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Did the earth move for you? The Quake of 4-9-10

I was stark naked, clinging tightly, (tangled actually), to the neighbour’s thorny rose bush, on a steep bank above a cliff. The lurching earth attempting to buck me off the precipice into the street below.

At times of crisis, humour is often the best medicine, but at first I didn’t see the funny side.

I’ve made it my job to expose myself to scary, sometimes death-defying stuff. I’m used to fear. But NOTHING comes close to the fear I felt at 4:35 am when the earthquake rocked my world! Fear from a sudden life-threatening danger like an earthquake is much more intense than the fear from a pre-planned, calculated and managed situation.

I’ve always been worried that my house would collapse in an earthquake. Ironically, 4 weeks previously I'd started researching whether to demolish my house or reinforce for earthquakes.

My flat roof, art-deco style house is really old, cracked concrete. The roof/ceiling is concrete, big, fat, heavy, 120mm thick concrete. Every single wall, is poured concrete. It was built during the war, and they temporarily ran out of concrete half way through, which explains why almost every wall had cracks running through it. Renovating it, I knocked out an interior wall to replace it with a strongly engineered beam. To my horror, the old wall, had only 3 measly, skinny reinforcing bars that didn’t even run the full height of the wall.

So you can see how I vividly imagined 9.8 tonnes of concrete crushing me to death in bed when the earthquake struck the other night! Months ago I’d already decided that doorways, or kitchen tables would NEVER save me in this house. They’d be minced to match-sticks, and I’d be minced to…. Mincemeat! The best place for me in an earthquake was outside.

Shaken suddenly from deep sleep at 4:35 am, I bolted out of bed as fast as lightening. My bedroom is upstairs and the quickest way out is via the window, onto the roof and then,… off the roof,… somehow.

The rumbling and resonating roar of the quake was deafening. Intensely grumbling, it penetrated every cell.

In a single leap I was at the window, yanking on the cord to roll up the blind,… well I thought it went up, but I pulled the wrong cord and it rolled down into a heap at my feet, totally blocking the window. I yanked the other cord to pull it up in an adrenalin fuelled display of speed and strength that Superman would be proud of…. which broke the cord, leaving the blind still blocking the window.

By now the house was swaying crazily like a,.. a,.. a,.. a….. huge swaying crazy thing, and I was convinced at any second the whole house was gonna tumble off the cliff. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, my house is perched precariously on the edge of the cliff of Cliff Street. How could it possibly stay on the cliff? I was in a blind panic by now! I’d be trapped, squashed inside as it smashed it’s way down the cliff!

Ripping the blind aside I booted open the window. Now I was on the roof, a heavy old concrete roof, which was surely gonna collapse. The quickest way to get clear of this soon-to-be death trap was straight off the edge. With a sprint like Road Runner, followed by an adrenalin fueled leap like Spiderman, I found myself precariously clinging to a web of shrubbery on a bank.

In the wintry coldness and relative safety I woke to the stark facts…

  1. I was naked

  2. The shrubbery was actually a wild, thorny rose bush that I had a death-grip on.

  3. I was in the neighbour’s thorny rose bush.

  4. The bank was steep, and was above a cliff .

The ground was lurching and leaping like a mighty bucking bronco and would surely toss me, the thorn bush and the house off this precarious precipice to certain death on the road below!

After a terrifying 2 hours, (well it was actually merely minutes), my bucking ride halted. Still I was too terrified and reluctant to leave my prickly perch. Gradually, the quake’s deafening roar that had previously rattled my bones, was replaced by a trenchant chill penetrating my nakedness. I began to notice that thorns piercing me and in places I’d prefer they didn’t! I felt suddenly very exposed, stupid even! I realized my mother‘s stupid warnings about wearing pyjamas and clean underpants weren’t so stupid after all! I had to make a break for safety before the next shake… and before anyone found me like this!

In the chilly darkness I could just make out the gap I’d need to leap back across. I couldn’t believe I could ever have leapt that far! The human fight or flight response must provide for fantastic feats of physicality! Reluctantly I realized instead, I would need to extricate myself from the thorny tentacles and tip-toe down past the neighbours and back up to my clothes inside my death-trap-house!

Heart thumping with adrenaline doubled at risk of being discovered wandering the neighbourhood in the buff, or being crushed by the next aftershock, I nervously picked my way back up to my house. Being nude, it felt guiltily like the walk of shame!

In trepidation I inspected the house for damage and then snuck in to get clothes and my 2C solar light hat. Miraculously I had no damage to the house. Not a single crack anywhere. All of my previous repairs to the walls were still intact and invisible. Just a couple of pictures fallen off the mantelpiece.

I contemplated sleeping outside, perhaps put up my tent. But I was shivering uncontrollably so decided to risk my bed with 3 duvets and fully clothed this time. I left the lights on and the windows and doors open for a quick escape, and phoned the neighbours to check they were OK, (after all, they had many reasons for trauma, quakes, and streakers amongst them!)

Laying wide awake shivering from the fear and the cold, my analytical engineering mind concludes that my thick concrete house is in fact as solid and sound as a bomb-shelter, after all, it was built in the war for anything that can be thrown at it!

I reckon my story is hilarious in hindsight, and this is a useful skill to be able to see the funny side (re-framing) and it’s the perfect tonic for these tense times.

It’s fascinating to see the different phases of society in crisis

Phase 1: Saturday. We’re hit!

Initial fear and nerves, spur adrenalin. We generally react well. Once the initial crisis is managed, we tend to turn our attention to check others, less concern for ourselves.

The real gravity didn’t sink in for me yet. I seemed to be OK, so no excuse to slow down, continue with plans to give a kayak lesson and complete various projects in the office.

Phase 2: Sunday. Realization hits home.

Didn’t sleep well, due to aftershocks and fear. Gradually the reality sunk in. This is going to affect life for some time! Muck in and help.

Still oblivious to the full implications, I went for my 3 hour bike ride, but I diverted through the city and the worst affected suburbs to rubber neck. Struck with the severity and consequences for some of the worst affected folks, I rushed to help a mate clean up the mess. I’m now fully aware!

Phase 3: Sunday and Monday. Community connectedness.

There’s a real sense of camaraderie. The adrenalin has leveled off, dramatic stories have circulated on the grapevine, and people are beginning to comprehend the fact that all humans are vulnerable no matter who they are. Mother nature takes no note of status. We’re all super grateful to be alive. There is a warm smile on peoples faces, people truly care and there is a palpable willingness to reach out to help. We can trust everyone. I don’t bother locking the car, the house, or my bike. Everyone is “present” and in the moment.

Phase 4: Tuesday and Wednesday. Tiredness and overwhelm sets in.

4 days later and we’re still getting big aftershocks, 5.1 Richter this morning. The constant uncertainty is subtle but potent. We’re all weary and brains are like cotton-wool. It’s the unknown, we’re all on tenterhooks, wondering if we’ve had the big one yet. Is the next aftershock gonna lay us flat? It’s in our DNA to be on full alert at times of danger, peripheral vision awareness and acuity, constantly scanning for threats. There’s no rest or relaxation for our brains so we end up tired and easily overwhelmed. We see some folks, especially those living alone tearful and finding it hard to cope.

What can we learn?

We were very lucky to escape with zero fatalities. Lesser earthquakes have killed hundreds of thousands. Apart from the time of night the quake struck, part of the reason we came off without casualties is that our infrastructure and building code in NZ is good. I have often felt frustration at pedantic council building codes and inspections, but I must eat my words on this now and be thankful for their planning.

It is useful to have a “what-if” escape plan for emergencies. I’m not advocating the cotton-wool, liability avoidance litigation litany that I see evolving around us. Rather I encourage the Darwinism thought process of clever, skills based response where we use our own intelligence to practice a level headed approach that is applicable in any crisis situation. Practicing a thought process of sorting our own priorities, fitness and skills that would enhance survival. Don’t rely on, or blame others. There is great satisfaction in taking personal responsibility.

There is much analysis and conjecture about the “big one”. Was this it, or will this trigger the next one. Where will the next one be? I’ve found it’s not useful to worry about stuff we can’t control. Just work on being resourceful, intelligent humans. If another one hits, just run outside nude!

My thoughts to those still stuck without power, water or sewage.

Research shows that it’s very therapeutic to share stories with others in crisis. Some children are particularly traumatised. From my studies, I believe a successful and practical solution for kids is to get them to tell their story, and get them to discuss the learning from it, to write about it or draw a summary of it. Research shows healthy representations in our minds of crisis are smallish pictures, distant and plain or pastel colours. So if they're drawing a picture of it, I'd suggest giving them only a small or normal A4 size page, and not a giant poster. Pinning their picture of the earthquake on a distant wall may be useful. Pictures and summarised stories like this should enable them to distance themselves and dissociate from the trauma of the experience and be able to see it from a distance for the learnings. NLP has a wonderful, short, 20 minute process to clear trauma. If you want more information about this, contact me.

“An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men” - Ignazio Silon

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