New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, woke this Monday morning to chaos after being shaken by 230 earthquakes in a 72 hour period, including a 6.5 magnitude quake at 5.09 pm on Sunday that lasted more than 20 seconds and sent masonry and glass showering into some streets.
The USGS reported it as 6.9. Local GNS scientists measured it at 6.5 – our seismic network is a fantastic bit of technology that reports ‘first draft’ results to the web in real time. The energy released was still equal to about 20,000,000 tons of TNT. That’s about half as much again as the maximum yield of a US B-83 nuclear weapon. Nature, let’s face it, can dwarf human endeavour.
In another demonstration of nature’s reality, GNS scientists initially pinned the quakes to a particular known fault line, but now report that two separate tectonic events are happening – a sideways plate movement entering the mix. James Watt once insisted that nature could be tamed, if we could but find the weak point. Actually, it doesn’t have any.
The quake was centred 58 km from Wellington. Luckily. Our house rocked and rattled. My computer bounced on the desk – not good news for hard drives – while I grabbed a glass I had sitting nearby to stop it skittering. In another room my wife grabbed the TV set to stop it falling. I wasn’t afraid of the roof coming in – we live in a wood-frame building; they twist and flex, but don’t collapse unless they quake has a felt intensity of X or XI. And it could have been worse. A LOT worse.
The quake happened just on sunset and we were rocked by aftershocks during the night, enough to wake us up. Today it’s a grey Monday, and trains are out while lines are inspected, engineers are looking over buildings – streets are cordoned off. Part of the problem is that large parts of downtown Wellington are on reclaimed land. They include the railway station. It looks like masonry. Actually it’s steel-frame and concrete. When engineers developed it back in the early 1930s, they drew on Japanese expertise to help the quake-proofing.
The quake swarm – so far – hasn’t constituted the ‘big one’ that might kill 1500 or more in downtown Wellington alone if it occurred in office hours. Power, water and essential services are still on. Had the epicentre of Sunday’s quake been closer to the city, it would have suffered similar damage to Christchurch.
It’s a warning – a wake-up call. The major faults near Wellington haven’t ruptured.
And it leads me to a couple of questions. One of the best resources a writer has – their food and drink – is their own experience. That’s true for all writing, but especially fiction. Self-analysis becomes a habit. For me, this quake wasn’t a major; I’ve faced worse quakes, and I’ve faced worse threats to life and limb.
Still, we are not often tested by crisis.
Have you ever had to face a moment of crisis – and what did you do?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013