Something wasn’t right; I could hear a banging noise and it felt like someone was rocking the bed back and forth. James likes to joke every once in a while, but why would he do that when we needed to get up early for work? Panicked, I groped in the darkness for my glasses and flicked on the light switch. I turned back towards the door as the shaking got stronger, the door was banging back and forth in the door frame and the mirror was flying back and forth against the wall. What was happening? It felt like the house was falling off the hill – or worse, crumbling to pieces around us. The grumbling sound was getting louder. Finally it clicked. “James, I think it’s an earthquake!”
I flung myself out of bed, following James, not having a clue what to do. I followed him into the corridor, I thought we were aiming to get out of the house and onto the street – when suddenly, the shaking stopped. Our flatmates were in the hallway. “Are you ok?” we asked each other. Soon afterwards our neighbours downstairs came up to check that everyone was alright. We shared our fear as we all came to grips with what had just happened, before slowly looking around the house to inspect the damage. Luckily, the only damage to our home was a fallen computer screen (which still works!) and a fallen air freshener.
This earthquake lasted two whole minutes and resulted in two fatalities. It struck close to Culverden, which is near the tourist towns of Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura on New Zealand’s South Island, about 95km from Christchurch. It is the largest earthquake since the 7.8 magnitude quake that hit Dusky Sound in 2009, however because Fiordland is so sparsely populated, the damage was minimal. Named the Kaikoura earthquake, this quake was in fact made up of two individual earthquakes, and from what I understand, the first one set the second one off. These are some of the most complex earthquakes ever recorded^. According to GeoNet:
The quakes hit one after the other and were each a different type of seismic shift. “Our reports indicate that the combination of these two quakes lasted two minutes, with the most severe shaking around 50 seconds.” One of the quakes appeared to have been a ‘strike-slip’ event, a vertical fault which moves horizontally. The other was a ‘thrust fault’, where older parts of the earth’s crust are shoved up through the earth on top of newer layers.^
Most earthquakes are the result of rupture on a single fault plane. But the twin quakes led to the rupture of at least six faults.^
Next came the tsunami warning. If an earthquake goes on for over a minute, or is so strong that you can’t stand up (of which this was both), anyone living in a tsunami-prone area should evacuate to higher ground. Families packed up into cars and fled to the top of Mount Victoria, or to the hilly suburbs like Kelburn, where we live, and slept in their cars or in friends’ houses. There is no tsunami siren in Wellington and the wave reached a height of around half a metre, however the city was kept awake that night in anxiety of what was to come.
The morning after the quake, I woke to find an email advising me not to go into work. Our offices were closed for three days, whilst assessments of the buildings were made and necessary relocations of office equipment carried out. Whilst our house was unscathed, the city centre didn’t do so well.
Whilst the CBD opened on the Tuesday, over the course of the week, Wellington would come to find that there was more damage than met the eye. Ferry crossings were halted due to damage to the wharf, and flights were stopped. A number of apartments were evacuated as they were uninhabitable, with ceilings caving in and stairwells being unsafe. A building on Molesworth Street is being deconstructed this week, following reports that it was deemed unsafe. Statistics House suffered damage that will take up to a year to repair^. Cordons were put up in place around numerous areas, including Featherston Street, one of the city’s busiest. And just when we seemed to be getting somewhere, the car park by Reading Cinemas on Courtenay Place was evacuated for fear that it was going to collapse.
A day or two after the earthquake, Welly was hit with a huge amount of rain, which cut off all access to the city, as both the SH1 to the Kapiti Coast and the SH2 to the Wairarapa were closed. I remember someone at work warned me that the highways occasionally close during very bad weather, but I didn’t think I would be here to see it. An THEN, after all of this, a tornado hit the Kapiti Coast, ripping up gardens and damaging roofs.
Kaikoura was completely cut off from the rest of the country for almost a week due to huge landslides covering the roads; access was by helicopter only. An inland road has opened, but at this point, there is no certainty around when the slips will be cleared. Slowly, people are gaining access to running water, flushing toilets and power; cellphone coverage is limited, but improving. About 1,000 tourists were evacuated out of the town by sea, and supplies are being flown in by helicopter. The total damage is estimated to be at least $12 billion NZD ($8.4bn; £6.8bn). The quake has destroyed a famous seal breeding ground, Ohau Point, and there is the possibility that some of the seals were killed. It also resulted in the seabed rising by around 2 metres, exposing the precious paua (a popular shellfish) to the sun.
We need to consider the impact the earthquakes will have on Kaikoura’s future. Kaikoura is a small fishing town that attracts over 1 million tourists per year; it’s firmly on the tourist route from Picton to Christchurch, and is one of the best places in New Zealand to experience the marine life. You can kayak, go whale watching, view the seals… But already, local business owners are becoming worried that their businesses will suffer, that tourists will give up on Kaikoura and head to the West instead of travelling down the East coast. Businesses like Kaikoura Kayaks, Dolphin Encounter, Whale Watch NZ, are those which rely on tourism in order to show visitors the unique beauty of this part of the country. And just think of all of the other businesses – restaurants, shops, etc – which are in the same position at this time.
At the moment, the town is still very much in recovery mode. Roads are being cleared, damaged buildings are being repaired, and electricity and sanitation facilities are being restored. Whales swim alongside warships delivering supplies to those in need. When it is safe to do so, I urge anyone looking to travel to New Zealand to not skip Kaikoura from their itinerary following the effects of the earthquakes. The fact is that the marine life in Kaikoura is unique to New Zealand; once the whales and dolphins return, I hope that Kaikoura will thrive once again. It will only become a ghost town if tourists let it; if they choose to forget about it. Kaikoura has far too much to give. Let’s not let it go to waste.
Experiencing the Kaikoura earthquake was possibly the most terrifying experience of my life. From not knowing what was going on, to not knowing the extent of what could possibly happen, to not having any clue what to do. And I will reiterate that I was over 150km away from the epicentre of the quake.
The following day, James and I sat down with our flatmates and went over what we need to do to be prepared for an earthquake, and how to react if another one comes (which is very likely, according to GeoNet^).
We now realise the importance of having an emergency Grab Bag, in case you need to quickly evacuate, and an emergency survival kit to keep at home, in case you need to look after yourself for a longer period of time in a crisis. You can buy these kits online or make your own. Items that should be included in each of these kits can be found on the Get Thru website.
I’ve also thought about the fact that if I lived in New Zealand permanently, I would choose where to live wisely; a house that has been earthquake strengthened, preferably on a hill. I would take action to make my home safer.
We also learnt the best way to react during an earthquake. The Drop, Cover, Hold method is the right action to take and is taught to schoolchildren across New Zealand. Essentially, you should drop to the ground, get under a table if close by, cover your head and neck with your hands, and hold onto something until the shaking stops.
There’s lots of controversy around whether the Triangle of Life method (crouching beside something so that if the ceiling falls it will create a safe “void” underneath) is safe; it’s not recommended by the Civil Defence here in New Zealand. Likewise, doorways apparently aren’t a safe place to go, unless you’re in an old, unreinforced house. You definitely should not do what I was planning on doing and run to the street, because telephone cables or debris could fall on you. There’s lots more information about this at the following links: Earthquake Country; Civil Defence – Outside; Civil Defence – Drop, Cover, Hold; Times Standard; EQC.
I naively assumed that the worst would be over when the earth had stopped shaking, however we quickly realised that wasn’t the case. Aftershocks are highly likely, particularly after severe quakes like this one, and the risk of tsunamis are heightened, so if you’re by the sea or in a tsunami-prone area you should evacuate to higher ground. Luckily we live on a hill so we were safe from the waves. You should always text loved ones to make sure they are okay, as phone lines will be busy. There’s lots more info here.
New Zealand is one of the most high-risk countries in the entire world in terms of natural disasters. There are around 20,000 earthquakes per year, of which about 250 are large enough to be felt^. Compare that with the UK, where “between 200 and 300 earthquakes are detected […] annually but only 30 of those are strong enough to be felt.”^ Can you blame me for thinking the Kaikoura earthquake is my most scary experience to date? Volcanic eruptions are also a very possible hazard in New Zealand. Most of the volcanoes last erupted millions of years ago but others much more recently, like Ruapehu (2009!!)^ Mount Doom (Ngauruhoe) last erupted in 1974 and Taranaki is apparently 100 years overdue for an eruption.^ Plus, New Zealand is prone to bad weather – storms, tornados, huge amounts of rain – and because there are so many mountains here, risks of avalanches and landlines are also heightened. What a wonderful place to live!
Earthquakes are part of New Zealand’s history and are a constant in the geology of the country. This quake “moved Kaikoura about 1m further northeast and upwards 70 cm, and Hanmer Springs jumped east about 50 cm. Wellington and the Kapiti Coast are now 2 to 6cm further north, and Christchurch [has] shifted 2cm south.”^ Everybody knows that earthquakes are common in NZ – the country sits astride the colliding edges of the Pacific and Australian plates; the Southern Alps were created by years and years of quakes – however, in a country so prone to these disasters, I believe that preparation for them should be a number one priority. Perhaps more should be done to educate people on what to do in the event of an earthquake, or more regulations should be in place to reinforce these actions. I very much hope that strengthening of earthquake prone buildings takes priority in the wake of last week’s quake.
However, perhaps it’s these hazards that make New Zealand all the more appealing. The landscapes here are arguably some of the most beautiful on the planet. Therefore, I urge you not to let this earthquake deter you from visiting New Zealand, or from visiting the gorgeous fishing town of Kaikoura. This country has so much to offer.
Before I wrap up this post, I think we need to remember something pretty important. Kiwis are strong. They are tough. After the deadly Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, which almost destroyed Christchurch, the Rebuild project has demonstrated the unrelenting dedication of New Zealanders. Kiwis accept the facts and get on with life – they don’t quit.
Thanks for reading & safe travels,
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