We live high up on Clifton Hill in Sumner, a seaside suburb of Christchurch. When a major earthquake struck the area on 22 February 2011 at 12.50 p.m., our house was so damaged that my wife Laura and I each thought the other dead. A brick wall fell, crushing the lounge suite and piercing the floor, and, along with the collapsed chimney and an exploding bedroom window, left great gaping holes in exterior walls. Everything fell over, every piece of furniture. Every cupboard door opened, every drawer fell out and emptied its contents. The floor was ankle-deep in broken glass and crockery. Our microwave was torn out of the wall. It struck Laura in the back. Her foot was cut by the broken glass.
As the aftershocks continued, we left the house and gathered with neighbours on open ground. The city was wrecked, we heard. Roads, bridges, essential services were all out. Our own steep, no-exit road was deeply crevassed. We would be on our own for some time. We began to right ourselves, shovelling out the wreckage – crockery, glass, foodstuffs – just 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 a detailed contents of the freezer). We found our little emergency gas ring and gas cartridges, and cooked a basic meal. We cleared our bed of fallen furniture and broken glass before dark. Sharp jolts continued all night. We had little sleep, not knowing whether the next aftershock would be the one that killed us. Little did we know there would be 13,000 more. Even now they’re still coming.
The mild February summer weather held, and the following day our neighbours, who were to be married in two weeks, put on lunch. In their powerless freezer they had crayfish, venison and other delicacies for the wedding meal. They also had a gas barbecue. We had found an unbroken bottle of wine, so we all sat outside, feasting of our plastic picnic set. Later, we walked down our hill, looked at the wrecked houses, the deep fissures across the road, the collapsed footpaths, and two parked cars part-buried by slips. We kept clearing and cleaning the house, room by room. We tied cupboard doors to stop them opening. We left fallen paintings leaning against the walls; they are still there. For months we would find broken glass, and every fresh shake produced more plaster fragments.
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. A small transistor radio kept us in touch with the outside world. We dug out an old telephone that did not need mains power, and once the road’s worst cracks were filled, 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 quiet, apart from a neighbour’s house gradually demolishing itself with any gust of wind. Without street lights the nights were densely dark. Our transistor and the paper reported 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. It made us more determined to stay put. During the day, police and soldiers made house-to-house checks, establishing which houses were still occupied.
Two Portaloos had been placed down on the main road, we were told, but, both in our seventies, we were not going to walk over 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 one. I became adept at finding places in our hillside garden to dig a hole for the bucket’s contents, always keeping clear of our vegetable garden. 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. Now that there were fewer of us, people became more sociable, friendlier. 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.
We didn’t have 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 (a small cylindrical metal container of water surrounding a central opening in which a fire is lit to heat the water, known outside New Zealand under various names, such as a ‘Kelly Kettle’). To fuel the fire, I had to find dry twigs or small pieces of scrap wood to burn. The weather stayed 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 that we could 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 twenty-five-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.
Later, a man in West Melton (a country area beyond the far side of the city) began regularly bringing a water tank up our hill to supplement the council tank. His was spring water that did not need boiling, which saved us time and effort. 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. In the gathering dusk we watched and listened as birds settled themselves down, and we would see a hawk make his regular patrol as if enforcing a curfew. Loath to go to bed, we sat at our table in candlelight for a while, until, outside, the absolute blackness gave us a wondrous night sky crammed with stars.
The full moon created a wide strip of pleated shantung across the ocean’s swells. But it was particularly hard for us when the remaining residents of Richmond Hill 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 street lights too; that alone would have helped illuminate the inside of our house as we groped our way to bed.
Twice more we lost crockery and glassware – replacements of previous losses – to sizeable shakes. We had already said goodbye to many treasured ornaments, pictures and keepsakes. Much of our furniture was broken beyond repair. Even 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. As we walked down with backpacks to buy groceries, a policeman stationed in the affected area 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, so that searchers would know how many to look for.
The tremors were still continuing. It 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 fell down the face, along with rocks and clay.
Christchurch had become a city of two halves: there was very little damage of any consequence on the west side; and in spite of media coverage people there seemed to have little realization of how bad it was for residents on the east side, particularly those on the flat, coping with flooding and liquefaction as well as damaged homes. While friends from elsewhere expressed dismay at the state of our house and our new way of life, we considered ourselves among the more fortunate. You adapt. Temporary repairs were made, fixing most of the draughts. Our home is now relatively weathertight. What people remained on our hill drew closer: we stopped, we talked, we supported each other. Instead of asking, ‘How are you?’ the greeting became, ‘How’s your house?’
Residents received many offers of help, donations of food, financial assistance from the Red Cross. Help centres sprang up, 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. The water gurgled in our taps, dirty at first but gradually clearing, and once a plumber fixed our damaged hot-water cylinder we knew our camping adventure was over. And some day our house, too, will be fixed.