Christchurch Rocks

Thirteen things I learned from an earthquake:

  1. The Southern sky is a beautiful thing, especially on a cloudless night. We forget this when we live in cities, until the electricity is suddenly cut off and you see the stars again. You see them especially well at half-past four in the morning, standing shivering in your driveway hoping the shaking doesn’t start again. Oh look, Orion.

  2. We don’t have many uncontrolled four-way intersections in Christchurch, so our road etiquette gets a bit rusty. This is particularly noticeable when the traffic lights all stop working. Roundabouts then come into their own, as fabulous earthquake-proof solutions; far safer than relying on politeness and common sense.

  3. While waiting for the power to come back on, I took a stroll around the Styx Mill Reserve. I don’t think the ducks noticed there had been a natural disaster. A few boulders fell off Castle Rock, but otherwise the earthquake’s effect was only on things we’d built, often badly. Unlike floods, hurricanes, or volcanoes, the damage from earthquakes is a collaboration between humans and nature.

  4. You imagine buildings reduced to rubble, but so far these are just pictures on the news. Nothing’s fallen down in my suburb. The real damage is cracked roads, flooding from ruptured water mains, the creepy threat of contaminated drinking water, and fire breaking out where gas lines have broken.

  5. Always secure your bookcases to a wall.

    Cunning strategy for securing bookcase against aftershock

  6. Those abstract emergency-kit lists suddenly become very concrete. My wishlist: a flashlight right beside the bed • candles and matches in the kitchen drawer • some way to charge the iPhone: a car charger and a solar panel would both have been useful • a car power socket to 240V three-pin plug adapter, for charging a laptop or camera battery • prepay wireless 3G modem • a dozen bottles of water stashed in the cupboard • cash, for when ATMs aren’t working • a gas BBQ to cook that defrosting meat in the freezer.

  7. The first thing I did after the shaking stopped was tweet. Twitter, especially in the first hour, was well ahead of the mainstream media in instantly breaking news, locating the quake, and reporting damage. Radio also did a good job later that morning, so I’d add a battery-less radio to the emergency stash; the web streaming services of the radio stations did not cope well. TV took all day to catch up and was generally hopeless.

  8. For Twitter to work, everyone has to agree on a hashtag, like #eqnz. Joyce was tracking the clumsy “hashtag wars” different media outlets were fighting. Some people pointed out the correct hashtag wasn’t the most important thing about the quake, which is certainly true if you weren’t using Twitter. But many, many people will be using Twitter or a similar service soon as a primary information source, so the media have to get used to mentioning the “official hashtag” in their stories.

  9. Building things out of bricks is a fine English tradition, but England doesn’t straddle a plate boundary.

  10. Looters in Christchurch will break into a liquor store, ignore the brandy and single malts, and carry out cases of beer. And I would bet it wasn’t even very good beer.

  11. I went for a stroll to look for obvious quake damage, but my part of Bryndwr is so grungy it was, quite seriously, hard to discern. Was that street sign leaning drunkenly last week? Quite possibly. Is that wall newly crumbling, did a boy racer scrape it, or was it just shoddily built in 1955? Look for fresh plaster dust on the asphalt.

  12. It’s actually possible to have an earthquake this severe not kill anybody. So, as Robyn points out, we’re not a third-world country. Hurrah. Not that Christchurch escaped scot-free: billions of dollars of damage, and 90 or so buildings trashed, many grand and historic.

  13. Lucky last: this was not, by a long shot, “the big one”. That would be a magnitude 8.0 or so, which hits New Zealand every couple of hundred years (the last was in the Wairarapa in 1855). The Richter scale is logarithmic, so that’s something ten times as wobbly as today’s—the size of the San Francisco earthquake (3000 dead), or the 2008 Sichuan quake (which killed 68,000). Let’s not get too complacent about our building codes.

[Appeared 7 Sept 2010 on the NZ Herald website.]

16 thoughts on “Christchurch Rocks

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  2. Cait

    Ha, Nothing like a bit of humor to ease the nerves at a time like this. Good work.

  3. Mary

    Twitter was amazing. One of the best things I saw tweeted was that someone was doing first-aid tweets.

    Another useful tidbit we picked up: cell phone tower battery backups last 3-8 hours at best. Tweet early so your family knows you are ok.

    I was watching half a world away, but on a blog with people who have relatives and friends in NZ. The photos and the tweets were really effective.

    About phone charging: I recently bought a back-up battery for travel that is called a powermonkey. It holds a lot of charge and quickly recharges my phone. It has a number of different adapters. I’m really pleased with it. I think it will be a nice disaster-kit item, besides being handy for trips.

    Great US option for 3G modem:

  4. James - Chch expat in Vietnam

    Very astute observations! Being away from my lady of the south (Chch) it has been near impossible to gauge the damage from the media. All you tweeters out there have really helped out.

    As for your lessons learnt, well, like I said very astute!

  5. Liz Ditz

    Found this via a tweet. Good points.

    13: The 1906 San Francisco quake did directly & indirectly have a death toll of about 3,000, but much of those deaths were due to the firestorms that followed.

    The 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California (finally adjudged to be 6.9) had a death toll of about 57. 49 of those deaths were from the collapse of one structure, the “Cypress Structure” — a multi-story freeway interchange, which collapsed.

    California and the companies therein spent billions on seismic retrofits following the quake. Stanford University alone spent at least $160 million on retrofitting.

    Glad that you and yours survived the quake, and that the damage was limited for the most part to structural damage.

    The photos of land displacement are really shocking.

  6. Julia

    I really enjoyed this post, glad to hear all is ok down there – you are right, we were very lucky – it could have been a lot worse!

    This earthquake is a timely reminder to stock up the emergency kits and get prepared…. having grown up in Wellington I am paranoid about the ‘big one’ that has been promised to me since I was 5 years old! You know, the one you mentioned – according to what I was told at school must be about 125 years overdue by now.

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  9. Calum

    Actually, England (and the rest of the UK) has many faultlines, with up to 300 recordable earthquakes every year :) Indeed, the whole of central Scotland, between the two more mountainous bits to the north and south, is the result of the middle of the country slipping down between two fault lines (the HIghland Boundary fault and the Southern Uplands fault.)

    That said, biggest UK quake since records began was ‘only’ a 6.1, in 1931. So not on the same scale at all, although there are usually a couple every decade or so that do a bit of damage.

  10. Heidi

    Probably the best observations we’ll ever get. Keep that list handy! Er, being an Aucklander, got any tips for the sudden emergence of a new volcano??

  11. Pene

    Glad to see (via twitter) that you are ok – hope Big Bird is too – his poor nose. Particularly note the recommendations for your ’emergency kit’ One of those little bbq in a briefcase things are brilliant – pop it in the car, fill the car with petrol too. 13 observations – bit of a risky number? Take care Mike.

  12. B Hanson

    @Heidi Not yet but I’ve heard that new thermal spring (hot water) found at Rapaki in Lyttelton Harbour but that needs verifying. Also some strange things like springs appearing near tops of hills and sulphur (possibly) being emitted from the ground at my Dads house in Bishopdale (ChCh West).

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  14. Shardul

    Number one alone makes an earthquake valuable in my book. How beautiful to see the stars as they truly are. Kind of like when we get a glimpse of our own true nature. I used to live and work in the outback of Australia for a few years and slept in a swag on the ground. How many nights I lay in my swag and stared into the vast welkin yet never ever got sick of it! Got sick of the work, the heat, the dust, the cattle, the food, the company from time to time, myself often and even the horses occasionally. But never ever tired of the night sky.

    Great list by the way – thanks. Nice observations. ‘Tis a great soul that finds the good and the humour in the tremours of life.

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