When an earthquake hits

We were playing cards. I’d just received a Snapchat from my friend. I opened the Snapchat. Then the power went out. One person reached to turn the light back on. “Power cut?” I remember someone asking.

Then the floor started shaking. “Is this an earthquake?” I said, under my breath. “I think it actually is,” someone said. The room shook and shook. I remember someone giggling slightly at the ridiculousness of the situation.

By this point we had all sunk off our chairs to the floor. In front of me was a low coffee table. I realised, for some reason, that I should probably try and get under it. Looking back this seems comical. My head ended up underneath it, but my torso, arse, and legs were sticking out in the air.

In the kitchen, what seemed to be an endless stream of delicate objects crashed onto the floor. A recycling bin full of glass beer bottles rattled, exacerbating the noise. At some point, the large flat-screen TV fell off its cabinet, and the screen smashed. “Fuck,” someone whispered. I thought the building was going to collapse and that we would be buried underneath it. I have never been more terrified.

I remember there was a moment when the movement died down. I thought about getting up, but before long the room was shaking again. What is now difficult to get my head round was that all of this must have been over within two minutes. It seemed to last forever.

It stopped. I relaxed suddenly. Phew, thank god that’s over, I thought. But then someone said the word “tsunami”.

Kaikoura, which was hit the worst by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake, is a small coastal town. Earthquake + sea = tsunami.

The hostel manager, Tim, ran in and asked if everyone was okay. He had a panicked look in his eyes. Someone shouted “should we go?”. He said, “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Yes. Get to high ground.” Where was high ground?

I ran to my room, threw as much of my stuff in my bag as possible. Two Austrian guys who I was sharing a room with looked weary, scared, and confused. I asked if everyone was okay. They were. A glass of water that was on the bed-side table had smashed, leaving some of my belongings wet. All the while I was scrambling around in my pocket, trying to find the car key.

I grabbed the bag, dumped it in the boot and for some reason I remembered that my phone charger was still inside. I ran back to get it. Laura, who I’m travelling with, had also finished her frantic packing and we got in. I put the car into reverse and almost crashed into the car in front of me, which was also reversing. I followed everyone else, trying desperately to not crash into anything and also try to make sense of the situation. I remember the air conditioning wasn’t working and the rear window was fogged up.

I don’t remember driving uphill, but I had inadvertently followed some locals to a designated tsunami safe zone on the top of a high headland. There was a lot of misinformation. We spoke to a local who had said there was no tsunami warning. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then some others came along and said that the Civil Defence wanted everyone to gather in an area just down the street. There was a tsunami warning and we had to stay the night in the safe zone. I got half an hour’s sleep while sitting at a picnic table.

I didn’t think the sun would ever come up, but it did. The whole place looked completely different in the day. Everything looked normal, until you saw a fallen telephone pylon, or a massive crack in the road. The damage to the city centre was, in superficial terms, limited. Under the surface, the impact was massive. There was no power and no running water. All roads in and out of Kaikoura had been massively damaged. We wouldn’t be leaving for days.

After the long first night, we eventually were allowed to return to our hostel near the centre of town. The hostel itself was structurally fine, and Tim was excellent in looking after everyone in the wake of a massive disaster occurring on his doorstep.

We now had to learn to deal with the uncertainty. We didn’t know how long we were going to stay, what we we could eat and drink, how we could get our car out of the town. We didn’t know anything.

Emotionally, the whole experience was exhausting. For the majority of the time, I was fine: I could only deal with the circumstances I was in, and it made no sense to wallow in the horror of being stranded somewhere that had limited food and drink supplies. But when people showed unabashed kindness, the situation was harder to process. For example, when I saw a lady who was a Red Cross volunteer still working after 36 hours on the job, I just wanted to cry. Such dedication and generosity gives me faith in humanity at a time when generally the state of the world is pretty awful.

After returning to the hostel, it became a case of waiting. Tim’s mum – and the owner of the hostel – Joan had located a natural spring tap that meant we could get buckets of fresh drinkable water, which alleviated the stress of finding water. We clubbed together in the hostel and pooled our food so we could cook collectively and make the most of the food we had. The situation forged great friendships with our fellow guests in the hostel, and the camaraderie that was borne out of some dour circumstances helped massively to make everything palatable.

Every day we would travel up to the local community centre, which had been turned into a hub of activity. This was where you could sleep if you had no where to sleep, eat if you had nothing to eat, and connect with your family if you had not yet connected. The outlook would be delivered at daily briefings, and news changed rapidly from one day to the next.

The plan was to get every single tourist out of Kaikoura as quickly as possible. At the time of the quake, there were almost as many tourists in Kaikoura as there are permanent residents in the town. The strain this put on the infrastructure of the town meant the emergency response’s top priority was to alleviate the pressure by evacuating tourists.

It became clear eventually that we would have to abandon our car and get out by whatever means possible. On Wednesday, we struck an amazing run of luck that made our evacuation possible.

The day started with two of our new friends informing us frantically that a Navy boat was headed for Kaikoura and if you wanted to get out on it, you had to register as soon as possible. Without this information, we wouldn’t have rushed to pack our bags and head up the hill. We joined a long queue and registered. Any getaway looked a long way off. But as we sat and waited, a woman named Glenda, who worked for the Red Cross came over and asked if there were any groups of five. We had queued and registered with three German friends, which made us a group of five. We were to be given a priority civilian helicopter ride out of Kaikoura. We were the first group Glenda asked.

About an hour later we were in the air, headed for Christchurch. We were received by more incredible Red Cross staff, and were given hot food, unlimited drink, and a hot shower. The ordeal was over. We were out.

Psychologically, I hadn’t fully recovered. Throughout the entire aftermath of the earthquake, there were severe aftershocks. These shocks were tortuous, reminding you of the first event. Every time the room started to quietly rumble, I tensed and my heart rate quickened. Upon arriving in Christchurch I was still imagining small aftershocks, which isn’t a major issue but goes to show the lasting effects of one serious earthquake. Over the last few days, as we’ve continued our travels, I’ve slowly relaxed. We have new friends travelling with us (while we were able to get a replacement rental car, our German friends had to abandon the car they owned. We offered them the three spare seats in our car) and have a million stories to tell.

I’ve learned many things: I’ve learned what an earthquake feels like (it’s like being on a London Tube train that is rattling from side to side, but also moving up and down at random intervals). I’ve learned that humanity is fundamentally good if the situation gets bad enough. I’ve learned that nature is terrifying. And I’ve learned that one of the best ways to make new friends is to experience an earthquake with them.