Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting something off my chest. By Richard

7 days ago our world changed.  I can recall being on the phone to a friend back in Sydney waxing lyrical about how beautiful it is living in Christchurch.  Then a series of events unfolded, each of them strange, each of them leading to a life changing event.

The council car park we use had a queue to enter, something which I had not encountered before so began to navigate the one way system to find a park.  Oh how grateful I am now that my car was not in that car park.  Incidentally the car park in under the art gallery where the emergency response is being run from, the building you would have all seen on tv.  Still on the phone to David, I cruised the streets seeking the elusive park until I found a spot outside an historic building.  This is where the second strange event occurred as the parking meter would not accept a credit card or the SMS payment system.  Still on the phone, and at 10 minutes to 1 pm, I hung up from Dave to work out what was going on.

This is when the thunderous roar approached and chunks of the building, each the size of a soccer ball were landing a few feet away from me.  Instinct said run, so I fled into the street, not aware of cars, in fact, only aware of the roar.  I ran up hill and then down hill as the road moved beneath me made it difficult to even move.  All the time, more rubble fell, everything flexed.  For what seemed an eternity, I was at sea riding the waves as natures anger passed under my feet.

When it stopped there was not silence but screaming.  People were flooding out of buildings covered in dust, a few with blood spots on heads and arms.  A small child was screaming hysterically and being comforted by his mother who was trying her best to be strong.  Being only a few hundred meters to the council offices I thought best to head there to see if I could be of some help.

Turning the corner, I walked quickly into a thick dust cloud.  Another aftershock and it became impossible to walk straight but again, instinct made me keep pressing forward.  More people were exiting buildings, sobbing, screaming, lying on the ground in shock.

I got to the council office and liquefaction was pouring through the pavement right on the steps as the workers flooded out.  Tiles on the floor had popped into the air landing several meters away.  In shock myself, I was standing next to a very shocked mayor, who has now become the face of this tragedy.  Again, another aftershock, we all stumbled at the force and witnessed the building next door flex.  It's cracking was very evident but people were gathering beneath it, also in total shock.  The mayor and I scream almost together "move away from the building".

Something inside said "Amanda and the girls" so I turned and made my  way back to the car.  I feel an awful nagging guilt I did not stay but knowing my wife and children were part of this and would be scared was a driving force.

In the car, radio on, messages came flooding in of devastation in the city.  Then the worst news - the epicenter was in Lyttleton, only a few kilometers from our house.  I sat in traffic, alone but together with thousands of other people wishing for a speedy exit from the city.  I called her mobile, home, the mobile again, never able to get through.  I tried to call our office, I tried Australia and her parents and could not get through.  Facebook was the only means of communication and hoping she may, for some strange reason, check there.

I moved maybe 500 meters in 1 hour as the city was gridlocked.  After 90 minutes, I finally spoke to Amanda to hear she and the girls were safe.  The relief in our voices overwhelming - I knew they were in the epicenter, she knew I was in the devastated CBD.

The traffic moved slower than a sleeping snail.  The road was flooded with liquefaction, buildings had crumbled.  The worst part was being on a fly-over when another aftershock hit.  The bridge moved up, down, left and right with me holding the steering wheel with white knuckles.  Surly this was my time, the bridge was about to collapse.  With enormous relief, the shock passed, the bridge held firm.

Once onto the Southern Highway, I began to move more freely, and the closer I got to the mountains, the quieter the streets became.  Huge holes in the road, boulders from collapsed cliffs, cars crushed, houses shattered.  People standing in shock trying to deal with what had happened.  Driving through Sumner and seeing what nature had done to our beautiful village really hurt.

5 hours after the quake, I finally got to the emergency area at Van Ash school and bear hugged by Amanda.  Mia and Amy were running around with their friends, almost unaware of the situation we were in.  Our neighbors, staring into space, hugging each other, seeking solace in any way they could.

We drove up to the house to determine we would not stay for the night so drove back to the village to see who we could stay with.  It was a ghost town, shattered houses left to fend for themselves as the owners sought an escape.  An emergency meeting in the car, a phone call and off to Rollerston we went.  It was the best move we could have made.

The rest we have been updating on facebook.  We are so lucky.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The wonderful people of Christchurch

Through all the terrible sadness and pain of the last few days, we are immensely reassured by the wonderful people of Christchurch. The help and compassion shown is overwhelming. We drove through the suburbs yesterday to get back to Sumner and were stopped by a lady who had driven hours to hand out food to people passing. She gave us fresh eggs from her farm and kind words of support. Another man had secured a huge water tank to the back of his truck and was driving through the worst hit areas filling up bottles for people. Farmers have been coming into the city to dig silt and liquefaction from peoples houses. Even a student army has sprung up to help anyone who needs a hand to clean up, it now has over 10,000 members and they are doing an amazing job.

Strangers have come together to help and support each other. People who have lost everything are still trying to help others in need. Although there are some terrible low lifes that take advantage of the mayhem to steal and cause havoc, they are in the minority. The people of Christchurch have shown such strength and resilience in coming back from such a terrible catastrophe, I am humbled by them.

After the previous earthquake, they are now experts at rebuilding their city. Roads are being patched, water restored and power lines rebuilt. Richard is at the house today, fixing up the damage and has rung to say we have power again! The happiness in small things is incredible.

This horrible experience has taught me what is truly important in our lives. When we needed to run, I didn't think about possessions or belongings, it was just the girls and Richard. Even Mia said, "let's just go, we don't need anything, everything that is important is in the car now, everything in the house can be replaced but we can't." The help and support given by strangers has restored my faith in people.

It has been less than a week and the city is on its' way. I have no doubt that with these incredible efforts Christchurch will be built again stronger and more united than before. Reading the paper this morning, I was touched by a child's comment. She is a 2.5 year old from Auckland watching the news on TV, she turned to her mum and said "Christchurch fell down. Christchurch is crying." That summed it up for me perfectly.

A day that changed us

Tuesday 22nd changed the lives of so many in Christchurch and our family have come out of this extremely lucky. As a form of therapy, to talk out the stress of the last few days, I am putting it all down here.

I was alone at home at 12.51pm when a quake, centered at Lyttelton only 2kms from us hit. The shaking started and intensified with an almighty speed, the noise in the house was deafening and while I tried to run and get out, the stuff flying out made it almost impossible. While the TV smashed to the floor, china and glasses came flying out of cabinets I knew I had to get out and quickly. I made it to the door and ran around the corner to the neighbours, I had never met this woman but she hugged me and held me tight and told me it would all be ok. I have no idea what I would have done if she hadn't been there. She organized me and my friend and neighbour Zoe so that we could think and function enough to move, we were both frozen. Jumping in the car we headed in convoy down the steep hill that we live on, trying to get to the school to get our kids. As I entered the school, I heard Mia before I saw her and we just grabbed on to each other, I have never been so happy to see her and never wanted to let her go again. My next panic came with Amy, she was going on her first playdate with a friend from Kindy. I had the mothers phone number but no address. I drove as fast as I could through streets cracked and warped and boulders the size of small cars all over the road, to get to the kindy. I was lucky to catch them as they evacuated and get her address. Again the road from kindy to Julie's was a mess. I passed Redcliffs school, located under the towering cliffs, it was now surrounded by rock slides and ruin. A house next door had a boulder that had come down from above and squashed half the house, the other half was on fire. When I arrived at Julie's house I ran up the stairs to find a pile of rubble, the chimney had fallen through the house and the side walls had collapsed. I could hardly breath thinking Amy was buried in there. I ran along the street asking people if they knew what had happened to the people inside, that is when I turned around and saw Amy running towards me. I have never cried so hard, my baby was safe. Julie was driving the girls home when the quake hit. A boulder larger than her car came crashing down in front of her and instead of stopping she moved, narrowly missing a second massive rock that fell where her car would have been. She was so lucky, I could not believe how close I had come to losing Amy. All this time, I had been trying to reach Richard. The phone lines were down and all I knew was that he was in the city at a meeting. Listening to radio reports, I knew the city was one of the worst areas, my family was still not safe. Finally after 2 hours, I managed to speak to him and he had made it out. He was on his way into a meeting when it hit and just knew he had to run and get out, his instinct served him well and probably saved him. Standing on the street with rocks and bits of buildings falling around him, he watched first hand the destruction of the city. It wasn't until 5pm that we met up at an emergency centre in Sumner. Finally after 5 hours I had all my family back together and I never wanted to be apart again.

At this time we headed back up the hill to our house. We were stunned at the damage all around us and when we arrived at home, it was a shock. The bricks around the garage and front of the house had moved and were loose, walking around the house we saw that the back wall of the garage had completely collapsed. Inside it looked like a madman had gone loose, throwing the contents of the house out of cupboards and upending all the furniture. There was glass, smashed plates and food everywhere. The girls rooms were destroyed with their specials things smashed to pieces. I am glad they stayed in the car and missed seeing the devastation. We decided that it was not worth the risk of staying and ran around in a frenzy grabbing anything and everything and throwing it in the back of the car. We had no idea where to go and all I wanted was to get out of the city, Richard was quick thinking and called his boss who lived 25 minutes out of the city. He welcomed us with open arms and make us feel secure for the first time since this nightmare began.

As the news started to come in, we couldn't believe the force and the strength that this had generated. I was in such shock that I couldn't stop shaking or shivering, Richard was my strength, I would not have made it without him. We decided to stay until the weekend when hopefully we would have an idea where we could stay. Staying out of the city where we had water and power and a normal life felt so surreal and in complete contrast to what was happening, the feeling of guilt was incredible.

On Wednesday morning I went back to the house with the girls to pick up more of our belongings and clean up. Driving back through the devastated suburbs was distressing and the closer we came to home the damage became worse. Gaps in the road a meter deep, huge boulders everywhere and peoples homes completely destroyed. While there were people moving about and emergency services starting to clear up, it was eerily quiet. The Christchurch wind that is always present was gone, it was so still and the ground continued to remind us of it's presence with many big aftershocks.

The death toll continues to rise while a city of amazing people try to rebuild and start again. We know how lucky we were and are reminded of this everyday. The displaced and grieving are many, we have a roof over our head and are a complete family. Our days are spent trying to reassure the kids that it will be ok and that we are safe, not an easy thing to do when we have no idea if it will happen again.

It seems that the house is ok and not as bad as we initially believed, as we explained to the kids, the timber frame (the bones of the house) are fine and the brick veneer (the clothes) have been shaken off. While most would accept this, Mia has taken one look at the village and the mess there and is against moving back into the house. She is willing to walk away from the school and friends she loves, she is so scared. When the quake hit, she was in the middle of lunch, without us and knew she needed to run and escape, but the force meant she kept falling. She was terrified and surrounded by screaming people. I can completely understand her terror and reluctance to move back, especially as the village still looks and feels like a war zone.

We have gone from taking one hour at a time to going day to day. This city and it's people have a long way to go but I have no doubt it will be done together. The help and support strangers have given each other is incredible. Unfortunately this is the sort of disaster that unites people and Kiwis are no exception. The radio has been broadcasting phone calls from people offering help of all kinds to strangers - water delivery, beds in homes, whatever they can offer. It is humbling and wonderful what people can do for others, if only it was a worldwide effort.

I cannot say thank you enough for the love, support and messages from everyone back home and around the world. It has helped us feel connected and to know that we are not alone in a place of complete chaos and panic.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Our first day trip - Akaroa

The crazy bunch on a day trip.
The decision to go on our first day trip did not initially come about as a desire to explore but to send our kids to sleep.  After many late nights, the girls were extremely grumpy and tired and the only thing that would end the foul moods was enforced rest.  So strapping them into their car seats we set off.  How grateful we were to the kids because it was a beautiful day and a wonderful drive.

We left home and wound our way through the leafy suburbs of Cashmere and Westmorland, lovely areas that hug the hills.  It was a stunning day and as always, locals escape outside and it was busy with cyclists, walkers and kids playing in local parks.  From our house all the way to Akaroa - 1.5 hour drive, 94 kms - there is not one traffic light!  I just realised this and it amazed me.  Sorry for the diversion.

We left the suburbs and hit true country through Tai Tapu and down through the Banks Peninsula.  The road runs directly under the craggy cliffs of the hills and rises next to the car on one side while on the other is the flat Canterbury Plains that stretch into the distance.  By now true animal spotting was happening from the back seat, the joy of seeing cows, sheep and horses has not worn off yet.  However the lure of an ice-cream for girls who sleep sees Amy close her eyes and nod off - one down, one to go.

The countryside changes dramatically as you turn a corner and you head into the lush mountains that circle the ancient volcano.  The road gently winds its way up and over the mountains and brings you into the sheltered harbour of Akaroa.  It is so beautiful and best seen on a clear, sunny day, so we were very lucky.  The village of Akaroa is small and is influenced by the original French settlement of 1840. The street signs are mainly French and the buildings are quaint and tiny, it is like visiting an old world village except that the shops sell beautiful arts and crafts and the restaurants serve the best of modern NZ cuisine.

We had a wonderful lunch at a cafe, that served the best BLAT sandwich I have ever had, yum!  A gentle walk along the main street and down to the wharf ending with the promised ice-cream concluded our trip to Akaroa.  It was a great day and ended with both girls sleeping all the way back home.  A perfect end to a great day.  I think there will be many more day trips in store for us over the coming weeks and months.
Slightly more composed.

Coming down into Akaroa Harbour.

The crater surrounding the harbour

Amy fast asleep with her favourite book.

The beautiful countryside.

A philosophical note

When we made the decision to move to New Zealand we made the decision to not only make a change in location but in the way we live our lives.  That meant lowering stress and living a more relaxed life.  However, it is harder than I thought it would be.  That made me ask, do we and people in general, seek out stress in our lives?  Do we need it?  Most people claim to want a stress-free lifestyle but is it possible?  Would we allow ourselves that induldence?  Could we live that way?
When we first arrived we had residual stress from our old lives in Sydney - trying to get our bond money back from nightmare landlords, trying to get our belongings from an incompetent  shipping company and settling in to new surroundings.  With time slipping away and those original issues resolved, would stress be a thing of the past?  Not likely!  I am sure that elements of everyday life bring with it stress, it is unavoidable.  The kids, running late, meetings, getting dinner on the table ect, ect but why do I choose to increase it more than necessary?  With those initial stress factors gone, I looked for something else that bought more stress.  We decided that we loved it here so much that we would look to buy.  That in itself is stressful, but we took it a step further and decided we would buy land and build.

Now this may not sound so bad, but our plot of land was at the top of a volcanic hill with a wonderfully, sloping angle thrown in for good balance.  All the builders that took a look, drew in their breath and you could see the dollar signs adding up behind their eyes.  The stress of wanting to make this work while not spending a fortune was building.  The thought of rock blasting and excavation, coupled with an undefined cost before we even started to build sent me into a panic.  Most sane people would call it off instantly but it took me slightly longer, maybe I'm a slower learner. I got there in the end and realised that if it was stressing me now in the planning stages, the build would have put me into overload.

Maybe due to impatience or needing to include a level of stress in my life, I haven't put the house situation out of my head.  I did learn that building in our desired location was difficult and expensive so we have decided to buy a house ready made by people who have gone through the stress for us. 

So while waiting until later in the year would make sense, I am doing it the other way and starting now.  Why I'm not so sure, maybe the fear that I'll miss out on that perfect house if I wait.  But whatever happens I am determined to take it easy and not stress.  I want to exude that calm, peaceful, relaxed persona that I see in others.  I don't want to be late in the mornings and rush kids to school or wedge in homework while cooking, cleaning and folding washing in the evening.  I am sure it can be done, I have hope that one day I will look like that woman in Home magazine with a pristine house and kids, dinner made, ironing done and bread made for the morning. 

But deep down, I know this will never happen. I'd miss the stress and who am I kidding, the woman in the magazine has a team of stylists, cooks and slaves to make her look like that - I'm not even sure the kids are real!  So for now, my hope is to look at life a little differently and try to reduce the rush and stress wherever possible.  I have realised that like most things in our lives - it comes from me, I make it happen so I can make it go away.  Taking one day at a time, lets see what happens....