The Saturday After – reflection on an earthquake

Last Saturday around this time we were driving around town looking for a gas filling outlet and an open library or community centre. Five hours before a massive earthquake struck the city, shaking the foundation of our house and our nerves. The quake took out our electricity. As I reached out in the darkness for the cell phone and wanted to use the light of the phone to guide us to safety (the flashlight were there somewhere in the house it had to be retreived), and check the time (I usually do not sleep with watch on, a practice I changed since). The battery indicator in the cell phone showed it was nearly dying, talk of [Murphy’s laws][] :).

Lesson number one: keep cellphones charged at all times. At least,

have a car cellphone charger ready The next concern was to see that the laptops and the devices were safe. The house was safe and withstood the onslaught. We packed the papers and the stuff and just then there was an aftershock (one of the many nearly 300 aftershocks that would rip through the city in the next seven days). The electricity gone, the streetlights were out, life was over dependent on availability of non-stop electriicy these days. I thought of our lives in India. In Calcutta, you take electricity often as a premium on life. You do not know when it’s there, the next time it’s gone. Living in New Zealand made us soft (not quite, we got hardened in other aspects). But here was lesson

2 Do not depend on electricity too much, always have alternative options.

I thought of Howard Barnes. Howard ran his hutel (a combination of a trekkers hut in the deep forests on the other side of Arthur’s Pass). He is a genius, he generated his own electricity from a nearby stream. We spent two nights in his hotel a couple of years back, it was quite an experience. He used a gas fired fridge. Looking at the fridge full of pershable items, Howards’ innovation and frugality came to mind. Genius. He’d have it covered. Till then we did not know that the earthquake had its epicentre not far from where he lived.

We had a gas cylinder that we used for heating the house. We had a small burner in the garage we occassionally used for frying stuff or cooking. These were going to be useful now. Except the gas cylinder was getting empty. We climbed in the car. The car radios played sixties music. At 5 AM in the morning with darkness outside, the ground shaked, even the car did not feel safe anymore. We turned on the radio. The jockeys must have left the station putting on autopilot mode. There was no news of the quake. There were pre recorded discussions about life on the radio, but nothing suggested that they wondered what was going around town. Fake real time transmission.

The phones were ringing inside the house. Someone was calling. We answered the phone call. A terrified friend wanted to know the next. Next thing? Did we know ourselves? We called another friend who lived close to the city centre, just checking. The phone kept on ringing. No reply. Perhaps he stepped outside. He must be safe. Safe, safe, safety, talk of good things, call for calmness. News, we need the news.

We climbed back into the car. The radio played on. We changed the channels and started surfing. The thing cackled and music blared and filled the car. It was a still day, the day was slowly breaking around us. The car trembled. We knew it wasn’t the wind. The birds called at a distance. The birds were chirping in the trees. Not today. An eerie silence engulfed us.

At last, there was news. It was from a station in Australia. They said they heard of an earthquake striking early in Christchurch. The city centre was badly damaged.

A shiver went down our spines. City centre?

Even at that hour, we could see cars started plying on the streets. People were moving. The screech of an ambulance rented the air. We drove to our friend’s house. On the roadside close to where he lived, bricks flew out from the walls and lay shattered on the sidewalk. Someone by then had put a couple of traffic cones and isoloated the area. From the road we could see his building stood, and there was electricity in there. Good, he must be safe. We reached his apartment. He was not there. He must have moved out somewhere else.

We drove back. At six in the morning, the city wore a desolate, empty look. The petrol pump was busy. We filled in petrol and gas for the bottle. People in the queue had sleepless, horrified looks on their faces. They told horror stories I wouldn’t like to believe. But they were all there.

A beautiful, quiet, sunny day unfolded as we returned to the house. We went and looked around. There was no sign of any obvious damage to the house. Books flew out of the bookshelf. Things were scattered all over. We tidied up.

Tidying up frees your mind when you are stressed. Do something,

don’t just fool around. Mom’s lesson.

Mom. Family back in India. Friends. Need to give them a call. Got to tell them that it’s OK. We survived. It was too early. Anyway.

We got the plunger from the shelf and poured coffee in it. Boiled water in the gas fired stove and put it in. Slow, manual, process of coffee brewing and coffee was made in the plunger. Goodbye coffee maker (seriously, plunger is NOW our method). The coffee tasted heavenly. Our neighbours visited us. Asked how we were doing. Shared a torch and a transistor.

Information, the third lesson. Get the information source at hand

when disaster strikes. Wherever you are, keep prepared so that you are never out of information.

The streetlights lightened.

Time to thank the city folks who did a marvellous job in getting the city back to action. You wouldn’t feel a thing if you lived where we lived that a 7 pointer eathquake hit life hard.

What a day to begin. What a weekend.

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