Topic: Liz's experiences - February 2011

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The brandy bottle has been pulled out of the emergency box and is half empty. I find myself unfamiliarly stuck for words today. The September quake wasn't hard to write about, because of the miracle of no deaths. Tuesday's quake doesn't give us the luxury of that thankfulness: except a very deep and abiding gratitude for having been able to walk away from the devastation unscathed.

February 25th 2011

The brandy bottle has been pulled out of the emergency box and is half empty.

I find myself unfamiliarly stuck for words today. The September quake wasn't hard to write about, because of the miracle of no deaths. Tuesday's quake doesn't give us the luxury of that thankfulness: except a very deep and abiding gratitude for having been able to walk away from the devastation unscathed.

I'm not sure that any of the people I've spoken to can quite believe the enormity of what has happened, nor the enormity of what is yet to come. It is quite beyond our comprehension.

I see photographs and film footage of the broken Cathedral outside which I stood and waved at friends on my birthday in 2008; various offices and hotels which have concertinaed in on themselves and where I've had meetings over the years; vehicles flattened by fallen masonry; houses crushed under rock slides. And I have to remind myself - pinch myself - that this is my city, just 30km down the road.

The aerial images in the paper show a city which could have been bombed. And in the midst of all those images are friends who are without family, without basic services, their gardens swallowed in silt and water, and who are getting by a day at a time, an hour at a time.

By surreal contrast, were you ignorant of the events of the last four days, Rangiora is normal.

It's busier than usual but physically we are untouched. Look a little harder and you'll realise that all is far from well. The chat in all the shops, on all the street corners is about missing family, friends and lucky escapes. There are tears, anxious looks when a tremor rumbles through and the occasional distressed soul.

Walking to the chemist yesterday I came across a woman standing by the pedestrian crossing, clinging to the iron railing. When I stopped to put a hand on her arm and ask if she was okay, she said "Can you feel them? Can you feel them through the soles of your shoes"? Aftershocks of course. I couldn't.

To be honest, I don't know if there were any to feel, but this poor soul was super-sensitised to the ground moving. I stood and heard her story.

She and her husband had been standing in the foyer of an hotel in Cathedral Square, waiting for a taxi which was 20 minutes late. It was to take them to the airport in time for their return plane to London.

Then the earthquake struck and they watched the Cathedral spire and side wall come down. They watched as The Press building collapsed. They watched as masonry fell off other buildings onto tourists and shoppers beneath. They saw people scrambling free from the plumes of dust and rubble with bloody wounds. They heard the screams of people trapped. And they remained safe. Untouched.

A few hours later they were evacuated out of the city to a motel in Rangiora and this lady's husband had gone down the road to buy something or other, leaving her sitting on a bench. It was the first time they'd parted since the quake. And she disintegrated.

Fortunately he returned whilst I was holding her and the look of relief on her face was a joy to see. I hope they have managed to get a flight home now. I hope she has stopped feeling the ground moving beneath her feet.

I ended up very relieved to have completed my tasks and to be heading home again: the sad and bad news stories from fellow-shoppers are heartrending and become too much to bear after a while.

There are a dozen or so friends I'm still waiting to hear from and about whom I am trying to keep calm. Two popped up today, safe and sound. I hope for the same of the rest of the people I'm trying to trace.

There are many things I could dwell on, such as the fact that this has been declared a National Emergency - the first in NZ - enabling international aid to be accessed and delivered super-fast.

And the heroic deeds of some of the rescue services.

I could talk about the fact that the 2011 NZ Census, which was due on March 8th has been cancelled because of the quake.

Or that the Army is patrolling the streets of Chchch.

Or that the skies above Rangiora have been full of low-flying military aircraft taking personnel and supplies to Chchch airport, and full of rescue helicopters bringing people out to our wee hospital.

Or that Rangiora was jam-packed with people mid-week because all the supermarkets and petrol stations were closed in Chchch, but were open here.

But, you know? I shan't.

It is too overwhelming just at the moment. Perhaps I will be able to reflect with greater clarity as time passes.

In the meantime I hope for the best, prepare for the worst and try to re-establish some kind of routine each day. That routine does not include watching the news for more than 15 minutes in total: it is simply too distressing.

if I hear one more damned media reporter asking "How do you feel"? to survivors, I shall be getting very shouty indeed.


4th March 2011

Last week I wrote about my deep and abiding gratitude for having been able to walk away unscathed from the devastation of the earthquake on 22nd February. In the last few days I have realised that walking away so freely is quite hard to come to terms with; particularly as many were not so fortunate.

I have some very clear snapshot memories of what I now think of as my flight from the city, with my friend Sarah next to me in the car. Underlying each of those freeze-frames is a tense anxiety bordering on fear, mingled with an edge of hysteria, on which I was keeping a very tight lid.

For example, as we drove along Park Terrace in near-stationary traffic, with the River Avon and Hagley Park on our left and four- and five-storey apartments on our right, there was a zinger of an aftershock which ripped through beneath us.

As I hung onto the steering wheel I could feel the car tipping and twisting with the road, and then I watched as the tarmac immediately in front of us rose up a little, split and subsided into a long crack across the carriageway. Fortunately the traffic moved at that moment and it was with real relief that I drove across the crack before silt bubbled out of it.

And while I'd been mesmerised by the road surface for those couple of seconds, Sarah had been watching with horror as the riverside willow trees tipped backwards and forwards on their roots. That none fell is a sign of good natural design.

Another image is witnessing liquefaction take place in front of me in Cranmer Square.

A long ridge of silt had formed through a crack in the turf. Water and more silt bubbled gently along the top of its entire length. It grew slowly but apparently relentlessly and the grass under my feet gradually flooded. I never thought I'd see such a phenomenon develop in front of my eyes. I was immobile and fascinated for a few minutes, until wet feet and the need to find friends overcame me.

And to illustrate the fact that the snapshots are quite random, the most vivid involves a duck.

Somebody said to me after the September quake that it's a shame we don't have wings, then we could simply rise up in the air and avoid the aftershocks. The problem would be a poorly-timed landing, which is exactly what I witnessed when an aftershock coincided with the touch-down of a mallard next to the River Avon as we drove past.

She flew in flawlessly past the trees, put her flaps down effortlessly, and then came to a surprisingly abrupt stop. She tipped forward off her toes (do ducks have toes?) and onto her beak before somersaulting with feathers a-flurry, and righting herself; finally ruffling up her plumage and looking round, for all the world checking to see if her audience had noticed anything untoward. I found myself laughing out loud, although whether it was real amusement or hysteria, I am no longer sure.

The other clear memory from that trip concerns my bowels, so for those of you with a sensitive disposition; I'd miss the next couple of paragraphs.

I now understand the expression "to crap oneself"? with fear. Not that it happened instantaneously, I hasten to add. But the quake certainly sent my bowels into unusual activity. And what did happen almost immediately? The sewers and water pipes all burst. So I was a long way from a toilet that could be flushed.

Let's just say that it was a tense drive home for more reasons than those simply related to the aftershocks. And it was a huge relief when I got to the loo. I lost a couple of kg in one sitting!

Those snapshots will remain and will buffer me somewhat from the harsh reality of the bigger picture of what was unfolding around and behind us as we left the city. We had no idea the scale of the disaster until hours later.

It has surprised me how long it's taken for my insecurity to emerge. The superwoman side of me remonstrates that because I'm physically fine, I should also be psychologically fine and I should be strong enough to cope with whatever emotion I feel.

The rather more realistic side of me has only just found her voice and I'm now admitting that it's a lot harder than I thought.

Having acknowledged that I'm not superwoman (how many times in my life will I repeat that sentiment?!) I think the most effective way to deal with walking away from the quake in one piece is to simply do whatever feels right at any given moment.

Tears are unbidden and I allow them to flow freely. With them comes some kind of relief



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