Thx 4 the Memories
Tim J. Veling Glenn Busch Bridgit Anderson
Of course I’m 90 this year, so these earthquakes are not something I wanted to happen. I’d planned on being where I am now for the duration. Yes, quite content to stay and see it out here. Let them carry me out that front door. Well, life’s still got a few surprises it seems. One thing’s for sure, it’s not going to be this front door.
I had been teaching in Canada for a time and when the wife and I came back we bought the first of our places here in Avonside Drive. In Canada they had started putting up houses in the back of big sections and I thought we could do the same here. Well I had a heck of a job getting a permit from the Council but we finally did. We built it. And a week after the initial earthquake I went around to that particular house and there’s a lady coming out. I said to her who I was; told her we used to live here. I said, ‘We actually built the flat on the back.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘He went the first morning. The tenant, he’s never been back.’
I said, ‘Is that right?’
She said, ‘Everything’s buggered, it’s all tumbling down.’
‘It was a lovely flat,’ I said.
She just sort of looked at me, and she left the front door open.
She said, ‘It’s fallen off the foundations. You see that car out there, that’s my son. He’s taking me to Nelson. I’m going up there to live. You do what you like, I’m not coming back.’
‘Oh heavens,’ I said, ‘will I shut the door?’ But I don’t think she cared. She was off. I went in and had a look around, my wife died 12 years ago now, so it took me back to things. I used to live here I thought – a long time ago.
The night before I had cleaned the house. The kids were away and I totally cleaned everything up so when the kids came back, they’d come back to a nice clean house. It was never cleaned again. Not like it was that night.
Cosmetically the house didn’t look too damaged but walk into it and you felt sick because of the way it leaned–the way it had sunk. And the water, it must have been a couple of hours before that slowed up. I can’t remember the exact time, but it did eventually slow down, you could hear it. This gushing noise and you could see these things come out–like Rotorua–geysers. Crazy, but you started to wonder were we going to have a tsunami and should we be getting to higher ground? My ex-husband helped me out; came over to get me and took me back to his place. Before we actually left I insisted on hanging out the washing. What a bizarre thing to do–it was in the washing machine and I wasn’t going to have it left in there smelling. So I hung the washing out–standing in water.
It took me quite a while to come around to it. Eventually I thought, okay, the house is probably going to be a write-off, it may take a couple of years but you’ll get a new house down the track. In the meantime we can stay here, we can live here. Three or four of the neighbours had moved out straight away but we stayed. I imagined we’d be all right–but no, it was awful. Every time something went by the whole place shuddered and rattled. It wasn’t pleasant but I had in my mind that eventually we’d be okay and that’s what I tried to tell the kids. ‘Everything will be alright, we’ll be okay.’ I even got a video put down the drains and they were okay. There were a couple of wee cracks but we started to use the toilet again just before February and then on the morning of the 22nd the car went back in the garage. Yeah, they came out that morning and fixed the garage door. I was so rapt, I could push the door open and shut and I thought, ‘Yay,’ small miracles and then two hours later–well, you know the story, it was all stuffed again.
Large physical parts of this city are destroyed and so are a lot of other things with it. All sorts of people have lost both their jobs and their homes and that means things like the kids losing their friends at school too. Our own home is badly damaged and they have placed us in what they call the orange zone. Basically it means no one can tell you what will happen with it. Whether we’ll be able to stay or have to leave, nobody has any idea at this point. Communication has been shocking. The infrastructure all around us was down for a long while and walking outside was like walking into a war zone. I remember when we had no toilet, no power, no phone, no water–we hadn’t had a shower in a week. After a few days our food began to run out and we had to drive across town to Northlands, to the mall there. It was like we’d stepped into a different world. It really affected you. Here were people getting haircuts and manicures and we hadn’t showered in a week. It was crazy. In one way everybody is affected, in another way, it’s a city divided.
If we were to lose everything–our lovely little four-bedroom home up a quiet driveway where my children have grown and played–that would be so hard. With what we would get for the place… I’d never be able to have the same again for my kids. To the Government it’s just part of a larger decision they have to make. To the insurance companies it’s how much can they get away with. To be honest, there are times when I sit here and feel completely abandoned. I’m just one little human being with one broken house and one horribly affected family. All the responsibility is on me to take care of it, to make sure the insurance company and EQC are giving us what we deserve, that’s tough. No one finds it easy. If I want help, a lawyer or whatever, I will have to pay for it. That has to come out of my pocket. And that’s all on top of making sure that my children are looked after properly, trying to keep enough money trickling in, just to make sure we have groceries every week.
I would love to see some progress for their sake. There are great arguments going on about the big things, the Cathedral and so on. Are they going to rebuild it or whatever, but what about the thousands of people like us. Three little kids and me. Our lives? Our homes? When will they tell us about rebuilding that.
Yes, I’m independent. A pretty able sort of person I suppose. Sensible anyway. I’m a kindergarten teacher, so it follows I really like working with children. I think I’m kind. I like to help people out if I can. I have my moments I suppose like everyone else, but yes, normal really. Just normal… except of course, nothing is normal anymore, is it. Not round here.
Life stopped being normal that night in September. The way you thought about life before that night, and the way you think about it now are two different things. The plans you have now are poles apart from what they might have been just 15 months ago. All of us know things now we’d rather not know. We’ve seen things we’d rather not see. Personally I shall never forget the face of one child, a little boy who just stood there and screamed. His face is embedded in my memory forever. He just turned around and screamed and screamed, and I thought yeah, okay, all these plans we have for such emergencies, all the things we’re supposed to do–yeah, doesn’t work. You just react on instinct. It was like grab them, grab them if you can and hold them. Other than that, you wait for it to stop and just get out of there. Just get outside because inside is not good. Everything is moving, all the cupboards have flown open. The cabinets have moved. Everything is just everywhere. And what do you think? You think oh my god this is worse. This has got to be worse than before. And all the things that people said after September flood back into your mind. Imagine if this had happened during the day. Imagine if this had happened while everyone was at work. Imagine if… and then you realise that it has happened, it is the middle of the day and all your worst fears have happened.
There was a huge amount of liquefaction but we were really lucky because, if people can think back to that September day, it was a beautiful day. It turned into a beautiful day, and we had friends come from all over who brought shovels and wheelbarrows and got stuck into it. After four or five days we had most of it gone. We must have barrowed out 120 metres of liquefaction–biggest pile in the street. Strangely, with all this horrendous damage around you, it gave you a sense of regaining some control over your life. Actually, we were about to put some signs on it for a BMX track when the Council came and took it away.
After that, after September, there were discussions about zonings, A, B and C. They were due to be releasing them at the end of February sometime but of course all that became redundant on the 22nd when the terror started. One of those days when nobody will ever forget where they were. I was busy in my workshop down in Sydenham when it went off. Just unbelievable–the horrendous noise. I have mezzanine floors that surround my workshop and stuff just rained down out of the roof. I had machinery jumping across the floor and one door to get out. I did this circuit around my machines, ducking and dodging and headed out into the alleyway. As I went to go through the door the building moved sideways and I ran into the end of the handrail of the stairs. Fortunately I don’t leave sharp edges on things but I still managed to bury it so far into my shoulder that it totally dropped me. By the time I got myself up and staggered out it was just madness in the car park. There were cars sliding backwards and forwards knocking into each other and power poles wiggling and the noise was just like… well, it was crazy.
Information got out pretty quickly. I heard that the CTV Building had collapsed and there were some serious problems, this from one of the panel beaters next door who had just driven in. Hell, you knew the city had been hit hard because all around was just buggered. I started walking then and after a little while I could see the fire in the CTV Building. Smoke all over, rising above the damage that seemed to be everywhere and so now I’m starting to think, what are we going to find at home–how bad is it going to be. Yeah, time to find the family. Time to round them up.
When dawn arrived it was one of those beautiful spring mornings. Out on the street everybody was walking up and down with stunned expressions on their faces. They stared intently at the sand volcanoes and marvelled at the way so many chimneys had fallen down; mine not amongst them thank God. My abiding memory however–the picture that sticks in my mind of that morning–is of somebody wheeling out a barbecue into the middle of the road and coffee being made while people in their dressing gowns hugged one another.
To be honest I still find it very difficult. Deeply, deeply unnerving, to realise that at any minute, without a second’s notice, the earth could do all this and worse. And then there’s the other voice that says harden up. Goodness me, there have been what, 10,000 or more shocks so far and only three have done any real damage. Hmmm, but with every one of them my heart is in my mouth from the first rattle. I’m thinking how would I get out of here, what could fall on me. Six weeks after the big one I was still sleeping in my clothes on the sofa with the telly on full blast because this room feels safe, there’s no chimney over it, and also because I couldn’t go to sleep without a lot of noise and light around me. I’ve become so vigilant, so nervy, that when a truck goes past, even if I’m in another city, I’m still jumping out of my skin, looking all around.
Subconsciously there’s quite a ferment going on, sorting out the things you can control from the things you can’t. And in some ways that’s been good, I’ve become less particular about things that once would have bugged me. But the other side of that is a certain fearful fatalism–that stuff can come out of the blue, just blow you out of the water–and there’s nothing to be done about it, you can’t mitigate it in any way. Add to that the churning wheels of bureaucracy. The Government, CERA, the Council, the insurance companies, and there again is the feeling that there is little or nothing you can do to affect anything at all. That your only choice is to sit and await their pleasure.
I’m not usually a particularly patient person but I’ve had to sit and wait patiently for the last 18 months. Perhaps along the way I’ve got a bit more resigned and a bit more tolerant because as everybody says, there are other people in a far worse position and as long as you’ve got a roof over your head and food on your table you’re doing better than many. That’s pared me down a bit, made me think about what’s important here. The realisation that stuff doesn’t much matter anymore. That there’s food on the table, that we’re physically safe, and have a roof over our heads; that is significant. Knowing where my handbag, my keys, my wallet, a torch and my shoes are before I go to sleep–that the car’s got a full tank of gas–those things are the new important.
Probably everybody’s affected psychologically–that feeling of fatalistic despair–will this ever be over. We feel less hopeful than we did a year ago. Official people have been zero help to me. Those who have actually cheered me the most are all those kind people from the churches and other organizations. So called ordinary people who come round saying ‘Is there anything you need? Are you okay? Here’s a bit of baking I’ve brought you.’ Many of these people have been bravely helping even while they too are suffering. They have been staunch, they have led by example, they have not cut and run. Sometimes that can make it more difficult to make decisions.
I don’t know if it’s brave to start again somewhere else or cowardly. I do know there are people that don’t have a choice at all. That makes you think. Makes you want to harden up–don’t be a sook. I feel very grateful that I do have some choices, at least theoretically, because there are an awful lot of people who don’t. What I might actually do with my supposed choices I don’t know yet, the jury is still out on that.
The biggest disappointment–that would be having to get out of this place and go somewhere else. All these places here, both sides of the river, out the back there, all those houses behind us, yeah, all going to go. Gotta come down. Lot of memories. This place was a hub in the old days. The wife’s people down in Dunedin, other parts of the family from Brisbane, from Australia, we were sort of a centre. It was a meeting place, people coming and going. Well, these days it’s not so busy but it’s still my home. I’ve still got a roof over my head so I’m not going anywhere just yet. Not for a while. This has been home for 38 years and that’s a long time to be told they’re gunna bulldoze you out and you’ve just got to bugger off.
I’m not saying that I wanted things to change but it has and you have to be a man about it, just get on with it. Not to say there isn’t still a lot of memories here, a certain amount of regret, but in the end I don’t have a lot of choice. All I can do is start again and make a new life. Take it in your stride, that’s the story. I know it’ll never be the same, not after what I’ve got here–the garden I’ve established here. When my wife had no legs I couldn’t get away from home so much and I spent a lot of time out there. All the vegetables I grew and gave away to the friends and neighbours, I’m going to miss all that. I’m going to miss them. We were all pretty close but most of them have gone now. There’s still friends I want to see but if you think about it, at my age, a lot of your friends have already disappeared haven’t they.
The fact is I’m 86 now so I haven’t got that long to live myself. I wish we hadn’t had these earthquakes but it looks like we’ll have them now for some years to come. Some say they’ll be around for donkeys’ years, so I may never see the end of them. So what, I’ve just got to forget about them–oh yeah, there goes another shake sort of thing. You can’t spend your life worrying about them. Take my house now, I’ve got a few cracks and scratches here and there and sometimes the doors will get jammed. Today it’s jammed but then tomorrow it will open. You never know from one day to the next what it’ll be like. Well, when you think about it, life’s always been a bit like that eh.
A few months later came the big one. Unexpected. I guess they always are. It was the middle of the day. My office looked out onto an old church. There were people in there doing repair work after the September Quake. My wife, Jeanine, worked just up the road and had been in a few minutes before to see me. She had just said goodbye and was going back to her office. Then it hit and everyone dived under their desks. When I looked up again there was a big cloud of dust and the whole church was gone. Obviously the first thing I thought of was Jeanine. Is she in one of those dust clouds? Is she all right? I’m just hoping that she is all right. Those are my first thoughts as we rushed out of the building. People did actually die in that church, a couple of my colleagues went into the rubble to try and help out. That was… that was quite a shock. Nothing about that moment was a good feeling. I rushed out onto the street trying to find her. I was pretty scared and not just for her but also for our little one in day care. You could see the devastation in town and you had no idea what was happening elsewhere. Then I saw Jeanine, she was standing there with some of her colleagues. It was a great relief. It was so good. I felt… I felt lucky.
As it happened I was probably, by chance, in the safest spot I could be. For my Bas it was slightly different. He had just seen me, I had just come from his office, but now he didn’t know where I was. The little church that was on the corner nearby–when I turned to look–it was just one big pile of dust. Where we were seemed quite safe–well safe-ish–though we did watch the back walls of the apartments, just off Latimer Square there, fall down. Suddenly we found ourselves looking into people’s homes, like a dolls house–that was really weird. Then we started hearing noises from the church. There had been people in there doing some major repair work and now there was shouting and lots of people running around trying to pull them out of the rubble as all around us the liquefaction began coming up. People were trying to ring home and of course they couldn’t. And Bas didn’t know if I was actually in front of the church or not, he was worried that I might have been hit by some rubble, that something might have happened to me. Then we spotted each other… we were quite fortunate being that close together, to know, okay we are safe. Then it was a matter of getting to our daughter, Ayla, who was on the other side of town.
Again there was no phone contact and so it was an anxious time. We are trying to get there in the car but we have no knowledge of what has happened to her and of course, they know nothing of what has happened to us. Had they been hit as bad as the city, we didn’t know. There were four other wee ones there as well… were they okay, were they crying, were they screaming… it was a long drive.
Then came February and that brought back the horror. I wasn’t actually home at the time I was over at my parents. I had just dropped Gabby off at her preschool nearby. It was Mum’s birthday the day before and she’d got a lovely bunch of flowers. When I saw them there I put Emmy down in the middle of the floor and walked over to the table to smell them. As I started walking back the whole house seemed to fly to pieces. I threw myself over Emerson and everything came crashing down around us. Emmy seemed to think it was fun but I was a long way from that. Yeah, it was hard not being around anyone and my first impulse, after Gabby, was for mum. I was freaking out big time and I needed my mum. I know it sounds silly, you know, 27 years old and needed my mum, but if I’m honest, that is what I felt.
February changed everything. That one really affected me. It… I was glad that we had to stay at my parents’ because I don’t think I could have coped by myself. Every aftershock just sort of brought it all back. After September, I thought, you know, that’s the big one, we’re not going to have anymore. Then came February, and suddenly you knew no one could say there wouldn’t be another big one. It just wasn’t something you could do anymore. From then on every aftershock that started, you didn’t know if it was going to bring the house down or… or worse.
I don’t really take things for granted anymore. Every day that we are here and together now is special, and it’s sort of… umm yeah, it’s made me love my family even more. You’re more aware. I understand now that life, you know, it can be over just like that. One little thing happening can change the landscape totally, figuratively and literally. I no longer think that bad things don’t happen to good people, because they do. But you know, as much as I’ve seen things destroyed by the earthquake, I’ve also seen people banding together, and that really has renewed my faith in humanity in a big way. Seeing others help each other, all those selfless people who have been so kind, that’s been an experience I’ve had as well. My grandma put something up on a Trade Me message board because I didn’t have any baby clothes at my parents’ place, and within like, ten minutes, we’d had seven offers of baby clothes. We kept having packages dropped off, and I didn’t even know these people. People who had been through the earthquake as well, but they still had that kindness in them. I mean there was one family went out and actually bought stuff and then brought it over to me. That was just… I was blown away by their kindness. I felt very humbled by that.
It was the noise at first. A terrible cracking sound. It was the sound of the house being broken. I remember leaping out of bed and standing in the doorway and Greg going past me to grab the kids and I’m thinking, God, that’s right I have to get the kids and I went to the little ones at this end of the house. Greg went up the stairs to find the rest of them. One of our boys couldn’t find us in the dark, it was like a disaster movie, what happens next?
In a flash our own little world, along with many others, disappeared. A great deal of what you know and care about disappears. Everything that only moments before felt safe and familiar, is suddenly gone. Dismantled. Taken away from you. And you can’t… I couldn’t think about it. The government starts using these terms. You know… we are orange but we could go red. Or green. No, no, eventually we will go green. We have to. Must do. Won’t we?
Then you wait, and there’s so much to deal with it’s hard to think about anything else until one night, a long time later, they announce it. We are watching it on television, on the news, and I’m thinking worst-case scenario they’ll rebuild the house. Okay, it’ll be a bit of a push, but we can live with that. That’s what I’m thinking. Everybody else could see it, but not me. It’s like I’m blind until they say the word. Red. That was the decision. They said it was red and I’m in shock. I just felt… it was like part of me had been ripped away, yeah, reached right in there and gutted me. I felt, this is what it must be like when someone dies. Everybody else’s life carries on but your own life has stopped.
We had three portaloos just in this immediate area–we had one just down on the corner here, one that’s over the road and one a couple of houses down. Over time though they’ve slowly taken them away and it’s got down to just this one. In the last two months it’s been knocked over–once by the wind, so we can’t blame anyone for that–but after my husband pegged it down we’ve had people just kick it over a couple of times and it’s really not that funny. Not after this length of time. You kick that over and you’ve taken people’s toilet away which leaves the only other option, the bucket in the yard. And that can do your head in. Yeah, that gets everybody angry. Well it’s robbing people of one small facet of normal existence. We don’t need this rubbish right now. And I’ll tell you what, these idiots probably don’t realise they’re taking their life in their hands doing this sort of thing. Probably people had a few drinks, did what people do, you know, in a normal life. But this isn’t normal life is it. I tell you what, I wouldn’t like to be them if they get caught, they could get themselves lynched.
That’s one side of things, then you get the complete opposite. To be honest I’ve had tears in my eyes… it does, it brings you to tears… amazing the way that everybody came together that September. It doesn’t even matter what they did, they could have walked passed and just said, ‘Hi, how you going. ‘Are you okay,’ you know, and that just meant the world–it was amazing–yeah just amazing. The student army and the farmy army and just people coming along the road in their car with water containers, it made you feel the need to do something yourself. Such a disaster, and then ordinary people doing the most incredible things. We had church groups knocking on the door and they’re not saying, ‘A gift from God,’ or whatever, they were just saying they wanted to help people. ‘We’re a group of all denominations and here’s a food parcel, here’s a grocery voucher’–the generosity was absolutely overwhelming. And one that moved me in particular was Hagley College. One of their–I think it was a year 12 social studies class–they’d done a wee study obviously and they’d incorporated it into their school year but then they did something positive with it. They’d gone out, they’d fund-raised, they’d got donations and they delivered them to areas that they felt needed help. And it was not actually so much what was in it, you know, it was the handwritten note, the thoughts, the caring and the kindness, so very moving. Yeah, just amazing.
We were woken by the dog trying to attack the monster in the corner of the house. We wandered outside thinking it must have been dreadful up in the main divide and pleased that not much had happened. Then I walked around to the front of the house and stubbed my toe on some bricks. One of our chimneys had come down and was lying there against the neighbours’ fence. It wasn’t a big issue, the next morning the neighbours helped us clean up most of it and I put one of those plasticised things over what was left of our chimney.
In February I was on level 18 of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers building and that did sway around a bit. After helping to free one of my colleagues from some furniture that had pinned him to his desk we decided that because of the aftershocks we should probably vacate the building. As we were going down the stairwell someone yelled out, ‘Hold onto the railings with both hands. Hold on with both hands.’ Well I had my bag in one hand and thought to hell with that–that’s a bit excessive. Only afterwards did I realise the wisdom of that advice. I presume it came via an engineer from one of the firms down below, someone who probably twigged there was a chance the stairs could go. Anyway, while I was heading down my mobile went off, it was a one-word text from my wife, Anne. It said, ‘Help’.
I tried to phone and text her back but nothing worked and with my car trapped in the car park the only thing to do was walk home. I live in a two storey house and as we came around the corner together I noticed that I couldn’t see the roof of my home, there was no sign of it. It was a little disconcerting. Then as I got closer I saw the whole house had nose-dived onto the front lawn.
One of our neighbours said that if I was looking for Anne she was on the back lawn having a smoke. After she’d had another smoke or two we sat on a garden bench by the conservatory and watched the liquefaction bubbling up around us. I mean when things get to that point it makes life easy doesn’t it–there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it, except sit and wait. We were very lucky that our neighbours were so kind. They took us in and looked after us over that initial time. Ha, a friend of mine happened to be down from Auckland and was staying in a hotel by the Avon. The hotel had been wrecked and he thought he would come and stay with us–sadly there wasn’t much chance of that. Poor fellow arrived with his suitcase only to find he was out of luck. Four or five kilometres on he managed to find some other friends who had room. As for us, we, along with Shane and Sharon, spent many lovely nights sitting around the barbeque while our two deep freezers thawed away slowly and we caught up on all those things you buy impulsively at the supermarkets and never get around to eating. The prunes and the quail–did we eat quail?–yes, we had quail, all that sort of stuff and with all the street lights out we got to gaze up at the beautiful starry skies. We had been very comfortable in that house over the years, perhaps we’d even got into a bit of a rut without fully appreciating it. When you think about it overall, this whole thing might not have been too bad for us. Sure there’ll be a year or two of uncertainty in it, but ultimately it probably shook us out as much as it shook the house down.
I’m rather embarrassed to confess I was lying on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle and then, the surprise of it, like a sort of sneak attack. You think everything is back to the way it was and then boom; once more the world as we know it has shifted. The only comparison I can make is when I came home from the hospital with Harry, when he was a baby, and realising that this is it. I’m now a mother and you can’t go back. Your life is never going to be the same. I mean we were having jolts every now and then just to remind us, but perhaps it’s a human trait to expect our life to continue in a certain way. And maybe what the earthquakes have taught us is that we have no control over what happens, that we can take nothing for granted.
Outside there was the despair I think we’ve all felt of watching the liquefaction erupt once more. That sinking feeling that slips into your soul. Anyway, there was nothing else for it but to get back into the gumboots and with the help of the kids and friends begin the immense effort of digging yourself out. Somehow, this all seemed to bring out both the best and the worst in people. I found it incredibly frustrating to have the sightseers and nosey-parkers coming by just to look at you. I can appreciate people wanting to understand what’s happening but not if they’re just driving past with a coffee in their hand simply having a gawk. One car speeding past splashed me all over. Totally covered me in liquefaction. In the scheme of things a trivial thing really, but apparently at the time my language was not what it should have been. All I could think of was when will I be able to wash my hair again. We were wearing the same clothes day after day and of course no shower. In the end though it’s amazing what you can do with one little basin of hot water. The other side to that story, the best part, happened on our second or third day of shovelling. Two guys driving by just stopped and asked if we needed a hand. We got a lot done that day and of course we gave them a beer to say thank you but the thing is, to this day I don’t know who they were, or why they stopped. My guess is simple kindness. For many of us the things we focus on have changed. Things that used to be important no longer occupy the centre stage. We’ve all been reminded that people, life, looking out for one another, those are the things that should always be at the top of our list.
This one was different. It didn’t stop. It seemed to build and build and then everything fell. The monitors collapsed off the desks and one of my colleagues fled under hers as I headed for the doorway. It was the first time I had ever done anything apart from sit there and try to be cool. I was like, yeah, okay, now is the time to stand in the doorway. After that I needed to move. Is my house a pile of rubble sort of thing. On my way home I passed people streaming out of the city and I’ve never seen such terrified faces–just real fear. Hundreds of them. I knew Julia was okay and two of my boys, but the third, Oliver, was at preschool and for a moment I let myself think he could be under a heap of debris. That was silly, yeah, that was stupid. As a parent, that’s somewhere you shouldn’t–you can’t–go. You simply have to say, ‘Okay, Julia’s on her way to get him, there is nothing else I can do in that situation, he is probably fine.’ And he was.
After February our home was pretty bad, but then Japan came along shortly afterwards and demonstrated just how bad it can really get. To complain after seeing whole villages washed away would be churlish. So again, I was pretty optimistic. I’m optimistic still. I have my family, they are all still here. Our three little boys are happy boys, they go to school, they fight, they play, they break things, make a lot of noise, but they don’t wake up fearful in the night. The aftershocks come along and they don’t flinch. I’m grateful for that. If I was to wish for anything… I don’t know… I could wish for a million dollars I suppose, or the ability to play guitar like that guy who sold his soul at the crossroads, what’s his name, Robert Johnson, but it wouldn’t be right. I could wish away all the unhappy things that have happened to me, to my family, but I don’t think that would be right either. They are now part of who we are. The tragedies we have lived through, as much as the triumphs that we experience, they all form a part of what or who we are. So yeah, despite the cracks in my house, I don’t feel I have anything to wish for. I still feel like I have everything I could possibly want, I do. And we will find somewhere else. Actually, I guess there is one wish, that we get a decent deal from the insurance company. It would be good for the family to have a nice house again, if not here, then somewhere.
We’re mortgage-free now, which is kind of a nice feeling. We do own the house–or what’s left of it–and it’s been really important for us to have that base for the family. You know, it’s not just a house. Inside is our home, and outside is our neighbourhood. And all through it are the memories of friends and family and the great occasions, the special occasions that make us who we are. It’s where we belong. And although we are up against it now I’ll tell you something else, adversity has brought out a lot of positives. We’ve always had a pretty cohesive neighbourhood but a situation like this tends mostly to bring out the goodness in people, the best in people, rather than any sort of selfishness. It’s indicative, if you like, of the human spirit and how people, when they’re up against it, do genuinely want to support each other. It shows you in a pretty obvious way, how people working collectively, whether it’s shovelling liquefaction or some of the bigger, broader, political issues that are confronting us, can improve their lot by sticking together. Puts you in mind of that egalitarian society we used to talk about. How Kiwis would always support each other when the chips were down. That’s something we’ve seen a lot of around here lately.
So now we’ve had the letter and it seems we are to go red. I heard about it at work and I just collapsed on my desk, I sobbed, I couldn’t believe it would happen. But it had, and that took some time to get your head around. Then one day you do. You start to think a little differently. After all that has happened you start to realise, at this point–financially–the red zone is the best thing for us. But emotionally, my heart wanted it to go green, and that was because of the community, the people, our home and everything around here, you wanted it to stay the same. You just want to have what you had. What you know. The way it was.
Okay, people died, and that’s… that’s the worst. It doesn’t go downhill any further than that. My heart goes out to those people. But if you want the truth, how it affected ordinary people, I resented–I hated–the time it took away from us, and the energy it used up. I hated that it upset my mother. I hated that we had to spend hours on the phone to insurance companies and the invasion into our lives for all those unnecessary things. The hundreds of e-mails to be sent, the time looking for a house to live in, the packing and unpacking, it disrupted our lives in a huge way. It’s time, isn’t it, time that will never be returned to us. It’s a sort of limbo thing where you’re taken out of what you are doing with your life and now you have to deal with all that lousy stuff. And here’s the thing, I consider us to be the lucky ones. Lucky in that we have the skills to deal with it. I know people who have lost any sense of their own security. This whole business is certainly capable of unhinging people. There is less confidence in lots of areas. People that already had existing vulnerabilities and who were struggling anyway, they are much worse off now. There are many horrendous stories of people having to overcome huge things. That feeling that you are living in a third world country when it takes so long to get a toilet in the street. Elderly people up to their knees in liquefaction. Houses they can’t get into, or they can’t get anything out of. Houses that are written off. EQC refusing to pay their claim–all of those unnecessary things just frustrate me. People who have lost their work, lost what little possessions they may have had. Problems with landlords and not being able to find accommodation–I’ve known families of 13 sleeping in garages with no water, no power, not enough money to get food–all of that was made so much worse. Anyone’s ability to deal with such things is–has–definitely taken a knock. Try to imagine just how tough you need to be to get through a situation like that. Go on, ask yourself the question–could you do it?
I was out at Lincoln on the telephone to someone in the city when it happened. I heard the phone get cut off after some screaming and I thought that was a bit much, you know, a little bit hysterical–I didn’t realise. I had no idea of the extent… the way the earthquake had affected the city. A few hours later I heard buildings had fallen and when I tried to ring my father I couldn’t get through. He only had a portable and he wasn’t answering. That made me jump in the car but I only got so far before becoming stuck in traffic and having to ditch it. I had my youngest boy with me who wasn’t too good at walking and too heavy to carry. I ended up pushing him on top of a recycling bin for several blocks. I expected to arrive at Cowlishaw Street and see the house collapsed with my father inside.
Some people have family farms and other people make do with a quarter acre section. This place is not just a house to us, this is my father’s home, our family home. I was conceived in that room just across the hall. I found out it was to be demolished while I was in the Halswell Supermarket. I looked down and saw someone I recognised being comforted, she was crying on the front page of the paper. When I realised what it was about I began crying myself. I was really hoping my father could be classified green and that we could get another home for him on the same section, something comfortable after a year of living like he had. A broken home is very hard on a man his age, yeah. I was very upset. I know that my father doesn’t express sorrow much at all but I could tell he was not unaffected. And not just for the house, the garden has always been so important to us as well. It’s a beautiful section, almost a quarter of an acre and the trees are huge, yeah, they’re amazing. It’s been designed so there is always something happening throughout the seasons. Dad actually had a big pond in the back garden and every season there’d be a whole family of ducklings residing there. People love different things and for dad and me it’s gardening. So when people say, ‘How old is he? Oh he’ll be alright, he’ll find a nice unit somewhere,’ and others talk of how he could buy himself into a nice retirement village, I’ve just had to understand their lack of knowledge about my dad. They are well-meaning I’m sure, but obviously they have no real appreciation of what might be important to him.
If we are lucky, very lucky, we get the chance to share our lives with someone that helps us grow into what we can be. I was really lucky. I met and fell in love with my wife, Salah. Together we raised our family and from her I learnt many things. Things I could never have learnt from anyone else. I learnt about the blending of cultures. I learnt about respect, about compatibility, about time, and how quickly it can go. I learnt about honesty and I came to understand stickability, determination and resilience, the sort of things we might all need to get through these earthquakes.
After our home was trashed in the September quake Salah discovered a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with cancer. She had an operation but between the February and June quakes it returned. It had become very aggressive and the prognosis was not great at all. Then June came and our home was smashed once more. Of course we tried to value the important things like the garden and the river view but can you imagine life with cancer and having to tolerate the piles of shingle and shit up to here. No power. No sewer. Trying to cover the cracks in the wall of our lounge with tapa cloth to make the place more pleasant for her. It was just the pits. Salah died in November and for me… for me the earthquakes had just become a horrible background to my wife’s death. The December quake, what was that? Just a blip to me.
Today I’m looking out through my front window, over a deck that looks onto the river and I can see the top of a City Council park bench that was left dumped on the side of the road. A bench that my son and I took and concreted into the riverbank and on it we put a plaque in memory of Salah. I am looking out there now and I can see the road cones and the flowers that I’ve put there because today is the 22nd of February, one year on from that devastating quake. Outside other people have been doing the same, walking round the river putting flowers on cones and I’m looking out at that and thinking, yeah, this place is special. Okay, I know the house will go but hopefully the river view will stay and if it can stay as a park, a place we can all share, then this area would be a good legacy to have for a beautiful wife and mother, a woman who did so much in her life for so many. To me, this view, this lovely river, would mean that Salah wouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a thought that gives me… it gives me a little peace.
To have had this place has just been magnificent, to have shared it with my wife and family is beyond special. Earlier on, after the first couple of quakes, I thought our life would never be the same with our home being smashed and that’s true, but in the end you realise houses and land are not the most important thing. If people can be alive and endure and move on, that is what counts. As hard as it is at the time we’ve all got to do it, try and move on a little bit. And now I am told there is a plan–a park–that will make this place available to all. That is what I hope will happen, because if the Council or the Government were to turn it into something else, into money, if they conspired to resurrect the land and sell off sections to the highest bidder, I would be absolutely gutted. That would be like soiling all our memories, wouldn’t it.
The place was trashed. Absolutely trashed. Some kind people from the neighbourhood came around on pushbikes looking for me. That was nice. To be honest I was feeling pretty confused. I just sat on the chair out there and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wasn’t thinking straight at all. So when an old friend that lives out by Oxford rang up and said ‘I’m on my way, I’m coming to get you,’ I was more than happy to go.
When I got back we were still on generated power–hell, they only took the portaloo away a month ago and they weren’t much fun. It wasn’t just the toilet situation it was the weather as well. We had snow and every other thing you can think of. Well because of my arthritis I can’t fit into shoes, and snow and jandals are not the greatest combination. I ended up having to use a bucket.
I had some counselling after that. That wasn’t an easy time, total devastation really. Total grief. These things all catch up don’t they. When my partner passed away it took forever to get my head around it, the loss of him. Then it took ages to get around losing my family home. It took forever to get used to this place, to start to feel like it was my own, somewhere I could be. I was only just… you know, beginning to enjoy it when all this happened. I know there are people a lot worse off than me. People lost their lives. Others have lost their homes and their businesses. I know all that, but I did need that counselling and it helped me. Helped me a lot.
Then June happened. Two in one day and that threw me back again. The first one wasn’t so bad. I managed to stay calm. The doctor had said to me, if you’re sitting down and there’s a shake, stay there. Don’t try and get out because you could fall over. ‘You don’t want that,’ she said.
Well, after, I did go outside and I thought, I coped, you know, I coped with that one. Later I was talking to a lady walking past with her dog. ‘Well that’s the big one for the day,’ she said. I was standing by the front garden there and just as she left my sister sent me a text asking how I was. I was trying to text her back when the next one came and knocked me over. I got caught in the rose bush there and because my skin’s really thin it was just ripping off like tissue paper. A young guy down the road came running over and rescued me. Got me untangled but I was in a bit of a mess.
I came back inside to another shambles. Outside too, bricks had fallen off the wall. I’ve been here two years now, I’ve managed to settle into it and I thought, this is where I’m going to be. This is my place. But will it be now? The hardest thing is not knowing anything at all. What will happen to me. Will I be zoned green and have my home fixed up. That is what I’m praying for. Not that I believe in praying too much but that’s what I would really love to happen.
Originally we are from Romania. All the books said New Zealand was paradise on earth and they were right. By the time our daughter arrived in ‘97 we were fully fledged New Zealanders.
I can’t say I wish September had never happened because I don’t think wishes like that are realistic, but like any earthquake it was a demeaning experience. Not only could I do nothing about it, I am unable to prevent the realities that flow from it. The fact, for instance, that our community here will disappear. Ten houses to the South, ten–more perhaps–to the North, already gone. And soon, very soon, we will move on as well. This city though is my daughter’s home and I want her to see Christchurch rise again, to become somewhere she might want to live.
I’ve tried to raise my daughter up in a world that makes sense and to date I am very happy with how that has gone. Basically, like any father, I want what I believe to be best for her. If she should choose to stay in Christchurch, to live her life here, I would never interfere with that. I would never tell her to take cover in some other country. That would be wrong. In this world there are dangers everywhere and against something like an earthquake there is nothing we can do. Nothing. And that is why I call it humiliating. As much as I love my family, apart from the usual precautions, I am powerless to do a thing. Nobody appreciates that feeling.
You get a lot of different reactions I suppose. People I’ve known, people I’ve been friendly with, have drawn away while others become closer. Personally, I’ve found myself becoming more amiable, more chummy, I wouldn’t want it the other way round. I like to talk–we have to talk to each other–it keeps us sane. Where we are temporarily there’s a shop just down the road a little way and people are always passing by. I find if I’m in the front yard people will always stop for a natter. ‘Hello, how have you fared,’ sort of thing. Every one of them has a story and it’s so interesting to hear them. Very therapeutic and lets face it, the need to tell those stories is going to be with us for a very long time.
It helps that Chris and I have a lot of fun, a lot of laughter between us, and I think in many ways it’s what keeps us together. Keeps us going. You know, we can have a bitch but at the end of the tunnel we can see the light, and we can laugh about it. We do laugh about it. Without it–without that sense of fun–well you’d be feeling a bit helpless wouldn’t you. A bit of humour, it’s what you need to survive right now. Anyway, it certainly helps us. Plus I’m an optimist. Did I say that. Well, you have to be don’t you. Otherwise, goodness me, you might just as well start digging the hole right now.
We went to Te Papa in Wellington, to that earthquake exhibition and you’re kind of going through it but you don’t believe what is happening to you, not until it really happens to you, and then it feels totally different from what any synthetic room can provide for you. We’ve got handles on our chest of drawers, a little ring that is the handle, all of which started clattering and vibrating, and those are the sounds that you remember, those are the notes that make sense. The noise and the violence, it’s personal–it’s not something you understand until you’ve really gone through it. When you experience it in the exhibition, okay, you see a light fall over. But when it’s your life, when you see the pictures coming off the walls and the things that are flooding through your brain are, ‘How do I get out of the house?’ ‘Where do I go?’ when that all kicks in–yeah, you understand the real thing is something else.
In the real thing I’m trying to get out of bed and just being knocked back in. Luckily the family are out of the city that night and I’m on my own. But still the shaking goes on and on and the only thing in my head is the question, do I try to get under the bed or do I stay on top? Kiwis seem to know all about that duck and cover stuff but I’m from South Africa where we don’t have earthquakes. Ha, I remember thinking it’s probably best to stay in bed because I’m up two storeys and if the house collapses I will most likely have a softer landing on the mattress than if I was below it.
All this time later things are not that much more transparent. Right now we are in the blue/green situation. We are sitting here watching our next-door neighbours in the red zone across the road disappear into a beautiful house they have already bought. They have gone, and what they’ve bought is something that we would love to own–ticks all our boxes. But for now we are still here and it seems every time I walk the dog around the neighbourhood another house is gone, or there’s a guy accelerating away too fast on what are now gravel roads, spinning his wheels. Staying is becoming frustrating but come and talk to me in ten years time and I might turn around and say, ‘Hey, look at our new house, it all worked out.’ Maybe, but at the present moment we are going through another winter, my power bills are up, it’s a cold house and the kids–with the liquefaction not yet dug out from underneath the house–are getting more colds. So, you know, as far as that goes the world is not ideal. Not today.
I’m sure it affects us all but I don’t exactly know how. I don’t know and I don’t go there and I think a lot of people are the same. They just get on with it. Some people have been brave enough to break down and cry, show those emotions, but most have told themselves this is the way it is and have moved on. All the same, there’s a lot of built in angst and anger, resentment–all those things. The questions we all ask: Did I get it right? Do the right thing? The justifications. It’s… it’s a mental mine-field that you keep going through and the more you open that box up, the more you learn about yourself, but then do you necessarily like the picture that comes out. You have to remember, the way we perceive ourselves to be is not necessarily always the way we are going to react. We need to be smart enough and grownup enough to make allowances for that.
Ellen died first and then George. I called them my American parents and had gone there to speak at a ceremony to celebrate their lives. Just before flying back home from New York I phoned a friend of mine. ‘Oh Joan,’ she said, ‘they are making announcements about the red zone and what’s going to happen to the houses.’ When I looked, I found my home was going to be demolished. I do remember I didn’t sleep very well that night. And I remember how strange it seemed to learn of it when I was so far away. Suddenly it was not going to be there anymore and you almost… I mean it’s silly, but I find myself thinking I didn’t care enough for this house because it’s going to be pulled down. Now with my head I know that’s irrational, but with my heart I was just so very sad it would no longer be there.
I suppose… I suppose I had thought for a long time this might be the outcome, but the reality was hugely painful. The realisation that a house is not just bricks and mortar. To me it was a home, a place that had meaning, and with it will go the loss of dreams–all those memories that will be so much more difficult to grasp, to hang on to. Just after the first earthquake I went away on holiday with a friend. When we returned I said to her, I can cope with all this now. Two days later my nephew rang to tell me my brother had suddenly died. I began to think of him, Murray, in my house, and my mother, my sister, the people you care about, the man who was once the love of my life… and, you know, they were all here in this place and if I no longer have it, there is no context, and if there is no context it makes it just that much harder to remember them. Anybody who has had this experience will know what I’m talking about. Rose, Rosemary, my neighbour, said she thought she might photograph her house being pulled down–I thought I won’t be anywhere near when mine comes down. I don’t know whether that’s good psychology or not but I just don’t want to be around.
I know I have focused a lot on my home, perhaps more than some people of my age do, and maybe that’s because I didn’t have a partner, didn’t have children, didn’t have grandchildren and while I have lots of very good friends, that’s something quite different. I did at one point think, Joan, you care almost too much about your home, and certainly I feel the cruel irony of it being taken away. And then a while ago I was telling a friend about how much I wanted to stay and she said perhaps the way to deal with it was to flip it. To say to myself I’ve had all these wonderful years by the river–to make it a positive instead of a negative. Yes, well, to be honest, I would find that very hard.
Before, my career was so important to me. Money was important to me. How others looked at me and viewed what I had, my relative success and all the rest of it, that was important to me. None of those things are important now. What’s significant, what’s of crucial importance today, is keeping my family safe. Friends and wider family are part of it too. You do all you can but it’s been such a long event hasn’t it, and eventually you find you just have to roll with it. Even though you may be strung out and all the rest of it, you also learn to be able to say, okay, if another one happens, it happens. There is nothing you can do about it. You can’t stop it. What’s left to us now is to be positive.
That wasn’t easy in the beginning. All I thought about was how the hell are we going to get out of this. We’re stuck. We’re screwed for life. We can’t move. It felt like some sort of Doomsday. But now, after we’ve been through the process and that part of it is finished, there’s a lot more light around here than there was before. We lost our home but eventually we found this house out at Waikuku and it was like it was a beacon. Almost a sanctuary for us and our friends who have, from time to time, come to stay. Something for us to walk towards. Out of all that darkness it’s become our shining light.
At this time in my life I know myself to be two steps forward and one step back. When confronted with something I tend to go into it and then I take a step back and think about it. The earthquake was no different. I rushed out and saw everybody, did what I could and then I moved back from it because I wasn’t quite sure where, as an aging single woman, I fitted into all that was happening in our neighbourhood. In a way–and I don’t think this is a rationalisation–we renters became less… we weren’t really part of the discourse. Down our end it was very neighbourly ‘Hi, what’s happening with you?’ sort of thing but in terms of the conversations that went on in the meetings, they didn’t tend to touch me. I felt my neighbours didn’t need to… what’s the word… take account of what was happening with we few renters when they had really big issues to be dealing with.
The first year I moved in, a Good Friday, a guy comes up the drive and says, ‘I’m living over there, we want to have some chooks, is that all right?’
‘Yes, of course,’ and talking with my landlady I worked out I could have some too if I wanted, and even a small dog or cat. Suddenly my future there seemed wonderful, and I started to put in a vegetable garden and so on. Sadly, as time went on and we went from orange and then to red, it became clearer that this wasn’t a future that could happen. My loss was not as drastic as those who were losing properties and had lived there for a long time, people who had really embedded themselves in that community, but it was a loss.
It was time to find somewhere else but that was not easy. The prices were going up while what you could get for the price, was going down. I wanted to stay this side of town and I was looking for a flat between $200-$250 a week. That was pushing it but I believed I could manage it. In that price range it was showers over baths–not good for me at this age and stage–but as it happened the one I chanced upon was a beauty. Apparently the guy who owns it lives in Australia and had accommodated his aged mother here at some point, so yes, it’s made for me and it was also within my budget. I’m still coming to grips with how I feel about missing my old neighbourhood, but in terms of what I’m doing, I can get on and do it. The buses round here work, its comfortable and I can put loo paper down the loo. I can clean my teeth with the water out of the tap, something I have not done since the earthquake. Ha, boiling water to take your pills… perhaps it’s all those little things that make us realise how much our lives have changed.
In terms of the larger picture, one of my side interests during the time I spent with Christian World Service was the issue of genocide, the idea that some people are expendable. And while we are obviously not talking of such things here, I do kind of reflect on what has happened and feel sorry for the people whose lives have been–and, in the eyes of some, continue to be–dispensable. It worries me that because of personal capacities or some particular situation, some people just won’t be able to engage. That as the city grows again and the various housing issues are dealt with, there will be people who are going to be expendable in that process. And that is not something I can feel good about.
With so many of my family and friends in the area this has been a home, our home. Sadly, it will be our home no more. My mum and my step-dad are going. My uncle, Alan Cooke, who lived in Cowlishaw Street, he’s just been red zoned so he’s going too. Mum’s cousins across the river, they’re going. It’s not a little thing. My family’s been in the area a long time. This is where I spent most of my childhood. Sure I’ve been overseas, lived here and there, but I always come back. Well, no more. Avonside as we know it is going to disappear. It’s a big thing to grasp, the end of here. This place that meant so much to us all, will very shortly be no more and nobody really knows what will become of it. What I hope is they will make it into a park, a beautiful park along the river. But, you know, in 15 or 20 years from now I can imagine this being prime real estate again. Only five minutes from the city with river views, it doesn’t take much wit to conjure up other possibilities and that would be a shame. If we have to give up our homes, then make it a place that belongs to us all. After everything that has happened, surely we deserve that.