Shaken and stirred

16:00, Oct 16 2010
cropp
Amanda Cropp with the four, 13kg, chimney pots, destined to become earthquake memorial planters.

Life for Cantabrians has changed dramatically since the earthquake, even for those with little property damage. By Amanda Cropp.

AFTER the 7.1 magnitude shake that shook Christchurch six weeks ago, my 14-year-old son has decreed we should henceforth refer to events as occurring BQ (before quake) or AQ (after quake).

Religious folk, like those who recently left a seashell inscribed with a crucifix in our letterbox or the Jehovah's Witnesses who turned up on the doorstep under the guise of seeing if I was "all right after the earthquake", will probably stick with BC (before Christ) and AD when it comes to cataloging events.

But I quite like the notion of BQ and AQ because, make no mistake, even for those of us with little or no property damage, life in Christchurch has changed since we were rudely awakened on September 4.

AQ we have become au fait with a whole new lexicon of earthquake-related jargon, such as liquefaction. The term refers to the sand volcanoes that erupted messily in certain areas, but liquefaction could just as well apply to the uncomfortable feeling that assails the bowels immediately after a particularly sharp aftershock.

"Stickered" is now a widely used new word, as people talk about their homes or workplaces being green, yellow or red-stickered by inspectors deciding whether buildings are damaged-but-habitable, moderately dangerous or completely knackered.

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We have become old hands at calculating aftershocks on the Richter scale before checking the result on Geonet. The house rocks like a boat afloat on the ocean and someone yells out "That was a four!" as if they're scoring runs at cricket.

BQ, my idea of parking was maneuvering within cooee of the kerb, locking the car and leaving it without a backward glance. Now I find myself checking to ensure that in the event of an aftershock my vehicle will not be taken out by an unstable chimney, fence or nearby building.

Two days after the "biggy" I had to take my oldest son to buy clothes for a school trip to France. When I insisted on parking in the street 100m from the mall, rather than use the rooftop carpark, he did that teenage eye-roll thing. As far as he was concerned, earthquakes were interesting geological phenomena that weren't even worth getting out of bed for.

Personally, I didn't fancy sitting in a car queuing to exit a swaying pile of concrete, but when the son returns from France he'll be pleased to discover I've pulled myself together sufficiently to once again patronize multi-storey parking buildings.

BQ, selling a house was always a bit of a hassle; AQ, it is even more so. Our rental property was due to go on the market the week after the first big shake, and, although it was undamaged other than a downed chimney, we now have to go through the rigmarole of getting a $500 engineer's report confirming it's not about to fall over. Plus the buyers will undoubtedly want to see the latest land information memorandum (Lim) which is rather inconveniently stored in a damaged building, and we understand the documents will be inaccessible for weeks.

BQ, I had a collection of pottery teapots displayed on open-sided shelves. My abiding memory of the quake is of trying to catch a flying teapot as the fish tank had its own personal tsunami, emptying a litre or so of water over my feet.

AQ, most of my pottery is in pieces in the garage and I'm investigating sources of earthquake wax, sticky goo which museums use to prevent their fragile antiquities coming to grief.

Meantime, my hand blown glass collection, which spent several weeks safely packed away in drawers amid knickers and socks, is carefully glued to shelves and mantelpieces with Blu-Tack.

BQ, I never gave chimneys much thought; now I notice how many are missing, replaced with tarpaulins or plastic sheeting to keep out the rain.

The three chimneys on our 120-year-old villa came through the initial shock, but two became increasingly unstable and had to be taken down lest they smashed through the roof into the kids' bedrooms. Without them the house looks odd, like a birthday cake without candles.

It may be weeks if not months before we see an EQC assessor and we hope it doesn't take that long to be reimbursed for the $1200 cheque already paid to the builder who did the dismantling and carted away a skipload of bricks.

AQ, we have a newfound appreciation for basic facilities like running water and flushable toilets, and the potential for the chaos that ensues when sewer pipes and water mains rupture.

In the seaside suburb of Sumner where I live, friends attempted to report a water leak in the street outside their property on the day of the quake, but couldn't get through to the council which was overwhelmed with more pressing matters.

The following day the water main blew, showering the house (completely undamaged in the quake) with high pressure water, sand and rocks. Even with all the doors and windows closed, the top floor living area and the entire downstairs were flooded with water and silt. It took 12 of us four hours to clean up the mess.

Luckily the local volunteer fire brigade was on hand to pump knee-deep water out of the below-street-level garage, one of 179 callouts they attended in the first week after the quake.

To express their gratitude, the community threw a street party and auction that raised $22,000 for new equipment, one of the many examples of the generosity of spirit that has brightened what has been a fairly stressful period.

AFTER A disaster, you certainly find out who your friends are. Within hours of the first big shake we received texts, phone calls and emails from all over the country and around the world, including texts from a couple on a yacht off Turkey and from my younger brother holidaying on the Dead Sea.

My shift worker husband had to go to work two hours after the 7.1 shake, making a trip through debris-filled streets that took close to an hour-and-a-quarter instead of the usual 25 minutes. He returned to work the night shift that night despite feeling unwell with what later turned out to be pneumonia.

Within a couple of days his union sent us useful information about coping with stress and where to get help if we needed it, followed up by a personal call from a union welfare officer to see if there was anything he could do.

The best my husband's employers could manage was a belated thank you letter that arrived two-and-a-half weeks after the first earth tremor.

I was much more impressed with a sympathetic missive from the founder of the EziBuy clothing company accompanied by a $20 "cheer up" voucher.

A little retail therapy worked wonders and, when I commented to the sales assistant how much I appreciated the gesture to Canterbury customers, she waxed lyrical about her employers and the way they had helped the staff, especially the two with badly damaged houses, including a woman who had been working there for only a week.

Clearly looking after your staff properly post-quake isn't just the right thing to do, but a darn good way of winning brownie points and their undying loyalty.

As a child, I lived close to a fault line in North Canterbury so I grew up with earthquakes and maybe that has helped me cope with the 1400-plus aftershocks.

But there is definitely something very disconcerting about being faced with a force of nature over which you have absolutely no control. With floods and tsunamis there are often warnings, so you can sandbag the house, or flee to higher ground. With earthquakes the only warning is that ominous rumble.

Undeterred by nightly TV coverage of strung out Christchurch residents, several Aucklanders visiting during "quake season" expressed the desire to experience a seismic event.

Like the 11-year-old who had come to visit his dad, toured the devastated areas, and was about to return home disappointed that he had not felt a single decent shake. The night before he flew out there was a "fiver". His grandparents reckoned that 20 minutes later he was still standing in a doorway and you could almost see the fingernail marks in the woodwork.

My Auckland niece, in her 30s, had never been in an earthquake, but a gentle "three" was all it took to convince her that earthquakes don't have a lot to recommend them, and she hightailed it to Queenstown.

For most Cantabrians there is no escape, and we just have to live with the sometimes nerve-jangling aftershocks.

After being woken yet again by an early morning jolt, my husband observed that it might have been a three on the Richter scale, but it was a 10 or 12 on the annoyance scale. BQ, having the earth move when we were in bed together was a good thing, AQ, we're definitely over it.

HOT OFF THE PRESS

In record time, not one but two books documenting the 7.1 earthquake that struck Canterbury early last month have been published. Both are crammed full of photographs of the shocking devastation, the massive recovery efforts, and the community spirit and the humour of the city's people.

The Big Quake, produced by Random House with The Press ($34.99), comes with a DVD of quake footage. Proceeds from the book go to the Canterbury earthquake appeal of the Red Cross.

The other, simply called Quake ($29.99), is produced by HarperCollins and features the work of local veterans, photographer Dave Wethey and journalist Ian Stuart. – Mark Broatch

Sunday Star Times