On February 22, 2011, the city of Christchurch in Canterbury, New Zealand was struck by a destructive 6.3 earthquake that killed 181 people. Mr. Cesy and I were living in Christchurch at the time. This is my account of what it was like to try and deal with something so catastrophic.
Mr. Cesy and I had moved to Christchurch after I finished University in December 2010. We were keen to start post-University life somewhere new, and Christchurch fit the bill. It was the second biggest city in the country, the main city for the South Island and somewhere we were both comfortable with. Mr. Cesy got a job in a camping store and I was doing a 13-week course required for admission to the Bar, with the intention of finding a job as a lawyer after that.We were well aware that a large earthquake had occurred in September 2010 in Canterbury. We were both several hundred kilometres from it when it hit, but had felt the 7.1 quake that had caused much damage, but, thankfully, killed no one. Christchurch was suffering some aftershocks but everyone was optimistic about the future of city. It was a vibrant town made up of stoic people who got on with life. Cantabrians pride themselves on taking things on the chin and moving on. We settled into life in Christchurch, enjoying our new exciting environment.
On Boxing Day 2010, I pottered around our flat while Mr. Cesy went off to work. Our flatmate came home mid-morning and I went downstairs to say hello and ask about his Christmas. As we chatted, the house started to shake violently. Our flatmate dived directly for the nearest door frame while I frantically looked for somewhere safe to hide. Just as I was throwing chairs across the room to get under the table, the shaking stopped. We ran outside to where our flatmate’s mother and brother were unloading the car. They were fine but said being outside in an earthquake was one of the most surreal things they’d been through. As we chatted, another one hit and I found out for myself that they were completely right. Watching trees and houses move around you, shaking violently, is something you never expect to see, so when it does, you can do little but watch in horror. After a strong cup of coffee, my flatmate and his family headed off for their family function, leaving me alone and slightly freaked out. I spent the day outside, riding out various aftershocks that came on through, listening to the emergency vehicles screaming down the main road three blocks from our house. Later that night, we discovered the shocks were centred directly under our house. It was then that the risks of living in a very active earthquake zone became quite clear. However, Christchurch was still the place we wanted to be. My course was still going and Mr. Cesy’s job was solid. The house we were living in was safe according to the safety assessors. Besides, it was almost exciting to live the danger! To drive around and see all the damaged buildings was an interesting way to spend our time. We continued with our life, spending our time drinking with my friends from my course and enjoying those long summer nights.
In early January 2011, we moved into a house on the west side of town. At this stage, I was studying from home and I spent my mornings learning how to draft wills and contracts. My afternoons were gloriously free to do what I wanted. I was to spend seven weeks studying from home, and then I would go back into the central city to learn advocacy skills for three weeks on the 28th of February. I looked forward to spending my lunch breaks pottering around the shops in Cashel Mall again.
On the 22nd of February, I had done my course work for the day and was cleaning the house. I was home alone, as everyone was at work. Just as I was vacuuming around my bed, at 12:51 p.m., everything shook violently. I dropped the still going vacuum cleaner and ran for the nearest door frame. The house seemed to shake for an extraordinary length of time. When it stopped, I jumped on the internet to see what had happened. After a large amount of swearing about the quake to friends on a message board, I checked Facebook. Friends in Wellington and Dunedin had felt it, but I knew it was a Christchurch quake. How bad I didn’t know. Mr. Cesy texted me to ask if I was OK. I replied that I was, the only thing that had fallen over was a Lego fort and a bottle of Johnny Walker. I didn’t hear anymore from him for about an hour. I sat on the floor with my computer for close to an hour not really sure what was going on, until a friend posted a message saying the spire on the Christ Church Cathedral had collapsed. This was when it really hit home that things were bad. The Christ Church Cathedral was the iconic building in the middle of Christchurch. This gorgeous Gothic Anglican Cathedral had stood tall for well over a century and now it was in ruins. It was then I turned on National Radio, the public broadcaster. The Prime Minister was speaking in Parliament about how things were bad in Christchurch and my stomach sunk. I heard a whirring noise overhead. Helicopters were travelling from the airport into the centre of town. I had texts from my Mum asking if I was OK, but I couldn’t ring her as the lines were jammed. Other texts came through and I tried to send replies, but often to no avail. I hadn’t heard from Mr. Cesy for a while, or from my flatmates at all. I didn’t know my neighbours and the car sitting in the driveway had no petrol in it, not that I could have driven anywhere anyway. I knew that the roads to the centre of town would be jammed and most likely damaged. I did what I could do. I knew the water system would be compromised, either now or with every aftershock, so I went around filling everything I could find with water. The bath, all the buckets, rubbish bins, anything I could get my hands on. I emptied a bottle of Smirnoff into a glass, chugged the vodka and filled that bottle with water too. Then I sat. There was nothing I could do.
At this stage, Mr. Cesy was trying to meet up with our flatmate in town. When the earthquake hit, he was in his shop. He got thrown into the wall, thankfully onto a display of airbeds. Some of his customers and colleagues ran out into the road. One customer got hit in the head with falling bricks, a colleague narrowly missed being hit by falling power lines. Mr. Cesy looked up in time to see the building across the road from him collapse to the ground, with workmen running out to escape the collapsing stone building. At this stage, he grabbed as much of his stuff that he could find in the dark, got everyone out to a safe place, shut the doors then went off to carpark where our flatmate had parked. She was on the other side of town, unable to get to the car. She narrowly escaped being trapped in a high rise building. She finally got enough coverage to text me to say she was walking home (not a short distance by any means) and would see me in a couple of hours. She thankfully was picked up by some people heading our way, and she made it home safely several hours later.
Mr. Cesy didn’t know this as getting texts through was extremely difficult. He waited at the car for 45 minutes, then headed home himself. He walked through ankle deep mud and dust, down the middle of main roads as the footpaths were covered in the debris of collapsed buildings. He made it most of the way home in about 2 hours. He managed to call me, telling me he was about 10 minutes from home. Our other flatmate, who had his own harrowing journey home, jumped in his car and bought my scared, filthy fellow home.
With everyone home, there was little we could do. We were incredibly fortunate. Our side of town suffered little, if any, damage and we were among the 10% of the city that still had power. We all put on our comfiest clothes and watched the live coverage on the TV from a safe distance, should it fall over in an aftershock. We heard the United States Air Force C-17 planes, normally involved in Operation Deep Freeze, fly overhead on their way out of Christchurch. We ate mac “˜n cheese in a desperate attempt to find something that would calm us down. I was a lot calmer than the others, mostly because I hadn’t been through what they had been through in the central city. I hadn’t seen people seriously injured, buildings collapse, heard the sirens blaring, got the dust into my nostrils, stepped through the liquefaction that rose from the ground. I just hadn’t been there, but I tried my best to make things as normal as possible. We decided we would stay the night, despite the fact I had managed to get petrol. We were exhausted and our house was safe. We just wanted to sleep. Any decision about leaving would be left to the next day. We all put a pair of shoes right by the bed, in case we did have to leave in a hurry.
The next day, Mr. Cesy and our flatmate went shopping at the local dairy and bought the most expensive bag of potatoes in existence. Later that day we discovered that the news was advising of aftershocks of 6.0 and higher. We didn’t want to stay for those, so packed the car, picked up a friend of mine and boosted to my small hometown two hours away.
The time after the earthquake was punctuated with uncertainty. Mr. Cesy’s work and my course were in what was known as the “red zone,” an area that covered most of the central city and was completely off limits. I only had three weeks left to go on my course, and was due to start it up again the Monday following the quake. No one could tell us what was going to happen with either Mr. Cesy’s job or my course, apart from that there may be a place open to do those three weeks in Dunedin, a city five hours south of Christchurch. So we went to Dunedin, intending to stay for the three weeks, maybe a little longer. Mr. Cesy’s parents lived there and had the room to have us. We ended up living there for three months. Mr. Cesy’s work, while theoretically still in business, wasn’t going to be up and running until at least September 2011. There were certainly no jobs for graduate lawyers in Christchurch, indeed I know of several who got laid off after the quake. We spent the three months applying for jobs, living off the goodwill of Mr. Cesy’s parents, trying to get on with our lives.
I eventually did get a job offer, and we moved to the North Island. Strangely, we moved to the place where the previous most destructive and deadly earthquake in New Zealand occurred in 1931. I feel like I’ve left a bit of my heart and soul in Christchurch. To see all the places where I spent sunny days turned into empty lots makes my stomach drop. Cashel Mall, where I used to shop and spend my lunch breaks, was utterly destroyed in the quakes, and many people died in the buildings I used to frequent often. Many have left Christchurch, because of houses being destroyed, jobs gone and just because they don’t feel safe anymore. It’s going to take a long time for Christchurch to recover, but it will. It will one day be a vibrant city again. I live in hope that I’ll see that day, and can return to Christchurch to make some happy memories and not relive the terrifying ones that caused me to leave. Christchurch was a city with real heart and soul, and I hope it can recapture that magic soon.