Never wear shoes you wouldn’t walk in for an hour.
I ditched the car when I was halfway home. The Riccarton Road traffic was inching along, and walking was looking more and more sensible. I watched a stream of pedestrians straggling away from the shattered central city, where my apartment was. One I suddenly recognised. In fact, we’d broken up the day before. I pulled over and hugged her, these being, after all, exceptional circumstances. She had checked my apartment on the way out of town—it was standing and didn’t look damaged—and then she was off one way, me the other. At that point driving was becoming increasingly nonsensical, so I parked in a side street and set off home on foot. For some reason, I’d decided that morning to wear uncomfortable dress shoes, and soon regretted it. Never again will I wear shoes I can’t walk in should there be a natural disaster.
I was on the ground floor, about to get my photo taken by a university PR person, when the earthquake shook us like a dog. I wish she’d gotten that shot, just to see the expression on our faces. I’m my workplace Health & Safety warden, and through a odd coincidence just a couple of hours before had attended a training session on what to do in case of an earthquake, so was able to busily usher people out from under tables and shoo them outside, checking each office for stragglers on the way.
It wasn’t until we were all milling in the parking lot that I realised I’d left my phone in the building, along with my jacket, keys, wallet, ID, pocket knife, camera, and laptop: essentially, everything I need to exist. The next time evacuation, be it building, crashed aeroplane, or burning car, I ignore official instructions and grab jacket and bag on the way. At this point, there was no obvious damage to the university. One of the students asked me if lectures would be cancelled for the rest of the day. Probably yes, I said. We watched cars wobble back and forth in another aftershock, and I knew, with mounting anxiety, that my family and friends were probably all txting me right now. Getting on Twitter could tell us the magnitude of the quake and the amount of damage.
Some of my workmates also were without keys or phone. After an hour of fruitless standing around, we decided it was worth a crack. “Please, we need to get back into our offices. One of my colleagues needs her medication.” The Facilities Management chap in his hard hat could probably tell I was lying, but, very much against the rules, he let us venture back inside to quickly retrieve keys and bags. The Learning Skills Centre then scattered to the four winds.
An hour later, walking across Hagley Park after ditching my car, I saw the first photos of what was left of the Cathedral on my phone, and realised just how bad things were. The procession of people escaping the central city on foot had eerie echoes of 9/11, except these people weren’t covered in dust; we chatted as they passed, and I could tell some tourists the airport was closed, and also quite a hike, so they might want to stay put. Crossing the Botanic Gardens, a prodigy: the Avon River was flowing backwards from east to west. Signs and portents. I half expected a rain of blood. At that stage, I was ready to believe anything. (A week later I checked a map and realised I’d crossed the river where it looped back around, and this was the direction I’d seen it flowing all my life.) Only the ducks seemed unperturbed by the unusual day we were all having.
There is a feeling of sick anticipation as you first enter your house after an earthquake. Photographing my way from room to room, it was clear that there was hardly any damage. Pictures had fallen down, some of the cracks in the wall were a little bigger, but the place just needed a clean. And, well, electricity. I changed my shoes.