a country area out beyond the far side of the city) began regularly bringing a water tank right up our hill to supplement the council tank. But his was spring water that did not need boiling, a big saving in time and effort for us.

We ate simple meals, did what we could around the house but, as it did for many generations long ago, our day finished when darkness came. Sometimes we sat at our table in candlelight for a while. Outside, the absolute blackness gave us that wonderful spectacle of the night sky crammed with stars.

But it was particularly hard for us when the road across the valley had their electricity restored. We could see them moving around in their homes at night, reading, watching television – we could see the moving colours on their screens but even with binoculars we couldn’t make out the programmes. They had streetlights too; that alone would have helped illuminate the inside of our house as we groped our way to bed.

It was ironic that as local shops and businesses began to reopen, the road up our hill was closed to non-essential vehicles because of fear of slips and the possible collapse of a crib wall. We walked down with backpacks to buy groceries. As we made our way to the affected area, a policeman stationed there would smile and greet us, then speak quietly into his handset, “Two elderly, one male, one female.”

At the other end, another policeman would repeat the performance. Why, we wondered. Perhaps it was in case we became buried under a slip and searchers would know what to look for. And with tremors still continuing, that could happen, we knew. If we walked along the beach and looked across to the cliffs at the bottom of our hill, we could see houses hanging over the edge, and from time to time pieces of them along with rocks and clay would fall down the face.

Friends were dismayed at the state of our house and how we lived. But as we said, you adapt. Most of the draughts are fixed and, relatively weather-tight, it is still our home. What people remained on our hill had drawn closer; we stopped and talked when we met. Residents received many offers of help, donations of food, financial assistance from the Red Cross. Help centres sprang up, little local newsletters gave advice.

Finally, electricity came back and we two oldies did a little dance in our kitchen. Although it went off again after two hours we knew it was coming back. Water gurgled in our taps, dirty at first but gradually it cleared. Then a plumber fixed our hot water cylinder.

Our camping adventure was over. And some day our house too, will be fixed.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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