Farewell Old Lyttelton

Demoralition: the experience of watching all the beautiful buildings in your town being torn down crudely by demolition gangs.


How to survive a natural disaster pt. 1: the loo with a view

If one must, one must in style.

If a person takes a dump in their back yard and everyone pretends not to notice, does it still make a stink?

Ah yes, the age old question.

We now know the answer to this and many other things we never thought about before.  Mercifully our water and sewerage is back on (although we’re still using both sparingly and boiling our drinking water).  But I did promise the obligatory photograph of our back yard ablution block so here you go.

Emergencies tend to do different things to different people.  It can bring out the good and the bad.  And no, that is not setting you up for some lame gag about cathartic motions.  Although I am about to show you a picture of a stool…

In the case of Uncle Puff, it brought out the pragmatic, DIY legend in him.  Admittedly it usually doesn’t take much under normal circumstances.

The question of a lack of facilities with a houseful of people was rapidly becoming an issue.  We had immediately started collecting rain water (just the excuse I needed to rip out the downpipe and set up a rain butt – should’ve done it years ago) with which we could flush the toilet once we got the all clear to do so but who knew when that was going to be?  We couldn’t keep filling it up.  Ahem.

Enter the Puff.  Why just dig a hole in the ground when you can create the Luxury Latrine.  First we identified the most private spot on the banked bit of land behind our house.  We considered the relative difficulties of squatting on a slope and looked around for something to sling our nether regions over (not to put too fine a point on it) when Uncle Puff had the first of his brainwaves.  All we needed was an old wooden chair that we could cut a hole in the seat.  It just so happened that we did have an old chair with a broken back and a solid wooden seat in the cellar (aka The Underworld).  A quick visit to our neighbour Merv (latterly dubbed The Mervinator by the neighbouring kids for his efforts during and after the earthquake) to borrow a jigsaw and Puff’s eyes were aglow with the vision of a back yard latrine of legend.

The throne was completed in no time and the final piece of the puzzle was completed with a stout harakeke branch and an old shower curtain for privacy.  It was only fitting that Puff performed the opening ceremony.

And now, the stool:

I'm going outside, I may be some time. Pass the newspaper.

Although the ‘loo with a view’ has now been retired, the stool remains as our own personal monument to survival.  And I’m still collecting rain water.

It’s the Little Things…

I remember the small stuff.

It’s funny what sticks in your mind after something like this.  Things in my office that I’ll never see again.  None of it is important really but it’s strange, I know exactly where it’s probably sitting (lying) in that room that I’ve spent a large part of my life for the past 3 years.  A room which will no longer exist in a matter of days or weeks when the wrecking ball comes.

The view from our 4th floor office to the east was amazing.  Madras St was the final strip of ‘skyscrapers’ in the central city east.  Beyond our building was just houses and suburbs to the sea.  Our shared kitchen and staff room was the scene of many great debates, conversations and delicious lunches.  Head-shaking over letters to the editor, discussions about the ‘correct’ way to load the dishwasher, backyard permaculture, recycling and generally putting the world to rights.

So many people lost so much more in buildings just a block away.  So many people didn’t get to walk out into the drizzle of a dreary Tuesday lunchtime and count themselves lucky.

I walked over papers, furniture, broken glass, out into the rest of my life.

But I remember the little things – an umbrella, a rain jacket, two photos of Seraphine, a box of chocolates I was saving for my colleagues, birthday cards, some books of poetry, a phone charger, my diary, a notebook from Bulgaria.

All so clear in my mind, lying there like lost toy soldiers in the garden.

Grilly’s Story

Sometimes I wonder if you’re just better off not knowing.  At least at the time something happens.

As it turns out, Grilly had been in the central city when the proverbial balloon went up on Tuesday 22nd.

Having attended mass in the Holy Cross Chapel in Chancery Lane, just off Cathedral Square at 12.05pm, the service ended at approximately 12.35pm.  Shortly after that Grilly headed across Cathedral Square and past the Cathedral at about 12.40pm.  She was headed for the Bus Exchange and entered off Colombo St to wait at her platform in the main waiting area of the Exchange on Lichfield St.  She had enough time to note that her bus, the No. 5, was due in 9 minutes.  For some reason, unknown to her, she chose to sit near the door – something she doesn’t usually do.

In the 5 minutes before the earthquake struck, she spoke to one of the many uniformed school students heading home for a teacher-only day.  It was a busy lunchtime crowd inside the Exchange.  At 12.51pm violent shaking began, windows shattered and material started falling on everyone, possibly from the ceiling.  Grilly said it sounded like everyone screamed at once and begun pouring out onto Lichfield St.  The jolting threw her against the doorway on her way out.  The outside of the building started shedding chunks of masonry.  Within seconds it seemed, there were police telling everyone to get into the middle of the street away from the falling pieces of buildings all around them.  Bricks and tiles from the already damaged Dowsons building  and the Exchange itself were raining down.  Grilly saw some of the school children hit by masonry and bleeding and one girl slumped against the building was carried away by two men.

People stumbled down Lichfield St, picking their way over rubble and fallen blocks and bits of building.  She moved as if in a daze, unsure of where she was and what street she was on – so many familiar buildings were down that there were very few landmarks to get her bearings from.  Everything was covered by the hanging haze of dust.  It was then that this horrible moment that no child wishes to see their parent in was captured on film and shown around the world.  My sister saw it on TV first and prepared the rest of us for the shock of seeing her there (at 1.53 in the video below – thanks to Logan from Gorilla Pictures):

Like I said, sometimes maybe, you’re better off not knowing.  Here’s my sister’s story.

What Grilly recalls next is the kindness of a series of strangers.  A tiny episode of so many in the unfolding stories of this disaster.  First she was noticed, dazed and in shock, by a man who picked her up and sat her on a car bonnet until she was able to continue.  Next two young women looked after her and sent me a text saying my mother was OK and was with them.  In some amazing act of foresight Grilly was carrying a piece of paper in her bag with my mobile number on it.  I received these texts while desperately trying to get through traffic to her house.  I thought they were from neighbours in her street at the time.  These two wonderful young people managed to get another family of strangers to take Grilly in their car and drive her home.  They had only arrived in NZ two weeks earlier and were unsure of their way around, navigating by map, in a disaster zone.

Somehow, through this lack of familiarity with Christchurch they managed to take an unusual route to Grilly’s area, meaning they missed most of the log-jammed traffic.  The streets around Linwood and further east to Aranui and beyond were badly affected by subsidence, liquefaction and flooding.  The family were able to get Grilly close to her street and let her out.  The final amazing act in her incredible journey home – two men appeared out of houses and carried her across a severly flooded intersection to reach her house.

There are very few strangers in our city now.  Those of us who are fortunate, or blessed if you prefer, to be alive and able to tell their tale, are part of a stronger community now.  We, all of us, are survivors, not victims.  And we carry each other across the floods.

My Story

I remember thinking that I’d left it too late to go and get some lunch before a 1pm meeting via skype.

I’d been in another one all morning which had left me feeling somehow, a little flat.  I was currently immersed in configuring my brand spanking new and grunty as hell PC which had arrived after months of concerted lobbying (read: whinging) by yours truly.

I looked up at the clock, prompted by some rude grumblings in my belly only to be dismayed by the news it told me: 12.45pm – not enough time to obtain and devour a sandwich before the meeting.  Oh for the days before webcams when you could sneak a bite or two around the edges of a conversation and no-one was any the wiser.  My heart fell even further when I realised I wouldn’t be free until 2.30-3pm by which time all convenient eateries would be closed, or picked clean by the vultures from the surrounding office buildings.  Such are the trials of an inner city worker.

I don’t remember what I did next exactly, probably consoled myself with how wonderful, gorgeous and silent my new computer was, but about 5 minutes later, my agenda for the afternoon and the course of our lives was changed irrevocably.

Agenda for afternoon of Tuesday 22nd February (updated)

  1. 12.51pm: get under desk (much, much harder than it sounded to do).
  2. 12.51and-a-bit: attempt to stay covered by now alarmingly mobile desk – try to avoid glass from shattering windows.
  3. 12.51and-a-bit-more: shout to colleagues to get under cover and keep away from windows – opportunity to consider present situation re. being four storeys off the ground with a further 3 storeys of concrete above my head (but mind kept wandering off-task to how Wiz and Seraphine were).
  4. 12.52pm: decide whether to get out from under now thankfully, stationary desk (tough decision).

My 1pm meeting was now so far from my mind as to be in another country, one where the ground doesn’t rear up and swerve like some drunken bus driver from hell.  My agenda was suddenly, second to second and minute to minute, about survival.

In that first minute I recall so many noises and sensations, none of them good.  I couldn’t believe how hard it was to negotiate the small distance off my chair and under the desk.  I just kept getting biffed around and slammed into my desk a couple of times before I managed to get under it.  I could hear screaming, both inside and outside my building – as the windows broke, the outside was suddenly a lot louder and I could hear the screams of people pouring into Latimer Square outside my window.  I remember wondering, stupidly, how they got there so quickly.  There was some other incredibly loud noise which I would find out about later.

I remember marvelling at how lightly and matter-of-factly the office immediately turned itself upside down and threw itself to the floor.  I remember seeing my mobile phone sail off my desk (along with most everything else) and noting where it slid under a pile of  what previously would have been terribly important work but was now nothing more than paper and folders I would happily step on without a second thought when I got out. Everyone on my floor started calling out to each other to check in but they all shouted at the same time and I couldn’t tell whether they were OK, hurt or trapped and calling for help.

When I crawled out from under my desk with my bag I seriously wondered for a moment whether we should stay put – trying to remember the earthquake emergency procedures.  I briefly saw my colleagues go past the doorway, I noticed Vaea already had her fire warden armband on and was taking control.  Grant came in to see me – I put the question to him – I think I must have sounded a bit dazed and he made sure I understood that item 5 on my agenda was to get the f&*k out of the building immediately.  (He would never use that language, of course, some words have been changed to incriminate the innocent).

This is where I got a bit strange.  I looked sadly at my new computer which had toppled over.  I then reached out and set it upright – the only such object in the room – I think I seriously considered taking it with me for a split-second before reaching for my jacket.  I always keep my wallet and keys in my jacket so I instinctively knew I had everything important.  Having noticed where the mobile landed was a stroke of luck as I honestly don’t remember picking it up.   I then had to pick my route out of the office.  It involved some clambering and leaping and suddenly I was in the now much darker hall near the lifts and stairs.  There was the sound of running water very close by but I couldn’t see it anywhere.  Grant was making sure I was coming and got me to the stairs.  Someone was having a panic attack on the landing and another of my colleagues was helping them breathe and get control.  There were other people crying but still moving.  It seemed a long way down those stairs right then.

The ground floor was covered in glass where the large glass wall that displayed the buildings tenants had shattered – this had stayed intact in the September earthquake and I started to get a very bad feeling.

We walked outside, a block wall had collapsed in the carpark on top of a couple of cars.  We crossed the road into Latimer Square where literally hundreds of people were gathering in varying states of shock, disbelief or just numbness.  It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the road when I turned around to look at our building and saw the cause of the huge noise I’d heard in the shake – The entire front half of Charlie B’s backpacker hotel across the road from us had collapsed behind its protective barricades (it had been declared unsafe following the September quake so was empty thankfully).  Clouds of dust were merging into a haze all over the park.  The Christchurch Club, a historic wooden building on the parks west side had also collapsed.  No-one could remember whether it had been closed after September and therefore was empty or not.

Another historic backpackers up the road had partially collapsed – this time with many people inside – the first injured people we saw started coming from there.  They were bleeding and covered in dust and in shock.  People were walking in stunned circles.

Agenda for afternoon of Tuesday 22nd February (updated) continued…

6.  Contact Lizzie and Seraphine

7.  Contact Grilly and siblings

8.  Get home

I immediately phoned Lizzie and somehow got a precious few seconds of talk time with her – she and Seraphine were both OK but the house had been trashed inside.  Those few seconds of hearing her voice… she sounded calm and brave even though I knew she wasn’t feeling it – she was conscious of how Seraphine would be reacting to her.  She told me she’d be fine – go get my mother.  I loved her so much right then.

I spent the next half hour trying unsuccessfully to call my family.  I was worried for my brother who works in a large print press facility with many heavy machines in the CBD and Grilly who of course lives by herself.  I didn’t know she wasn’t at home…

Texts seemed to be intermittently getting through.  I heard from my sister that she was OK and going for her daughters.  My brother too, although very little information beyond he was alive.

A friend that I’d thought was still overseas appeared out of nowhere.  She was in shock and very disorientated.  In my own shock-induced daftness I simply held her and said “I thought you were in Sri Lanka?”  After a while she kind of ‘woke up’ and swung into action herself, looking out and caring for those around us in shock.  She finally decided to walk to her house, just south of the CBD but returned minutes later saying the roads were blocked, a building had come down just south of Latimer Square – this was the CTV building.  When I eventually left the park she was looking after some very upset people and offering neck and shoulder rubs, helping any way she could.

Another friend appeared out of the crowd carrying her 6 month old baby – she was crying.  She had been in the CTV building and somehow managed to escape.  She had no idea who’d gotten out and who hadn’t.  Rumours started spreading through the park that the cathedral had collapsed.  I didn’t want to believe that.

The only person I hadn’t managed to reach on my list was Grilly.  After speaking to Lizzie the plan had changed.  There was obviously no way to get home to Lyttelton – buses instantly stopped and the roads would be jammed with people fleeing the city.  There was no way the tunnel would be open and unaffected.  I wished I’d biked to work that day. I found out later that many people got to Heathcote and simply walked over the Bridle Path like a re-enactment of the early settlers crossing the Port Hills in reverse.  A couple would lose their lives in a rockslide after dark.

My colleague Vaea had her car and was heading east – her daughter had got in touch and said the house was badly damaged.  Steve decided to walk it – it proved the quicker option.  I stayed with Vaea and we limped along in the eastbound traffic for two and a half hours to get to Aranui.  I got out and walked at Cowles Stadium where major liquefaction had swallowed a car and caused a river to be flowing over the road.  There were massive cracks and upshifts in the road out there.  As I got closer to Grilly’s house the flooding and liquefaction grew worse but all the houses were standing.  I was dreading what I might find.

It was nearly 4 hours after the quake when I walked up the drive.  I heard voices and a long-time neighbour was at the door.  I heard Grilly’s voice down the hall and I felt like hugging everyone.  She was OK, but she had just got home herself – having been carried the last stretch, over the flooding by two men from down the street.  She too had been in the central city I was finding out and lucky to be here.  Her story is amazing…

… and rocked, again

Somehow, we are all fine. All family accounted for and safe for now.

Which is more than I can say for the city.  It’s almost too big to write about just now and some others are doing a great job anyway… in case you haven’t heard:

The Day the Earth Roared.

Moata Tamaira’s Blog IdleEverything has shifted.

Shake n’ Bake

Everyone quite rattled today.  A big aftershock centred in the harbour knocked power out this morning.  Back on now but people really starting to want this all to end.  Pretty tough on the nerves.

I went for my first trip into the city today to drop a friend off.  Sad to see the damage to the beautiful older buildings and even just the ramshackle brick ones that no-one would claim are remarkable examples of architecture but nevertheless add to the character of the city.  It’s those ones that make me saddest – easy to mourn the churches and the heritage-listed ones but all those old factories and workshops, warehouses and back alleys – they’re the ones that really make a difference in your day to day city experience.

My brother coined the term ‘Shake n’ Bake Buildings’ for those horrible tilt-slab concrete developments that over the past 15 or so years have infested Christchurch.

Property developers love the technology.  Huge concrete slabs are prefabricated on or off-site and then ’tilted’ up into position and braced by large scaffolding like steel tubes while the building is somehow ‘stitched’ together, probably by chewing gum or something.  It’s super fast, cheap and manages to lend an air of strip-mall sameness to any development.  Just brilliant.

I always wondered about the wisdom of these buildings (let alone the asthetic value).  I mean, concrete has a finite lifespan (which I can’t be bothered to look up on t’interweb) but I’ll wager that it’s considerably longer than the veneer of ‘nice, clean newness’ takes to fade and taint as rain run-off stains the sides like tide marks on a sweaty middle-aged squash playing property developer’s armpits.  But I always wondered how they would stack up in an earthquake.

They kind of did the job of an earthquake themselves seeing that they served to wipe out large chunks of Christchurch’s dwindling heritage and other funky old buildings, replacing them with cheap, tacky little commercial developments that seem to spend half their time empty and for lease.  The other thing Christchurch seemed hell-bent on replacing it’s character buildings with were car yards.  But that’s a story for another day…

I always wondered if the people who thought these shake n’ bake buildings were a good idea had ever seen any Buster Keaton movies.  Or been to a movie studio and seen the great building facades which worked on the same principle but were never designed to be permanent.  They’re not real.

But they’re awfully convenient.

Well wouldn’t you know it.  The day has finally dawned where we got to test out how robust these houses of cards really are. 7.1 magnitude of Earth’s complete disregard for humanity’s baubles.

And at first glance it looks like: Shake n’ Bake 1, Lovely Old Character Buildings nil.

Yes, it’s a property developers wet dream cum true.  A lot less of those pesky old dames cluttering up the city with their character and their quiet dignity.  A lot more space for regurgitated tacky concrete.  (And why do they always have to be that washed out khaki colour?).  And a city desperate to get itself tarted up for an overpriced sporting event next year.  There’s already talk of central government contributing to the rebuild.  I can hear the rubbing of hands from here.

One friend quipped “Christchurch is going to look like even more of a Bunnings Warehouse than it already does.”

Maybe we’ll seize the opportunity to make something beautiful out of disaster, to build a city we can be proud of and live in.  To save the old buildings, to build stronger, beautiful new ones.  To realise that people love character more than they love convenience…

But just think about all the extra parking we can build in!

Now that’s convenient.

After After Shocks

Two more 5.4 jolts in the night. Strong enough to make us go from horizontal to vertical in 0.3 seconds.

If I could somehow make an alarm clock that did this, without the damage, I’d be rich.

It started raining last night (this is after gale force norwesters in Canterbury – a friend in Oxford said they’d had 190km winds which knocked out their power, something the earthquake didn’t even manage) they’re concerned about the Waimakiriri River flooding in North Canterbury. But closer to home, I’m thinking of all those houses now without chimneys – plenty came down in the first quake but many more have had to be torn down over the last couple of days. Holes in roof + rain – not a great combination.

Once again we’re so thankful our house is OK.

To everyone in Christchurch – kia kaha, arohanui ki a koutou.

Things that go bump in the night

4.35am on Saturday morning our day dawned thunderously. I don’t know whether I was ripped out of sleep by the growing rumbling, shuddering, rattling roar shaking the house, or by Ciaran hurling himself out of bed and rushing out the door. Before I was awake I was stumbling after him, not really knowing what was happening, feeling like I was running down the aisle of a dark train carriage travelling at high speed. This isn’t a good sensation.

Ciaran and I collided in the doorway of the Bobbin’s room, as I rushed past him to grab her out of her cot, before waking up fully and realising that he’d been there already and was actually holding the toddler, who had been still asleep when yanked unceremoniously out her cot and was clinging to him groggily.

We huddled in the doorframe, holding onto Seraphine, as the house heaved around us. The shaking became more violent and we were in total darkness as the power went down and the streetlights outside faded to black. The first big quake lasted about 40 seconds, which feels like a long time and was followed hard by further aftershocks. It was cold.

After the worst of the tremors stopped, we all went back into our bedroom and climbed into bed shivering. We figured it was the best place to stay warm until it got light outside.  We stayed there, cuddled together, the bed sometimes shaking under us, but never so fiercely as to drive us to the door again, until Ciaran and the Bobbin slept and the grey of dawn came round the curtain and filled the room. It was very good to see the day.

We got off scot free, our house appears totally unscathed. We didn’t even have any minor breakages. Our friends and family are all well and safe. The whole city has been lucky, no one has been killed, and only two people seriously injured. However the damage is significant and it’s all the beautiful old buildings that have sustained the worst effects. Christchurch isn’t exactly winning any heritage conservation awards as it is, and this is going to blandify the city into further banality. Still, as people have pointed out, we are only bewailing this because we don’t have worse things to lament. If the quake had happened in the working day, rather than in the quiet hours pre-dawn, it may have been a much bloodier tale.

Over 48 hours later the aftershocks are still rolling in. Nerves are pretty frayed, and it’s worse when it gets dark. The thing that freaks me is the almost imperceptible grinding judder that comes after the main jolt. I feel it in the pit of my stomach and under the soles of my feet, like a sailor who has been a long time at sea.