Topic: In the Wake of the Quake by Rosemary Francis

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

For a century, we have dated our history as ‘pre-war’ and ‘post-war.   Now, Canterbury’s timeline is ‘pre-quake’ and ‘post-quake.’ Our peaceful province was wrecked in moments, destroying generations of history.

Three years have passed since Canterbury shuddered under a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that damaged hundreds of buildings. Continuing aftershocks rocked the city for the next five months. 

Then came Tuesday 22nd February 2011, when a shallow 6.3 quake struck Christchurch.  That event was like a violent bomb blast and is etched on our minds as the darkest day in our nation’s history, prompting the first ever National State of Emergency to be declared in New Zealand.  

Most of us who lived through those earthquakes were affected by the trauma, fear and destruction of our city.  186 people died, and many more were severely injured.  We have all endured twelve thousand plus aftershocks since then.

Within hours there were cordons, military patrols, loose masonry and unstable sites all around the city.  Convoys of emergency personnel and truckloads of gear were mobilised. Huge cranes rumbled into our city, while helicopters whirred overhead. Heavy machinery was requisitioned, joining army vehicles and fire-trucks. The dream ‘toys’ of little boys were now our nightmare reality as they worked around the clock, demolishing dangerous structures and removing liquefaction; barely ceasing work even when  aftershocks continued to wreak more havoc.

Although the quake lasted only minutes, it damaged lives for ever. Our sensory organs were assaulted. Our sight was indelibly printed with views of our solid, beautiful heritage buildings swaying, crumbling, bulging and broken all around us.  We witnessed our safe places - our churches, schools, courts and homes - collapsing in clouds of dust.  We saw gardens wrecked, roads rent asunder by gaping craters, bridges buckled, twisted and impassable. 

The familiar view of our skyline was dramatically altered. Our colourful garden city, now wearing a grey mantle of dust, resembled a war zone.  We will never forget the sight of fearful, stunned people stumbling around helping each other.

Our ears bore witness to hideous sounds forever imprinted on our minds.  The shattering of glass, the deep boom of tectonic plates crashing together, timbers cracking, masonry crashing to the ground.  The screams of people trapped and the sobs of survivors. The howling of terrified dogs and cats as they bolted seeking safety. 

A moment of eerie silence, followed by the shrieking of thousands of car alarms activated by the earth’s shuddering.  Then the rumble of emergency vehicles and hail of loud speakers, the whirring of helicopters overhead; the shrill sirens of ambulances and fire trucks.

Peace died that day in Canterbury.

Our olfactory senses reacted to the odours of fear, sweat and blood.  We sniffed the primal smell of exploding earth crust as we gasped for air. Clouds of concrete dust from collapsed buildings engulfed us.  Every home had broken bottles and jars; each family absorbing the pungent fumes of their spirits, pickles and other smashed household items.    There was a pervasive stink of putrid liquefaction, polluted by thousands of broken sewer lines as it bubbled up through new cracks and craters.

In the hot dry weeks that followed, we choked on liquefaction dust that blew far and wide cloaking everything and everyone.  As power was restored to some parts of the city, damaged wires caused fires to break out, adding acrid smoke to the stench.  It seemed as if our beloved city was being cremated.

The taste of that bitter dust was hard to swallow.  It seemed to suck moisture from one’s mouth, leaving a sore dry throat and sensitive, bloodshot eyes.  As the heroic international search and rescue effort ceased, police and sniffer dogs moved into body recovery phase.  Heavy machinery and wrecking balls began demolishing structures, adding asbestos particles to the putrid mix.  Clouds of this noxious dust settled on food, pets and washing hanging outside to dry.   Fine dust floated on water for many months.

Our sense of touch was also affected.  We waded through filthy liquefaction or dry dust.  This got in our hair, irritated our skin and made our beds gritty.  Feeling constantly dirty was an unpleasant experience as water shortages made showering a luxury.   

Animals suffered skin lesions and limited safe places to exercise.  Many escaped in panic, and perished.

Our cratered streets in a moonscape city, crammed with piles of rubble, were barely recognisable.

Ten thousand Cantabrians were displaced. Roads were impassable, with huge fissures opening up and swallowing some vehicles.  Several coffins were shaken from their graves, many gravestones toppled.  Drains were clogged with muck, water supplies contaminated.   Rivers changed their familiar courses, damaging everything in their paths, including the vital services.

Meanwhile frequent aftershocks, some significant, continued to unnerve people and destabilise buildings.  Each 4-pointer logged required yet another round of geo-technical inspections and re-coding; which condemned   more buildings.  Eighty per cent of our beloved Christchurch CBD is under demolition orders.

The hospital treated hundreds of quake casualties, even though it, too, suffered major damage.  Six wards were out of action, and part of the basement was flooded.  600 confused residents of rest homes were displaced, and evacuated to facilities hundreds of miles away from friends and family, most with only the clothes they were wearing.   

Premature and sick babies were evacuated too, and prison inmates were transferred north.  Postal deliveries and rubbish collections were halted for days.  Life in Christchurch seemed to stagger, gasping for breath.

The February quake hit at lunchtime, and people rushed out of shops, abandoning their goods and cash registers, as they cowered in car parks or open spaces.  Students dived under their desks or escaped outdoors.  Tourists swaying in high-rise hotels evacuated immediately, abandoning their documents, luggage and valuables.  Diners fled from restaurants, leaving food for feral cats and vermin.  Many are still cordoned off in the rat-infested red zone. 

In the first few weeks over 180 tons of silt was  scraped from houses, gardens and roads;  loaded  onto lorries and moved to dump sites   Thousands of tons of stone and brick rubble, once proud buildings, has since been dumped in the sea around Lyttelton, as part of land reclamation efforts.   

The Student Volunteer Army and country blokes of the Farmy Army became some of the heroes of this catastrophe, toiling to help remove Canterbury’s liquefaction nightmare.  Anyone who could assist others did so, removing broken chimneys, roping tarpaulins to damaged roofs, carting water,  preparing food for victims and volunteers and donating useful articles.  Truckloads of donated supplies   set off from towns around New Zealand, bringing encouragement and comfort to the needy. 

In our darkest hour, the light of love shone brightest.

In the aftermath of the quakes, petrol was restricted as supplies ran out at rural petrol stations.   I queued at 7am on three consecutive days; but fuel ran out before I reached the pump. Many other basic necessities were not available; and my bank was closed because of quake damage, so I could not withdraw cash.  My husband was terminally ill, and needed frequent blood transfusions at Christchurch Hospital.  Every jolting trip was agony for him, and it was a nightmare of broken roads, detours and awkward parking places.

In the wake of the quakes, we’ve learned that we must work with the natural world, and not against it.  Kiwis love living near water, and our forefathers built Christchurch on riverside swamps.  Sadly, these soggy places liquefied, collapsing foundations.   We must rebuild our city on solid ground, and allow riversides to revert to boggy duck and pukeko-sustaining wetlands.

I have seen courage and community spirit as Christchurch people cared for each other.  Their innovative practicality and their wonderful sense of humour makes me proud to be Cantabrian.  Condemned to the indignity of using street corner Portaloos for months on end, the eastern suburbs competed for the best-decorated (in)convenience. Rather than being frustrated at long lines of ugly shipping containers (used as walls to protect from falling rocks, or to support bulging buildings) the creative community painted them with cheerful murals.

When demolition crews moved on, empty sites were planted and beautified by residents, becoming pockets of green tranquillity amongst the wreckage of life.  Old abandoned fridges became libraries of books people could borrow; located on cleared lots alongside seats constructed out of quake damaged materials.   Road hazard cones stood defiantly filled with cheerful bouquets along damaged roads.

Like many Cantabrians, I suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. There are days of grieving and sleep doesn’t come easily.  We understand ‘survivor guilt’ and we’re more alert, and better prepared for crises.  We sleep in tracksuits, with sturdy shoes beside the bed; alongside torches and a battery radio. 

The rebuilding of Christchurch has begun and life will improve.   

We have learned from the past, appreciate the present and plan for a great future.  Cherished buildings have been destroyed, and our city-scape altered.  This devastation has made us stronger, because we are a caring community. 

Kia kaha, Canterbury!  



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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In the Wake of the Quake by Rosemary Francis

Note:About the author: Rosemary Francis, nee Pearson, lived for two challenging decades in Southeast Asia. Armed with a linguistics degree, and Teaching, Public Relations and TESOL diplomas, she worked in hotel management, and taught tertiary students. She was an adviser for Civil Defence, served on the Board of Consumers Association, and on the Board of Governors of a large College. She was a regular columnist for the Straits Times; and wrote for 22 international publications. The author of twelve books and several radio plays, Rosemary was recently widowed. She left Canterbury with her menagerie, all exhausted by thousands of earthquakes. Rosemary is the proud mother of four adult children, living in four different countries, and she has eleven grandchildren.
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
In the Wake of the Quake by Rosemary Francis by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License