Wellington quakes: how do you react in a crisis?

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.

The State Insurance building of 1940, with the help of the GIMP 'cartoonify' filter and some other adjustments. Now, apparently, it is on a super-earth with thick air and maybe a touch of iodine in the atmosphere.
The State Insurance building of 1940, central Wellington – a photo I took and dealt to with the help of the GIMP ‘cartoonify’ filter and some other adjustments.

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.

My first effort to abstract at 18mm focal length.
Te Papa Tongarewa – New Zealand’s national museum, one of the largest buildings in the Southern Hemisphere, is built on reclaimed land but quake-proofed via a unique base isolation system developed right here in New Zealand.

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


17 thoughts on “Wellington quakes: how do you react in a crisis?

  1. I thought about you – and all the other Kiwis – when I saw that news this morning. Having been through several small earthquakes and at the edge of the 1959 Hebgan Lake, Montana earthquake which registered 7.3-7.5 on the Richter scale and lasted about 40 seconds (just call it an eternity) I would not like to be closer to the center. Our house suffered cracks but it was wood and flexed, our parakeet who roamed free in the house learned how to shriek earthquake, and the cat who had been sleeping on the roof spent the night prowling around and yowling. Having worked in law enforcement and as an EMT I found I coped pretty well in a crisis but once the crisis was past and the adrenalin wore off was when I suddenly got weak in the knees and thought “did I really just do that?”

    1. Thanks – yes, the adrenalin takes over. Training helps, too. And afterwards there’s always that reaction.

      This quake wasn’t too bad for us – I’ve been through worse. But it’s the worst for a long time. A wake-up call, at the very least.

  2. When I was some where between 10 and 15, my dad and I were hauling grain to the elevator in a three ton truck (on a very under maintained highway) to Crystal City, Manitoba ( https://maps.google.ca/maps?client=opera&oe=utf-8&channel=suggest&q=crystal+city+mb+google+maps&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x52c2d1a5e52562a3:0x1c2460376927dea7,Crystal+City,+MB&gl=ca&ei=zlHsUdOMLYXKqwHhyYGADg&ved=0CCwQ8gEwAA) and watched a funnel cloud form in the sky and come towards us.

    I remember having the discussion in the truck about what to do, but the funnel cloud was close enough we were in it’s direct path and wouldn’t have had any sort of hiding place, or safe zone to be in. I remember my dad saying, well you never know when the end is. Maybe it’s today, maybe it’s not. I replied, “It’s probably not.” The funnel cloud hovered, but didn’t touch down. Twice after that, bad winds, or tunnel clouds went through the family farm, and took out trees, but never touched the house. My dad and I watched one night as wind took out a row of trees about 100 yards away, and when my mom woke up and asked us why we didn’t make everyone go to the basement, we both shrugged and said – it was over there. There was no real danger here.

    I’ve seen a few since then, but this year’s tornado and thunderstorm warnings have risen. Feels a bit now, much like it did driving in the truck that day, like we’ve entered into the land of Oz, and not in a good way.

    1. Now that’s one scary moment! I like your Dad’s philosophy – and your response. We don’t get too many tornadoes in NZ – not really big ones anyhow – and they’re just as much a gigantic force of nature as a quake, and we’re just as helpless before their power.

      1. Their both definitely forces of nature not to be messed with. I’m glad you’re safe and sound. The architecture bits of your post were really interesting!

        1. Thanks. Our engineers have had generations of data to hone their quake-proofing techniques – the quake code is regularly revised on the basis of analysis following every major quake, and has been since the 1931 HB quake. The Te Papa building, which is monolithically ugly (looks to me like Tracy Island off Thunderbirds) is also massively safe.

  3. I’m heartened to see the way Christchurch residents are supporting Wellingtonians. Check out the Facebook page ‘You Know You’re from Christchurch When’ – there are hundreds of posts from Christchurch earthquake veterans passing on their tips for coping with the physical problems and the mental impact. It’s advice you wouldn’t necessarily find on the Civil Defence website and all given with humour and sympathy. Good to see.

    1. Yes – it’s a wonderful spirit. It’s a funny thing; back in 2000 I wrote a book on the 1931 Hawke’s Bay quake – was published for the 70th anniversary in 2001. In it I theorised that a lot of the quake spirit then came from the cameraderie of WWI – certainly that provided a good deal of the actual structure behind relief efforts locally. We haven’t had a war like that (mercifully!) of late – and yet, we see the same spirit of co-operation flourishing, which to me says a good deal about the way positive human values underscore so much of what we do. It’s great to see.

  4. I was only in one earthquake and that was about 20 years ago. It was very slight (I don’t know the magnitude), but it was enough to disorient and shake-up someone who’d never been in one. At first I thought there was something wrong with me, but then I looked at my eldest daughter and her eyes were wide. A couple of years earlier I was viewing a nearby waterfall with my daughters when a large rock fell and then bounced upward. It struck my youngest (she was 6 then) in the head. I carried her the half-mile to the car and then raced to the hospital. I was soaked in her blood when I arrived. Currently, she’s a college graduate and works as a laboratory technician.

    1. We never know how we’ll react to quakes. I think there’s more to it than just the shaking too. I have a suspicion we also react to the ultrasonic and subsonic frequencies that go with it. Seeing your youngest hit by a rock sounds a scary experience. Not something any mum ever wants to have to go through! I’m glad it had a happy ending.

  5. I am a Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery Coordinator, by profession. Contingency planning and response is what I think about during a large portion of my waking hours. So when i got your Tweet last week, I immediately began thinking about potential damage and probable response scenarios. Even though my company does not have offices in NZ, we review news reports and professional periodical’s accounting of the situation to learn what happened, and how the response was handled. Thankfully, I have not had to respond directly to a major earthquake, but hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and winter storms keep me busy enough. Throw in train derailments in downtown areas and highway bridge collapses just for something different. I hope the Big One does not come anytime soon.

    1. Thanks – sounds like you’ve got the full range there, except quakes. They’re our main issue here, and most government offices and companies have continuity plans. The Christchurch experience prodded most households to sort out their emergency kits, though there was still panic buying here on Monday. The military are also on hand; when the Christchurch quake struck, the RNZN had ships actually in Lyttleton harbour and immediately sent parties ashore to help. Later they used their big MRV to run heavy equipment and bulk supplies down from Wellington, while the army joined the effort on the ground in Christchurch. I guess we’re in line with international trend here, of course. But our disaster-planners have put a good deal of thought into organising for various quake scenarios, and one day – inevitably – one of them happens, and the plan gets dusted off.

  6. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve experiences many earthquakes—gratefully, non severe. They are, as you well described, wake up calls. Each time one happens, many of us wonder about the dreaded ‘Big One,’ which has honestly made me wonder whether living here long-term is fully wise.

    When crises happen, I tend to get really calm. Typically after, once the adrenaline that’s probably been keeping me that way lowers, I’m exhausted. The last time that happened, my husband had a kidney stone, and we didn’t know what it was. I was scared rationally, but almost couldn’t feel it–odd, but good, I suppose.

    Having a basic plan for potential crises seems to help us get through them, I’ve learned, because when they DO strike, we often lose our bearings. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    1. Yes, life on the Pacific Rim of Fire has its moments! We can’t really get away from the quake zones in New Zealand. I understand the ‘calm’ response – I get that myself, though it’s not associated with adrenalin. I just don’t seem to feel fear.

      I guess we never know how we’ll react until the crisis hits. I wrote a book a few years back exploring the psychology of military heroism. But the principles of behaviour are the same in any crisis situation, and it’s interesting to see how they develop, especially en masse. I’ve seen people play ‘follow my leader’ in one emergency my wife and I encountered, without questioning whether the instructions made sense (they didn’t).

  7. When I was about 8 years old we were living in a trailer park. One evening a tornado came through and flung the door open. I was in my underwear and really upset that everyone could see me. I shut the door, put my jammies on and went to bed. At my age, it was just wind; no biggie. The next morning we saw the damage. No one had gotten hurt, thankfully. There was debris all over the place. The worst thing for us kids was that the big tree in the center of the park was broken and had to be removed.
    We also had a flood (I think it was the same year.). The creek ran behind the back of the park, and normally was maybe 10 ft. wide. We waded in it so you know it wasn’t deep. That day it rained, by evening the water was getting high enough we had to move out, along with 5 other trailers. I was all excited because I got to sleep in the “big house”. It belonged to the owners of the park. I guess when you’re young a crisis doesn’t get you as excited as Christmas or the Easter bunny. The water didn’t worry. I wanted to sleep in a real house. All the kids had to sleep on the floor, but that was not a problem as far as I was concerned.
    As an adult I’ve had a number of crisis situations, but the worst one was when my 17-year-old son took ill. He was 6 ft and a good 200 lbs. He awoke disoriented and belligerent. His dad reached for him to get him to the car. He took a swing, his dad ducked, but he left an indentation in the wall. His older brother stepped in between them and managed to get him to get into the truck. My son always sat on the door side when the three of us rode together, but we tried to get him to sit in the middle. He refused. We were afraid, in his confused state, he would open the door while we were driving. We lived 10 minutes from the hospital. I think we made it in 5! He was treated with antibiotics for 4-5 days, but got no better. They had put him in 4-point leather restraints because he was violent. He did a curl with the one side rail. Back then, they were made of tubular metal with a solid 1/4″ metal bracket attaching it the bed. My other son bent it back up, but it never looked the same. Anyone, one day the doctor came in and told me that they were trying an anti-fungal. This was the last resort, if this didn’t work in the next 24 hours, I needed to see about funeral arrangements. He walked out. Talk about a cold bedside manner! I think I sat for a moment letting what he said sink in. I was a nurse at that hospital, but this was my son. I was there alone. Do you know how hard you can pray when you have only 24 hours? Almost to the 24 hour mark nothing changed. Then, like a miracle, his condition changed, improving dramatically. He remembers very little of that night. The only memory is when I reached around him to lock the car door.

    1. Two tales in which your courage clearly shines – though I guess you may not have known it, perhaps, at the time? I cannot think of anything more awful than a mum having to face the potential death of her son. I’m glad everything worked out well in the end.

  8. I guess I’ve lead a boring life because most of the time I’ve not faced horrors, or challenges such as all those earthquakes. Heck I haven’t even lived through ONE that I could feel, though I’m told I slept through one I feel.

    As close as I can come was 44 years ago when we were on our Honeymoon and while visiting NYC we had gone into a local museum to see one of those traveling exhibits. That long ago you could actually find on-street parking and we had parked our car about 5 blocks from the museum.

    When we were leaving the museum (set back from the sidewalk by about 30 feet) I was looking towards the street and said to my wife, “there goes our stuff.” And sure as anything I saw a rather large man walking down the street carrying a small blue suitcase and a traveling back filled with clothing — including my suit, my wife’s knee length wedding dress (small wedding) and inside the suitcase — our checkbook.

    I told her to stay behind — she was confused about what was going on — and it walked quickly towards the man with our belongings. I caught up to him at the next street corner / stop light and while we both stood there waiting for the light to change, I said, “Excuse me, but you have our things and I’d like them back.”

    I’m sure he was shocked that this far from the car he’d gotten caught. With everything under one arm and in one hand his other hand was fiddling around in his pocket and I was no little be worried he might have a knife or something in there, but he sheepishly handed over our things, I turned and left, he beat feet across the street and end of story.

    Except when we got to the car we found there were other things missing. Either he went back for a second load, or someone else got tto our car before him. But the other things missing were minor by comparison. We did return home with very few souvenirs of our honeymoon — but we did return home alive and with a story to tell.

    Not something I would do again today. It’s a different world out there now….. I still tremble when I think about it.

    A retired Photographer looks at life
    Life Unscripted

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