Living through the Earthquakes of Christchurch

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Being in an Earthquake is… interesting. Its akin to being on a large ocean-going ship hitting a very choppy section, except significantly more violent. I’ve tried to describe exactly what its like, but trying to describe an earthquake is like trying to describe the feel of silk… its possible to give examples of things sort of like it, but they really don’t do the experience justice.

On the 23rd of December, in 2011, I was working at a Liquor store in Hornby, a suburb of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South island. That day we were hit with three major quakes, and uncountable smaller aftershocks. The first quake hit right before 14:00, registering in at a legitimate 5.8, which was followed about half an hour later by a smaller 5.3, and lastly capped out by a 6.0 that hit around 15:00.

Now, the first thing that people should know about earthquakes is that the richter scale is Exponential. That means that a 5.8 is MUCH stronger than a 5.3, and a 6.0 is nearly 5 times more powerful than a 5.8. That, and the magnitudes only take into account the energy release at the point of origin; meaning that a closer quake will feel more powerful than a farther out quake, and the duration of the quake is not taken into account here.

The first quake knocked a few bottles off of the shelves, but it was honestly more of a “ohh. THAT’s what a real quake feels like!” situation. I was in the middle of hauling a stack of vodka’s out to the shop, and I honestly just thought that someone was opening the bay door behind me… until I saw the lights shaking and heard the bottles rattling. The first quake (the 5.8) shook us for nearly 20s, and it built up from a light rumble to an earth-shaking roar; I seriously felt like I was a doll inside a tiny house, being thrown around by a giant. But before I could really process what was happening… it was over. And we went about cleaning up the store, calming down customers, and assessing the damage.

The second quake (the 5.3) was only a few seconds long, and was much less violent; I honestly barely even registered it, thanks to the adrenaline still running through my system from the first quake. The real effect of Earthquakes revealed itself to me during this smaller shake though – the psychological trauma that earthquakes cause. As soon as I felt the ground starting to shake, I remembered the effects of the first quake, and started imagining how much worse it could get. Thankfully, years of rock climbing have given me a rather implacable calm when it comes to emergency situations, since freaking out on the rock can literally kill you, so I was able to ride the second quake out without much trouble… but I seriously question what sort of affect repeated earthquakes will have on my psyche.

The third quake was the biggest, and it was by far the most violent and hair-raising. It was a 6.0, but the major difference from the other two was that it originated much closer, a mere 5km (~2.2miles) from where we were. Thus, instead of starting low and building, it hit with the shock of a car-crash, and tapered off from there. That’s honestly the best way I could describe it… imagine being in a car thats smashed off the road by an 18-wheeler… but you’re completely safe from any impact. You just feel the world moving and being thrown around, but nothing is hitting you (unless you’re unfortunate enough to be in the way of projectiles… thankfully I was not). The effect of this quake was much worse than the previous two, both physically and mentally. In the liquor shop we lost entire stacks of beer, and dozens of bottles of spirits. But during the quake, our minds reached back to the previous quakes, where they had gotten stronger as they went on. Note: THEY GOT STRONGER. Here, we started with a hit like a mack-truck… now imagine that you expect that to get worse… it would have been equivalent to the Quake earlier in the year that had killed hundreds of people and leveled the center of Christchurch.

That, in itself, is what scares me about earthquakes, and what causes people so much trouble – the uncertainty of when it will hit, and how bad it will be. You never even know how long it will last, and its impossible to tell when a mere aftershock will turn into a full-blown quake, or if “the big one” will hit with no notice what-so-ever.

Its a scary thought, and scarier to live through the daily aftershocks (Ed note: Since these quakes, there have been dozens of noticeable aftershocks, 3.0 and above, every day.) But New Zealand is an amazing country, Christchurch an amazing city, and the countryside very much worth the danger. In my opinion its just another natural disaster… though one that leave a bit more of a psychological scar than blizzards or hurricanes, since its nearly unpredictable.

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