Up Front by Emma Hart


Day Five

I wasn't actually asleep when it hit. I was probably fretting over some stuff I can't remember now and which certainly doesn't matter any more.

I've been in a few minor earthquakes before. They're quite fun. It was a couple of very long seconds before I realised this wasn't one, and perhaps I should get out of bed and head for the door. But that meant going past my very large tallboy, so perhaps not. My main thought (which is an overly-generous description of the lizard-brain process going on) was that I probably couldn't stay on my feet to walk that far.

Once the shaking stopped, that's when we gathered in our doorways. Which was just as well, because there was more still to come. A bit after five, it seems safe to start walking around again and survey the damage.

We lost the hyacinth forcing vase my mother had given my daughter. A bottle of middle-class olive oil had fallen off a shelf in the pantry, and not broken. The glass fruit bowl fell off the fridge and landed on a pile of middle-class cloth supermarket bags. We had one cat yowling desperately to get out, and the other running to get in. I keep finding that cat sitting under furniture.

I headed to Twitter, checked in, watched a few other friends check in and fretted over the people we hadn't heard from. Eventually, though, it was cold, so we went back to bed. Not so much sleeping as fitfully dozing between aftershocks.

When I got up again, it was to a mixture of news. Earthquake much bigger than we'd thought. Damage much worse. Everyone safe. Twitter full of supportive messages. For those who've felt they "can't do anything to help", every tweet and email and phone call has meant the world to us. We were so lucky to still be connected to the outside world. This tweet:

Surely: "She's alive so she must be swearing"? ;-)

damn near unwomaned me.

Later we dropped our son at his scheduled LAN party. I know that seems stupid, but the urge to be around people, to talk to friends, was so strong. Then we headed over to see if we could track down David Haywood and his family.

By then we'd heard how bad it was in Avonside, and seen some photos. It still wasn't real until we saw it. The buckled roads and footpaths, fallen trees, downed power lines, that all made sense. What we couldn't work out was why there were piles of grey sludgy sand everywhere. River silt?

During the ten-minute walk from where we could get the car to their house, I became more and more panicky. Whole streets were covered in this weird sand, inches deep, and not the ones closest to the river. Our car is still littered with sand from my boots, and it upsets me every time I see it.

They were okay. I'll leave that story for him to tell. What we noticed driving around town was how slow and careful and kind everyone was. By about Monday, that feeling was gone. Traffic was worse than I've ever seen in Christchurch before, and with lack of sleep and basic amenities, tempers were starting to fray.

Anyway, for the weekend we became a gathering point for people and gin. Keeping children amused in time of crisis is hugely soothing – for a while, anyway. We needed to feel we were helping.

By Monday, though, the prevailing thought everywhere was: when does it stop? Today, Wednesday, it's still going. This morning Karl said to me, "I don't like your alarm clock. And stop hitting snooze." While I'd been lying in bed swearing, he'd been sitting in the lounge carefully holding his coffee away from his laptop. We brace every time a truck goes past or a helicopter flies over.

We don't know when it's over. It's not that every time we relax there's another significant aftershock, it's that we're not relaxing. This is the thing that we weren't expecting, that we weren't mentally prepared for. Five days, and it hasn't stopped. I wouldn't send the kids to school even if the schools had reopened. I need to be able to see them, to know where they are and be able to get to them straight away.

On the up side is Twitter. Seriously. It's not "trivial", it's front-line communication. There's information on the civil defence, council, regional council, newspaper and Ministry of Education websites, but it's scattered and when it's not updated quickly it becomes contradictory. Same goes for the rolling news cycle. The fastest and most reliable transmission of the information we desperately needed – whether we could use our toilets, when the schools would be closed, where supermarkets were open – came through tweeting and retweeting. Obviously a lot of the people who needed it most didn't have power, and what we need to know is different from what's "news", but still, Twitter won this one hands down. Also, it allowed us to support, amuse and comfort each other. People from out of town offered spare bedrooms to complete strangers. We felt cared about.

But we're not thinking straight. I cannot describe my admiration for the people who are working through this, making decisions and providing essential help on little sleep and this constant anxiety. In town yesterday, the no-go zone was cordoned off by soldiers who were, without exception, relaxed and good-humoured. Our own household's intellectual capacity stretches to tweeting and playing Starcraft. Even then we have to keep stopping until the monitors stop shaking.

Which is why it's taken me this long to write anything at all. Asked to do a little job of work yesterday I had a small nuclear meltdown. A burning need to do something to help is teamed with a total mental incapacity to work out what that would be.

Anyway. Here's the word from Christchurch: five days of this shit. Cut us some fucking slack already, plate tectonics. But also, thank you. Thank you all so very much for caring.

Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'.

(Click here to find out more)

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