Five Years after the 22 February 2011 Quake

We really didn’t need the earth-shaking reminder on Valentine’s Day that the fifth anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 earthquake was coming up.

Somehow, it (literally) shook my confidence that everything was settling down again, and the ground below me could be trusted like it had been before the 4 September 2010 quake and its “rich aftershock sequence”.

Last year, on the anniversary, I turned to Jacqui and said, “I’m over it.  It seems like so long ago.  It’s time to move on.”

I don’t feel that this year.  Maybe the Valentine’s Day quake coming so close to the anniversary has caused me more damage than I know.

I find it difficult again to accept my life now has a fracture line in it as well: pre-22 February 2011 and post-22 February 2011.  It even has its own moment in time: 12:51 PM.  So much after 12:51 PM on 22 February 2011 seems uneasy to face at times.

I never knew the word “liquefaction”, which I learned in Geology at university, would be something I would ever experience.  And I would have never guessed in a million years that I could guess the magnitude of a quake, know what the Modified Mercalli scale is, bond with people over asking them, “Where were you on 22 February?”, or drop the words “peak ground acceleration” in a casual conversation.  A new group of terms and conversations and, dare I say it, bonding have grown out of this life after 12:51 PM on 22 February 2011.

The optimist in me sees the bright side about where we are today, five years on: we’re building a safer city now; our house was mostly okay; our injuries are mostly healed; we didn’t lose a family member or a close friend in the quakes; this has been an opportunity to test our strengths, to grow as a person, to find who we are in those moments of darkness, and to grow as a community.  These feelings cause me internal conflict because, well, what we went through as a city, as a community, was extremely harrowing.

I’ve tried to convey in words the hollowness I have sometimes felt living in Christchurch after the 22 February 2011 quake (and subsequent earthquakes).   Each anniversary seems to make me feel something different (see “Moving Forward with My Life after the Quakes“, my post from 2013). Talking with my counselor about my (returned and very strong) anxiety and stress after the Valentine’s Day quake last weekend, I pin-pointed that, nearly every day, we drive past blocks after block of empty sections where a vibrant city once stood.  The Christ Church Cathedral squats in pedestrian-less Cathedral Square, a gaping wound where its rose window once was, with flat, vacant lots surrounding it: empty lots where regal buildings once stood and a Cathedral Square where throngs of people went along their business every day and every night.  There is that distant gaze you see in people sometimes, that tiredness, that resignation.  Sometimes, a hint of fear or dread when a rumbling truck rolls past quickly flashes over their faces.  I wonder, do my friends back home see that in me?  My family?  How can they understand how this feels?  Can they ever understand how this feels?

My life since 22 February 2011 has been a roller coaster of shock, fighting, depression, shock, fighting, strong depression, treatment, feeling better, shock, injury, recovery, death, grieving loss, optimism, strong depression, treatment, a lot more death, a lot more fighting, quite a bit of writing, another sharp deep depression, then feeling nothing much at all.  Lately, it has been recovery, discovering who I am again, feeling better about myself, optimism and hope… and then another earthquake came along to set it all back to shock, anxiety and depression again.

Yet, I see some of the buildings rising here and there, or like the many buildings standing or being erected on the non-Government-controlled side of the Avon River, and it does give me a cautious sense of hope.  Sure, they are modern and covered in glass — nothing similar to  the range of styles of sometimes-tired buildings that stood there before,and not close to the Gothic English heritage Christchurch is renowned for — but they also reflect the bright blue sky back on a city being reborn.  There are people from all corners of the country and the world who have come in to help us: first, the emergency responders, then the builders and surveyors and architects, and their partners and husbands and wives and families.  They infuse a hopeful optimism and seem to be some of the glue pulling this city back together.

Some of these people who did not experience the 22 February 2011 quake, or, indeed, any of the large 2010 and 2011 quakes and the continual aftershocks, opened up to me about their experiences of the Valentine’s Day quake 2016.  Part of me feels honoured they feel they can do this, and I listen and I understand how they feel.  It was scary and sudden and horrifying.  I, like pretty much everyone else, was in shock because, well, those big quakes were all done and dusted, right?  Yet here we were, ducking, covering, and holding as things came crashing down around us.  Deja vu.

But another part of me thinks that even they will never know the horror of 22 February 2011: how an earthquake of a good magnitude became a nightmare because of where its epicentre was, how it affected the land around it, how the land underneath the city reacted, how we ended up proving a scientific theory that day.  The heaving beneath us that made us lose our footing and sent objects moving and flying and swinging as weaker buildings collapsed around the city.  The sheer violence of the ground moving not only side-to-side but also up-and-down for a half-a-minute that seemed an eternity.  The sirens, the screams, the rumbling, the helicopters, the crying: the eerie chorus rising from the sudden silence after the quake.  The smell of hot rocks rising from the ground with the gray clouds of dust, into the gray sullen sky.  They hopefully will never know these things.

Saturday night, I had a nightmare.  It’s a typical post-22 February 2011 nightmare where I’m at home or at work or somewhere, and a large earthquake strikes.  Last night, it was back in Unit 7, back around 22 February 2011, but instead of Jacqui being with me, it was Lyssa (her replacement at work).   I went through the same actions.  The sudden jolt.  I pushed her down to the floor so she could be safer there.  The shaking built to a frenzied pace. My hands desperately clutched at the walls between the offices, my fingernails sinking into the surface, as I tried to make my way to the floor.  Then, the earth heaved below me and tossed me into the part of the door frame on the opposite side of the double-doors.  My head missed the framing itself by a last-second course correction.  My shoulders both tore, the wind knocked out of me in the collision.  Then the sliding down to the floor, the desperate clutch for the wall to steady myself, the crashing of a bookcase collapsing into the office beside me, the black filing cabinet doors yawning and snapping shut immediately next to me.  The thoughts of: Close your eyes.  This is it.  It will all be over soon, sprinting through my mind quickly.  Eyes closed, a serenity coming over me, the feeling of angel wings or large arms or something ensconcing me.  Then the utter disbelief I was alive; my eyes opened because the ground had suddenly stopped shaking.

Unlike earlier earthquake dreams, though, I did not wake up with my heart pounding in my chest and a scream gathering in the back of my throat.  This time, I merely woke up, and my mind started scurrying through anything it could to distract me from the dream.

These dreams have been very common for me in the last 5 1/2 years of my life.  I’m sure they’ve been common for many of us who lived through these quakes.

They are tiring, they are draining, and they are as psychologically destructive as the quakes were physically destructive themselves.

I think some of us (if not many of us) who lived through the 22 February 2011 quake had a sense of dread come over us with the Valentine’s Day quake.  I know in some of the conversations I have had since, friends and colleagues and family have echoed back what I felt:  “I can’t face this all again.”  The constant aftershocks.  The worrying of, Is there a bigger one coming?  The wondering, If a large quake was to strike now, where can I find safety? and Is this building safe for me to go into?  The rumbling of a passing truck or a landing airplane causing the pit of our stomachs to drop and the triggering of flight-or-fight responses nearly every other minute.  The lack of sleep in keeping one eye open or your mind slightly awake and aware in case another large aftershock invades in the night.

Luckily, from the aftershock sequence we have had so far at the time I am typing this, it seems not as rich or densely packed with aftershocks to the aftershock as the previous 2010 / 2011 quake sequences have been.  (Please, God, my prayer goes out to Him each evening, like it had years ago when the aftershock sequence was still in its prime.  Please, God, no more large aftershocks.  No more earthquakes.  We’ve had enough; let us be in peace.)

Saturday night, Noel and I started watching some specials about Chicago: how the city came to be, suburbs, famous landmarks, famous people, et cetera.  One thing struck me very clearly, as has happened on and off over the last 5 years or so; Chicago, my hometown, is a city reborn from disaster too.

Fire destroyed Chicago in 1871.  It was a devastating event to happen to what was then pretty much a minor town in the Midwest.  Yet, the city took the opportunity to rebuild, and out of the ashes arose the skyscraper.  Not one, but many: buildings stretching to touch the sky, never seen before in modern history but to be repeated many, many times around the world thereafter.

They raised buildings up by feet, sometimes several feet, to build a matching road over the swampy, waterlogged land below so when heavy rains came, people didn’t need boats to get through the streets.  They built sprawling tunnels under the Loop, they built the El to carry trains through the city (above the streets), they hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 to showcase so many wonderful things that are common-place now.

Chicago became “The Queen City”, a jewel in the heart of America, taking the opportunities presented from the horrors of a disaster and running with them.  Chicago rose to the challenge and thumbed its nose at what could have easily been the fire that wiped the city off the map forever.

It gave me hope.  I came from a vibrant, beautiful, living city already healed from a disaster a hundred years before I was born.  And I live in a city healing from a disaster 20 years after I moved here.  What an opportunity we have, and how those grandiose buildings rising from the dust will make Christchurch great again.

We will get through this.  (I keep telling myself this.)  Have faith we will.  Our confidence has just been knocked back by Mother Nature reminding us (in a very timely manner) of her power and what we’ve been through a few days out from a solemn anniversary.  But the future is bright indeed.