Saturday, February 23, 2013


February 22 2011, at 12:51pm, Christchurch was rocked by a very shallow and close earthquake. It was classed as an aftershock from the 4 September 2010 Mw 7.1 earthquake which rocked the Canterbury region, South Island, New Zealand. The damage from the February quake was considerable because the earthquake originated only six kilometres from Christchurch’s population centre and parts of Christchurch’s urban area were as close as one kilometre from the fault rupture. Its relatively shallow depth (only 5 kilometres beneath Earth’s surface) produced extraordinarily strong shaking at the surface; 2.2g. This earthquake was caused by the rupture of a 15-kilometre-long fault along the southern edge of the city, from Cashmere to the Avon-Heathcote estuary. The epicentre was located in Lyttelton, had a ML of 6.3 and a Maximum Intensity of MM9. The death toll numbered 185.

I was at the University of Canterbury when the earthquake struck, about to tutor a lab on dune formation for students doing 2nd year sedimentology. I had just bought a sandwich as well as a bottle of water and a V. I was right in between the Engineering and Geological Sciences buildings, on the pavement. I decided my best option was not to run to a doorway but ‘surf’ the pavement. After the quake I thought ‘well that was quite big’ then decided I’d better get to lab. Students began streaming out of the Geology building – I saw some crying. Friends of mine told me the building was being evacuated. I went to the Von Haast carpark with all the other engineering, geology and biology staff and students. We stood in the carpark while the aftershocks went on – shifting the parked cars together like dominoes. Everyone tried to get hold of family and friends to check on their safety and whereabouts. About 20 minutes after the 6.3, a friend got hold of his girlfriend in town: she had seen the cathedral spire fall and was certain it had fallen on people.

It was no longer another large aftershock. Ten minutes later we were told to evacuate the campus. The only people who could give me outside information on what was happening in town were a friend in Wellington (on the old network so somehow her texts were able to get through) and a friend in Perth, Australia. They were watching live footage on the TV and on the net. I found out the CTV building had suffered a lot of damage and was on fire, with people trapped inside. My brother-in-law worked in a building around the corner; nobody could get hold of him. It was five hours later that my family discovered he was ok.

My friends and I stood and sat outside the University on the pavement for at least two hours, all in shock and very upset. The traffic was crawling: everyone had drawn and worried faces and most were on their phones desperately trying to get hold of their loved ones. A motorcyclist nearby got hit by a car. All the while we heard via our phones about the devastation in town, about building façades falling onto buses and crushing those inside and about buildings ‘pancaking’.

I drove to my parents’ house with another friend to survey the damage. What would normally have been a 7 minute journey took an hour and a half. All of the radio stations were broadcasting live news of the earthquake. Liquefaction was spewing into the road, along with water from burst pipes. We arrived at my parents’ house and it was like a bomb had gone off; stuff had been thrown everywhere in every room. Many things were destroyed. There was no power. We took photos of everything then found the liquor cabinet. I poured us each a mug of Baileys and we went walking around the neighbourhood.

The street had liquefaction and sand boils everywhere; some not breaking the surface but forcing the pavement into strange mounds and cracks. I hadn’t heard from my best friend who lived nearby, so we walked to her house. Her chimney had fallen onto the power lines, taking out power in the block. Cars in her street were stuck were stuck in the liquefaction. It was her birthday and her cake lay at the bottom of the pantry, covered in broken pickle jars. She poured us some more Baileys and we walked back to my parents' house.

We began to clean by candlelight. My parents had decided to cut short their holiday in Nelson and drive straight back to Christchurch; half an hour after they arrived the power came on and we watched the images on the TV in horror. While trying to sleep at night, I couldn’t help thinking of all the people trapped in buildings while the aftershocks continued, and the rain. When I got to my flat the next day I discovered the water cylinder had burst, parts of the ceiling caved and cracks had appeared everywhere, meaning I would have to move. Others in Christchurch and the surrounding areas went without power and running water for weeks.

The army took control of the city, and police and Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams came from all over NZ. Australia immediately donated $5 million and sent teams of USAR and police officers to help out. Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the UK and the Los Angeles County Fire Department sent their own USAR teams. It was NZ's first national emergency. Radio stations broadcast emercency information non-stop for a week.

I joined the Student Volunteer Army SILS and helped to dig out the liquefaction in hard-hit areas of Christchurch. The Student Volunteer Army was set up via Facebook after the September 2010 quake, to organise people to clean up the silt from the liquefaction around the city and surrounds. Farmers in the region rejoined the Farmy Army, to use their equipment to move large amounts of the silt. A baking Army was set up to feed all these volunteers and the Rangiora Express was set up to carry food via helicopter. The real Army was involved in establishing a curfew and cordoning off the central city. Army tanks rolled through the central city streets. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Mission and many others gave aid where needed.

Being part of the Student Volunteer Army was a great way to help the community, as well as do something with the adrenaline that was souring through everyone's bodies. One of the highlights of the days in the SVA was the lunch. Not because the lunch was filled with yummy treats, but because of the notes found written either on the lunch bags or contained within the bags. Eg: 'You are all doing a fantastic job. Love Dunedin' (on the brown paper bags the lunches were in); 'We work at Dunedin Hospital Food Services. On Friday morning we collected donations from staff so we could purchase snacks for the students who are doing volunteer work in Christchurch. We appreciate the help you are giving the people in such tragic circumstances & as we can’t be there helping we thought we could show our appreciation this way. Well done keep up the good work.' (Typed note in box of lunch food) . 'Thank you for all you are doing for Christchurch from Payton age 8 from Dunedin' (written in multicoloured pen and found within a lunch bag). I still have the photos of those thank you notes.

Being in a massive natural disaster leaves emotions very raw. It was horrific watching the death toll rise. I, and many others, were much more sensitive to the community and the world around us. I remember watching in absolute horror as Gaddafi ordered his armed forces to open fire on protests by his people in Benghazi, Libya, murdering hundreds. On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. It was a magnitude 9.03 (Mw) undersea megathrust earthquake and caused nearly 16,000 deaths. I will never forget the images of walls of black and roiling water sweeping burning houses along in their path. I ended up working with some Japanese seismologists in March 2012 and comparing earthquake notes with a seismologist from Sendai. We both did the same thing when an aftershock hit: wake, wonder if you need to get out of bed to get under a door frame, wait for it to end, then go to sleep once the adrenaline dies down. The difference with him and others in Sendai was they also needed to turn on the radio, to listen for a tsunami warning, every time.

June 13, 2011 saw another large aftershock of Mw 6.3 at a depth of 6 km shake the region, causing more widespread liquefaction. That time I was house-sitting in Avondale, an eastern suburb. I got to see liquefaction sprouting through the pavement and the grass, and more flooding in the streets. December 23, 2011 a magnitude 5.8 earthquake at 1:58 pm struck east of Christchurch just off the coast of New Brighton (I was driving; it felt like I'd just got a flat tyre). As with other earthquakes of this shaking intensity, liquefaction occurred in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch. This new sequence of earthquakes was further east again from the June earthquake, and triggered its own aftershocks, the strongest of which was a Mw 6.0.

As of September 2012, the Canterbury region has had over 12,000 magnitude 1.1 or higher quakes since the magnitude-7.1 quake of September 4, 2010. There are certain deaths from the February quake that struck harder than others: the baby whose mother watched helplessly while a TV set fell on him; the guy stopping to get a pie from the dairy and being crushed in his car by a falling brick façade while eating his pie; those doing everyday things like riding the bus or walking past a shop. The full list of those who died can be found here: 115 people died in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, 18 people died in the Pyne Gould Corporation (PGC) building, 8 people died on buses in the central city, 28 people died in other areas of the central city and 12 people died in suburban locations.

The image is of dust clouds over Christchurch just after the February 22 quake, taken by Gilly Needham from her home in the Cashmere Hills. Many of the buildings in the image no longer exist.

Kia kaha Christchurch, stay strong.

If you live in Australia, you might want to check out the documentary When A City Falls about the Christchurch earthquakes and their after affects, on tonight on SBS One at 8:30pm (each time zone).

My earlier post on the 4 September quake:

To view all the earthquakes in the Canterbury earthquake sequence, check out this map:
For more on liquefaction and paleoliquefaction, see this post:
For more info on the Canterbury earthquake sequence, visit this page:

Facebook pages:
CHCH EQ Photos
You know you're from Christchurch when.
Rebuild Christchurch
Student Volunteer Army:

1 comment:

Zeynep Kara said...

It was very meaningful to learn these bad incidents from someone who witnessed it.
When this earthquake occured , as a lover of NZ, i was presenting a slide show about nature of New Zealand to my english preparation class in my fist year of the university.
Get well soon guys..