Thirteen things I learned from an earthquake:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Always secure your bookcases to a wall.
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.
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.
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.
Building things out of bricks is a fine English tradition, but England doesn’t straddle a plate boundary.
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.
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.
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.
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.]