Ten years on from Christchurch – February 22nd 2011

It’s the tenth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake today. 185 people died. I have written about my experience of the earthquake on this blog and so to avoid repeating myself I will simply link to that old post – my experience of the Christchurch 2011 earthquake.

It changed our lives in so many ways. The reason we now live in Scotland is really a direct result of the earthquakes. The earthquakes also paved the way for me to restart my career after taking time away from work to raise children. I started this WordPress blog to help deal with my anxiety and that led me to a job at Automattic, makers of WordPress.com, which eventually led to where I am now as a product manager for Creative Force. I’m pretty happy with both my job and where I live so you could say lots of good things came from my experience in Christchurch although I didn’t think that at the time.

I don’t think of the Christchurch earthquake as a single event on a single day. It was really a sequence of many thousands of earthquakes which started in the wee hours of the morning on 4th September 2010. I have also written about that event – September 4th 2010.

The September 4th event is what really changed my life. I became very frightened of aftershocks because they were so frequent and some were big indeed: it was the aftershock on February 2011 that was fatal. Earthquakes are unlike other natural disasters which come with prior warning and tend to be a single event with a clear start and end. You can’t really begin the healing process when the disaster is still ongoing and that’s what made Christchurch so hard. When would it end? Would the next aftershock be bigger? What if I’m separated from my children? I do think it was extra challenging having a baby to care for. Elizabeth was just 9 months and Daniel was 3. You worry about many things when you become a mother and this was compounded exponentially with so many aftershocks. It probably didn’t help that we had no family in the city.

Ten years have passed and I don’t think about the earthquakes much now. I no longer skip a heart beat when a bus or truck passes the house and I live quite happily in a 3-story stone building. I’ll probably never visit Japan or California or any at-risk city for the rest of my life. I think I’ve experienced enough earthquakes now to last several lifetimes: been there, done that, no thanks.

Here are some photos I took of Christchurch after the earthquakes.

Ben’s building at the university was undamaged but out of commission for a time along with other buildings on campus while structural engineers were investigating. They had to give lectures in tents. Here are some pics of the tent city

There were portaloos everywhere. Christchurch became the portaloo capital of the world. The ones in this next photo were on campus but many people were forced to use a portaloo outside their homes for more than a year as the earthquake messed up all the underground sewage pipes.

There are lots of other stresses that come with an earthquake that people may not anticipate. Homes are damaged and sometimes unsellable which creates years of negotiation with insurance companies. This can be quite stressful. Places of employment are destroyed and jobs lost. In the immediate aftermath shops are damaged and closed. Much like in the early days of the pandemic toilet paper became a hot commodity in Christchurch. Roads and bridges are damaged which affects transport links to and from the city as well as within. This can have an impact on supply of goods. Underground pipes are damaged which affects the water supply and sewage system. None of these things is nearly as bad as death of course but they’re often overlooked and if you commit yourself to living in an earthquake risk zone then you have to commit yourself to dealing with these challenges: loss of water, loss of power, loss of flushing toilets, closed shops, broken supply of goods to the city, loss of jobs, loss of homes or having an unsellable home. Most people who live in earthquake zones have a supply of food and water on hand as well as emergency shelter of some sort and these things will definitely help.

We left Christchurch for Auckland in mid-2011 just after the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on June 13. Fortunately we missed the 6.2 on December 23rd. Here’s a list of all the aftershocks above 5 from February 22nd 2011 to January 15th 2012.

The June 13th earthquake in 2011 was probably one of the last earthquakes I ever felt. But I can still remember what it’s like quite clearly. For me the September 4th earthquake is etched in my memory: It sounds a bit like a freight train crashing through your home. You try to shout to loved ones but can’t hear your own voice because it’s drowned out by the sound of the earth moving. It’s pitch black because the power has gone out and you can hear that glass is smashing on the floor and you’re unfortunately barefoot because it’s the middle of the night and you were fast asleep. You want to go to your children but you can’t walk because you’re being thrown around and you hit your head on something. After that first experience, when every subsequent shake starts you prepare yourself for the worst and your adrenaline peaks, your heart rate goes up and your body is in fight or flight mode. Often the sound comes first, a deep rumbling sound, and if it turns out to be a minor aftershock you can relax but it takes a good 20-30 minutes for your physiology to calm down. I think this is why there were more than the 185 reported deaths from the Christchurch earthquake sequence. The 185 doesn’t include all the heart attacks victims.

14 thoughts on “Ten years on from Christchurch – February 22nd 2011”

  1. I remember reading/hearing about the earthquake.
    Like so many tragic things, it is not just an event that happens for a day or week or year. Lives are changed in ways that could not be predicted. The memories last a life time. The toll it takes on possessions is nothing to the hurt and pain left on our mental/physical being.
    We measure or remember things in terms of a tragic event. ….. Oh that happened the year of. Oh that happened just before the event. We moved and have lived here for 10 years after the event.

    People give us advice to accept what happened and look at the positive things happening now. We say OK, because what else can be done? Plus we know our reactions will affect the lives of our children and loved ones.

    Sorry going on so long. Not proof reading either. Just initial thoughts. 🙂

    1. Aww thanks, Ladysighs. I can remember thinking at the time ten years ago how for the rest of the world the earthquake was an event in the past but for all of us in Christchurch it was still ongoing. For me, I now view it as an event in the past but it took a little while to get here.

    1. Aww thank you! We’re all doing very well here and I might have forgotten it was the anniversary had I not seen news articles about it in the media. It transformed our lives but probably for the better. I love living in Scotland and this is now the longest we’ve lived in one house which is a good sign.

  2. I have close friends who i visited in 2014 who lived in Christchurch both through the many shocks and until last year. It was one of those powerful visits that i never expected and I found it difficult to process at the time. They’ve moved to Wellington now, the strains eventually proving too much. Thank you for the reminder. I missed the anniversary.

    1. I’m always amazed when I read that someone who went through Christchurch has moved to Wellington. They’re very brave! Dunedin is probably the lowest earthquake risk city in New Zealand. Wellington is the highest.

  3. I wasn’t in Christchurch for the September earthquake, but was here for the Feb one, and all the aftershocks that came after it. As you said, many of them were BIG. I think these earthquakes changed all our lives, in big ways and small. Glad you love living in Scotland – it’s nice to feel that about a place.

    1. Did you move to Christchurch or did you just happen to be away when September struck? Sorry if I’ve asked you this before – I forget 🙂

      After September everyone thought we’d got off lightly. I’m reminded of that lesson now with the pandemic. People are starting to assume it’s over now that we have vaccines and I hope it is. In a way we’ve been very lucky that covid has such a low mortality rate. Imagine something with a mortality rate like small pox instead? I’m sure that’ll come in our future and hopefully by then we’ll be better prepared.

  4. This is really well described – I had thought of it more from the point of view of what was once your security, your home, being turned into a place of insecurity. I hadn’t even thought about the stressful practicalities such as an unsellable house, and I hadn’t envisaged how noisy it must have been (my picture of it was of things tumbling and shaking but somehow very quietly).
    It’s also a reminder of how easily all the things we take for granted can be taken away from us.

    1. Thanks, Denise. I sometimes think I would make a good member of a disaster preparedness team since I know all the problems that can happen 🙂 But I hope never to live through another disaster like that again.

  5. A heart-rending story of bravery, a mother’s love and the love of a wife: also of how we are who we are because of where we have been. I went back to the link to the first story too. All I can say is thank you for sharing. Beautifully retold in crystal clear prose which makes it all the more poignant.

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