The Aftershock Diary


Kim Hill is telling us to sprinkle vacuum cleaner dust over our poo. In a morning full of surreal experiences, this somehow takes the cake. Friends tell me they’re peeing in buckets, or digging latrines in the yard. This being Christchurch, talk turns to fertilising lemon trees.

Our city’s message to the world is a stoic, “Thanks, but we’ll cope.” A surprising number of businesses open as best they can, before realising we’ve technically had a natural disaster and you’re supposed to be traumatised. It’s the spirit of the Blitz, except the weather is lovely and sunny, and John Key has all the gravitas of Churchill’s stunt double.


My seismometer is a small plastic Big Bird, which reliably topples over on about a 5.2. I’ve had to stand him up a couple of times today. He’s calibrated against readings from the New Zealand Earthquake Bot, which tweets details of each aftershock (it has three times as many followers as the Christchurch Press). Because the Bot takes ten minutes to report, people have been playing the guess-the-magnitude game on Twitter. They tend to overestimate.

Advanced seismic activity detection technology

Some people are completely freaked out. Some are just angry, and loudly rain curses on the aftershocks—I don’t tell them these will go on for weeks. Some, like me, are sleeping through everything but a 5.0. Everybody’s waiting for the 6.0, which like Godot is supposed to be coming, if not today, then definitely tomorrow. We’re oscillating like Vladimir and Estragon between boredom and despair.


I visited the earthquake shelter at Burnside High, hearing that they might need water containers. Exhausted volunteers have been deluged with donations and are well-supplied with bedding, food, and everything else. Someone donated a game of Twister, especially challenging in an earthquake. Donated books include The Da Vinci Code (a perfect opportunity to get rid of one’s copy, I suspect), and Angela’s Ashes, in case evacuees need reminding things could be worse.

Good news! Eva Longoria, from the Television, is praying for us. All I can think is that it’s a bit late: Eva, if only you had used your celebrity powers and intervened with God before He smote us with His wobbly wrath. Perhaps God only works the cleanup crew.

Huge diffuse disasters are hard to take in, but little ones hit home. Canterbury Cheesemongers—the best cheese shop in Christchurch—may have to be demolished, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This, curiously, affects me more than damage to historic homesteads or friends’ houses: a bit of the Christchurch I know is going away, as will many other bits, all special to somebody.


More aftershocks. The Burnside High shelter has been hit hard, and it’s been evacuated of its evacuees. I spontaneously decide to spend the night out of town. Kaikoura is supposed to be quite tolerable at this time of year. Heading North through Woodend, the only things damaged seem to be the churches.


Frustration with the aftershocks is boiling up. Two different people told me this morning’s 5.1 caught them on the loo, which rather ruins your equilibrium for the day. Megan comes up with a potential rallying chant for an organised anti-earthquake protest:

We wake!
We shake!
We don’t want any more quakes!

I’m helping my friend pack up her house for evacuation: cracks in the cinderblock walls, the laundry turned into a water feature by a broken pipe, and a hole I can see the outside through. That could be handy for summer ventilation, I suggest. She is not swayed. We both join the Facebook group to save Canterbury Cheesemongers, knowing it probably won’t help.

Somebody comments in my blog that the lack of fatalities reveals divine intervention. Presumably God didn’t like Haiti as much as Christchurch. Perhaps it’s our pious name. Wellington, there’s still time to rename yourself: forget Wellywood, go with something more devotional. Suggestions in the comments.

Twitter has been an indispensable information source, but it’s also fertile ground for rumours. Within a few hours of the quake, there were fake damage photos and denunciation of the fakes. Now the fuel storage tanks at Lyttelton are supposedly on fire, and there’s a petrol shortage, both also quashed before they’re too widely retweeted. The best news for a while is that we can drink the water again: tweeted within half an hour of the press release. I’ve been brushing my teeth from a mug for days, and am happy to dump the stockpot of boiled water sitting in the laundry tub. It feels like I’m flushing away the unreality of the last few days. Now to see what reality has in store.

[Also posted, essentially as above, on the NZ Herald website,, 9 Sept 2010.]

2 thoughts on “The Aftershock Diary

  1. Pamela

    I’m gonna get me a plastic big bird seismometer…. seeing as Wellington can get a bit shakey.

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