September 15, 2010

Shaken, stirred


When I call Mum at 8.05am on the Wednesday morning, I can hear the earthquake in her voice. I've just read on Stuff that Christchurch has been hit with yet another aftershock, this one 5.1 magnitude. It's left a crack in Lyttleton Tunnel, not to mention Mum's nerves.
"I'm not sure if it's me shaking or the ground shaking," she says.
I’m worried about my mother. She lives alone, has no transport, and is getting a bit frail. She tells me the neighbours have been checking in with her regularly, but I want to make sure myself she’s ok.
I'm at the airport a couple of hours later, watching weary-looking Cantabrians arrive in Wellington. Two primary school aged girls are greeted by their nana. She hugs them like they've escaped from a war zone. "It was the scariest thing ever!" says one, while the other one bursts into tears.
Our flight to Christchurch is barely a third full. But the scene’s quite different at Christchurch airport. The departure lounge is packed, with people queueing up the stairs. Babies are crying, everyone is talking. It feels like an evacuation. The last plane from Saigon.
“Welcome to shakey Christchurch,” says the woman sorting out my rental car. She’s eager to tell her story, as everyone here is. There are stories about shops closed, houses condemned, roads torn up, volcanoes of silt. It’s like 9/11 or the moon landing – in years to come Cantabrians will ask each other, ‘what happened to you when the earthquake struck?’
Out on the road to Mum’s place Christchurch is demure as ever. Blossoms are starting to peek out on Dean’s Ave, there are daffodils everywhere. But suddenly there’s a block of semi-demolished shops, or a caved-in roof. The gentile houses of Avonside Drive have bright orange portaloos parked outside them; sewage services are still in tatters.
Mum’s house has been left pretty much untouched by the big one, on the Saturday before; just some crystal glasses broken and an old metronome that’s slid off a table and smashed. But the aftershocks have her worried. She has every drawer locked down, the remaining crystal is laid out on the floor. She hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since the earthquake.
The safest part of the house, she says, is the hallway. “It’s like a cocoon”. So she’s put a chair in there with supplies on it should another big one hit. Water is boiling on the stove to make it safe to drink. Whenever there’s an aftershock, and there are quite a few, she bolts into the hallway.
Early in the evening, Bevan calls round. He’s Mum’s neighbour from across the road and he’s been keeping tabs on Mum and a few other neighbours in the area who live alone. “You alright?” he asks. They talk about the aftershocks; they’re no more of a jolt than we get in Wellington from time to time, only a few seconds long, but they get the heart pounding.
This scene must be played out all over Christchurch – neighbours checking in on each other, telling each other their experiences. It’s all there is on the radio, it’s all anyone talks about down at the supermarket. Everyone’s so grateful they’re ok, even if, as one man told me, his restaurant lost $4000 worth of alcohol and may be condemned. There’s a sense of community that perhaps only a crisis can bring to the surface, a shared experience on a major scale.
Bevan calls around again the next morning. There were three afershocks in the night. Same patter, asking if Mum’s ok, and if she needs anything, to sing out. She tells him she’ll be fine. Then she goes back inside to hear updates on the radio.
Picture credit: Stuff

1 comment:

Beth Up North said...

Glad your Mum is safe, along with most South Islanders. Your building codes must be well designed, glad it wasn't another Haiti, and I hope your Mum wont have too much PTSD.