Shaking up the memories of Christchurch

9:18 pm on 14 November 2016

First Person - Sometimes it just makes you want to cry. Doom descends like a dark horse blanket tossed over you.

The quake threw groceries off shelves and broke wine bottles at the Culverden 4 Square store.

The quake threw groceries off shelves and broke wine bottles at the Culverden Four Square. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Earthquakes. I have cried. I have prayed. I have bristled. I have given comfort and been comforted. I have played the guessing game, "How big was that one?"

But quakes keep coming. Early on Monday I was woken as the bed seemed to stir in its sleep. I jumped out but the room was moving.

"Oh sh**, it's an earthquake," I shouted. My brain leapt to the thought this could be the Southern Alps "going up".

Strangely, though, this tremor was different from ours in Christchurch. Each of the thousands (literally) of quakes and aftershocks that belted Canterbury from 2010 came with a warning. An ominous rumble from the bowels of the earth made us stiffen the sinews with fear. Then came the slam-crash-wallop as the universe heaved in evil spite.

Most of our quakes lasted only 10 to 20 seconds. Last night's crept in like a silent assassin. Then, like a last waltz, it swayed for two minutes to a silent music.

The trauma of the Canterbury quakes was real; is real. Show me anyone who lived through them and can honestly say they don't still stiffen at the sudden sound of a heavy truck hitting a road bump. Stiffen, then ease as they realise what it is. Then shake their head as they wonder if they will ever grow out of it.

So, how did last night's Kaikoura quake affect me? Once I had checked that nothing had fallen or broken, while doors and lights swayed and wall hangings clattered, I felt relief. As I opened cupboards, hands ready like a Black Caps slipsman to catch a flying glass, I sense a smidgeon of triumph. Our house had withstood the tremor. Go back to bed.

You see, the February 2011 quake reduced our old Christchurch house to near-rubble. My wife and I were preparing lunch when it hit. It is printed in our minds in high resolution, full colour, never to fade or be forgotten.

We had to move out for a few weeks while emergency repairs were done. Then we moved back, to a house propped up by temporary buttresses, with doors we could neither shut nor open and windows boarded up to prevent showers of glass cascading over us.

EQC and our insurer assessed our case to be a rebuild. So, we rented for 20 months, popping by now and then to see our home of 29 years disappear to the demolition gang and a new house erected on its site. We were the lucky ones. In May, 2014, we took possession of our new home. But joy was marred by pity for the countless Christchurch homeowners still battling for fairness. Some still are.

Now I feel desperately sad for those affected around Culverden, Hanmer Springs, Waiau, Cheviot, Seddon, Blenheim, Picton - places I know well - and Wellington.

When outsiders commiserated with us over our quakes and responded generously to appeals for help, I used to think: "Thank you, but you don't really understand. You don't know what it's like. You haven't been through it."

Now they have been through it. Now they do know. And makes you want to cry for them.

Mike Crean is a Christchurch journalist, who worked at The Press for 22 years and retired in 2015. He thinks himself lucky to have been on leave when the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 struck and the old Press building was destroyed. But he was still in the thick if it at his doomed Papanui home.

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