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So You've Decided To Survive A Natural Disaster

For the first six months or so of living in London, I lied about where I was from. I was working in a shop on Pall Mall that sold New Zealand kitsch, giftware, and foods, and approximately seventy percent of customers would ask “where in New Zealand are you from?” as I added up their order. After less than a day, I started to say “I was born in Auckland,” which was true, without following it up with the fact that I’d moved away as a child, and remembered little more than Mission Bay (which is a totes rad beach) and my own back yard.

The thing is, when you come from a place that has had an Event, people tend to focus solely on said event. Said event starts to define you. So I get, “Oh, you’re from, New Zealand, that makes you a hobbit, a ha ha! From Christchurch? Ooh, earthquake, how was that then?” And they’ll have opinions, ones that probably don’t consider what it was actually like to be there. And they’ll never stop to consider that you may not want to talk about it. Not necessarily because it’s traumatic, but just because everyone asks and it gets, well… boring. Which is why I’ve never really written about it, but Caroline wants me to, because apparently it’s not boring for everyone else, so here goes:

On the third of September 2010, a friend and I went to see Tomorrow, When the War Began. The book had been the Antipodean Hunger Games of the late nineties so obviously we were pumped. It’s about teenagers in Australia who have to do battle against the invading forces of some Asian country or other, who are after all that space. “It’s time to go to war,” they fictional teenagers said to each other, and “We have to start acting like soldiers.”

We had a great time, went home to our respective flats, and went to sleep.

About five hours or so later I was standing in my bedroom doorway shouting “Are you all right?” to my two flatmates, as the house shook wildly around us. After the house had once again become still, we made our way downstairs, using our phones to guide us over the glass spangled carpet. “We have to start acting like soldiers,” my friend said to me, having called specifically for that. There was laughter. Relieved, shocked laughter.

The next morning we gleefully joined the hordes of rubberneckers wandering through the battered city centre. We bought cupcakes from a couple of little girls who had seen an opportunity to be entrepreneurial. We went to Denny’s, one of the few places open. Denny’s is a 24hr not-quite-a-diner, famed for its Oreo shakes and dodgy food. It could survive a nuclear holocaust. Like a cockroach. We fully entered into the air of self-congratulation that was permeating the city; no one had died, and we as a city, were taking full credit.

Of course, the real reason no one died is that no one happened to be standing where things were about to fall down. We would figure that one out, eventually.


When you experience a natural disaster you may think to yourself, “Gee, I guess this is why disaster relief societies are always making those ads telling you to store water and have torches and transistor radios and lots of tinned food. Huh.” You may immediately follow this thought with another: “Ah well, disaster’s over now, and I’m fine, so.” and go on about your day.

This second thought is not recommended. Just because there’s been one disaster, doesn’t mean there won’t be another. Statistics don’t work like that, and neither does nature. And if said disaster is an earthquake, well…


A couple of weeks later, I was back at work, in a theatre in the middle of town, and things were weird. Actually, it was in the wankily named “Arts Centre,” which was a block of don’t-you-feel-like-your-in-Europe stone masonry that used to be the university, and now was craft boutiques, wine bars, and an observatory. Except not an observatory any more, because it had been destroyed.

Everyone was strangely excitable and no one was getting any sleep. Why? MOTHER FLIPPIN’ AFTERSHOCKS, MOTHER FLIPPERS.

They were happening ALL the time, and when they weren’t, everyone was waiting for the next one. This was insomnia town. Tempers were short. An entire city, constantly on the verge of tears.


Here’s a thing you may not know: aftershocks can feel wildly different from each other. Sometimes they shake, sometimes they roll. Sometimes it’s like the ground is sliding around underneath you, sometimes it feels like it’s trying to buck you (and your house and your cat) off its back.

You will become obsessed with betting about the richter scale rating and the distance away. Your home page will be your region’s seismic activity. It’s like counting lighting in a thunderstorm, but after a couple of months you’ve started to wonder if they’ll ever stop.

The other thing about aftershocks is that, although over time they do lessen in strength and frequency, they can spike in both areas.


Almost five months after the first quake, I walked into town along Colombo Street, one of the main roads in the city centre. I was starting work just before one, and on the way I was dropping off important moving-to-London papers. An hour later, Colombo Street looked like this:

I was at work by that point, halfway down the stairs, clinging to the walls, trying not to fall down. I walked outside to clouds of dust from falling stone and crowds of kids from local schools, sobbing in hysteria.


You might sit in your car because despite what’s happened over the last few months, you still don’t have a disaster kit, and the car is the only place there’s a radio. You may listen to the death toll rise, and when your flatmate says “We’re going to know someone, aren’t we?” you may have to acknowledged she’s right.

You might have to spend a day helping dig out someone’s house from the two feet of silt that’s flooded through it. You may end your day, looking at their ruined floors and walls, feeling helpless. And you may then walk home through three suburbs, all equally buried by toxic sand, and feel helpless more.

You may volunteer to door knock as part of the government’s initiative to check on every household in the city, and see that the people are ok. You may run into a woman with seven cats, who talks at you for twenty minutes about how angry she is. “I’m angry because they’re saying it was an earthquake,” she’ll say.  You’ll search fruitlessly for a response. “It wasn’t an earthquake,” she’ll continue, “it was the same as what happen in Haiti and Chile.” You’ll nod, politely, while you think in a whisper, ‘earthquakes happened in Haiti and Chile.’ “It was the Americans,” she’ll be saying, because you’ve yet to interrupt her because Jeepers, she’s angry. “I read the internet. I know what’s happening. It was the Americans because we don’t have nuclear power. They did it with an electro magnetic pulse.”

You may take a few days away, and as you fly back home, on the descent you may feel like the whole plane is sliding into a palpable cloud of exhaustion and despair.

You may freak right out.


Who am I kidding, I don’t have any real tips for you. Disasters are disasters because they feel fucking disastrous. You get through them any way you can.


There’s a container mall, and pop up events centres in empty lots. My theatre got relocated to a warehouse. There are still aftershocks.

I haven’t been back since the beginning of August 2011, so I’ve no real idea what it’s like in Christchurch now.

It’s being rebuilt, slowly. It’s being remade.


About Work In Prowess

Work in Prowess is the ravings of a mad king left to rot in a besieged palace


For any and all editorial inquiries please contact Caroline O'Donoghue the site editor.