On 3 November we drove down the coast to Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. On the way I had my first view of the vast expanse of the South Pacific, stretching over the horizon to South America. The sea was calm, but swells breaking on shoreline rocks hinted at the energy hidden there. When we looked closer, parked at a viewpoint, we could see seals basking on the rocks.
That evening and the next day we explored Christchurch. We avoided the central business district, which had been severely damaged in the October 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Christchurch_earthquake . Still, we passed many buildings showing significant damage. A picture from the Wikipedia discussion above, of a church that had been demolished by the quake, shows the upbeat New Zealander character. A big sign on the fence around the collapsed building announces: “Our building is cracked, the Church is fine!” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:25_Feb_2011_Oxford_Tce_Baptist_Church.jpg
The English settlers who founded the city in 1856 were unfamiliar with the island’s seismic activity and didn’t have the advantage of modern knowledge of earthquake motion. They built the city on the flood plain beside the gentle Avon River. In the shaking of 2010 and 2011 the loose sediments liquefied, adding to the damage.
Since the 2011 quake was shallow and centered only six miles from the center of the city, the force of ground movement was among the strongest ever recorded worldwide. Though most of the thrust was upward, significant lateral movement combined to bring thousands of buildings crashing to the ground or leave them unstable. The forces far exceeded those expected of a 500-year event, for which New Zealand’s advanced building codes were designed.
I’ve experienced earthquakes in California, ranging from a gentle nudge or rolling sensation, to the sharper force of a large quake. When the Loma Prieta quake hit in October 1989 I was sitting in my condo in Hercules fifty miles from the epicenter. I was talking on the phone with a lady in Berkeley, several miles closer. Suddenly she said, “We’re having an earthquake!” Meanwhile, nothing was happening here. Then the waves arrived. It felt like an angry gorilla was shaking the house–but what a gorilla! The weight of the building was nothing to the vast force that punched it up and down and sideways–with me inside to experience it.
For a few seconds the two of us stayed on the phone, listening to each other’s house roar. Then we signed off, knowing that many would be needing the lines.
Most of the time we go about our business oblivious to the unimaginable energy in our planet and in its envelope of ocean, rivers and atmosphere. Yet when we see and hear the surf, stand beside a roaring torrent and feel the vibration in the soles of our feet, brace ourselves against the wind or feel ourselves rocked by an earthquake, we’re reminded of the vast, dynamic system into which we’ve been placed. Even more overwhelming when we realize it is the fact that, in the most personal way imaginable, we’ve been made part of such an awesome whole!