Thursday, July 16, 2009

The mother of all earthquakes

Last night at 9.22 pm New Zealand was hit by the biggest earthquake since the disastrous Napier quake of 1931. It registered 7.8 on the Richter scale, and was quite shallow, and my oh my did I feel it too. You'd have to travel back in time to the 1800s to find a bigger earthquake in Aotearoa New Zealand.

They say that the epicentre was 300 kilometres away from my beach house, but the seismic waves were still massive as they passed by our location...

Now that it seems there were no casualties and thankfully as it happened in an isolated area to the southwest of the country, there wasn't any large scale damage to property either, then I can gloat about what fun it all was... hehehe.

I love earthquakes! And what better than to have experienced a monster seismic event that was relatively benign.

I was once quite close to the epicentre of a destructive 6.3 earthquake (it was in Taranaki, and we lost our brick chimney), but this one was clearly a much more powerful quake, even though happening further away. You could just tell it was enormous. By the time it got to me, it involved huge swaying movements, very strong but strangely gentle, as though the whole house was a boat being pulled back and forth (and round about) by strong currents.

Wanna hear the whole story? (I'm going to tell it any way!)

I was sitting on the bed, and I had just opened up a book on Italian cookery that I had borrowed from the Library. I was mulling over the difference between white and black truffles. First I heard a loud roaring outside, behind me, and so I expected a train to be about to hurtle around the corner, as usual, along the side of the estuary just below my window. When no train came by (and I didn't notice any shaking at that stage), I wondered if it had been thunder, or a truck that I had heard.

I think the quake must have already started - gently - but I still didn't know about it.

I didn't have time to resume pondering on truffles, or to register what had happened to the vanishing train, before the bedhead I was leaning against, bucked against me hard as though somebody was behind the bed and had shoved it suddenly. I was knocked forward, and the bed rocked, maybe even jumped a bit. I found this all a bit mysterious as of course nobody could have been behind the bed, because it backs onto an outside wall.

I was a bit slow. It was late, I had had a fantastic day, involving a scenic train ride, and I had just consumed a relaxing glass of white wine with a lovely pasta meal.

I still didn't twig... I love the way it's quite common for people to take a few moments to realise there is an earthquake happening. We go through a list of possibilities for the fact that our environment is acting so strangely. But I couldn't think of any reason for the bed having been jolted like that out of the blue.

Suddenly I realised that the whole room was sort of gyrating in a circular movement... and the bed was sliding around in time - and that's when I worked it out!

"Earthquake!" I shouted, leaped up and ran to the door, opened it, and stood under the door jamb.

But there was no sound. Then I had an air of disbelief, as nothing was moving, or didn't seem to be. Had I imagined it? Nothing was rattling. Was it over? Had there even been a quake?

I looked around for something hanging to see if it was moving back and forward (a good diagnostic for the sneaky sideways quakes), but there wasn't anything suitable near me. Then I heard a creak off in another room, and another creak in the roof. Loud, the way a boat creaks (or a Lockwood house), and I became aware that the whole house was moving gently, but with very large movements, like a boat on water.

The lights flickered a few times. So it was a quake, a giant gentle one, and it was still happening, and we might be about to lose power, or the quake might develop into something more hazardous. Time to declare an emergency!

So I ran into the kitchen to discover that the man of the house, washing dishes, was completely oblivious.

"Earthquake! A big one!"

"Nah..." He's one of those unflappable types, quick to scepticism.

There were more hanging things in the kitchen to diagnose movement by, and I was saying "Look! Look!" but it wasn't until Mr P clapped eyes on the dramatically swinging row of hanging kitchen utensils that he was convinced.

The shiny lineup of culinary implements (soup ladle, fish slice, spatula, etc) was very tidily, all in unison, swinging sideways in a wide arc, then back again, like an executive toy...

No way to explain that, except that the whole house was rocking back and forth...

It might be subtle, but it was clearly major.

"Oh god, I hope nobody is dying where ever this is centred," I said.

And it just kept going. Maybe more than two minutes altogether, and once you knew it was happening, you could feel it. And hang on to something. It would have been easy to miss it, I think, because of the gentleness.

And then we had to deal with the barrage of tsunami warnings. "Don't go down to the coast" we were warned by texters who had access to official warnings.

But I live on the coast!

It felt good to know there were so many people in other parts of the country, with internet access, who were looking out for me and keeping me up with the latest alerts.

Otherwise all I had was talk back radio, that great entertainer, but unreliable ally in times of civil disaster...

After about an hour of readiness to evacuate (mine) mixed with scepticism (his) the tsunami alert was cancelled and I was able to resume enjoying the multiple and sometimes sizable aftershocks, which continue to this very moment of typing up my anecdotes the following afternoon.

Creak... Creak...


Vanda Symon said...

It certainly was a good un. We had swinging light shades and doors swinging too. We were watching a recorded episode of From the Earth to the Moon - great special effects for the launch sequence!

sas said...

all we heard was that nz had been hit by a 7.8 earthquake. my heart fell into my belly. i am so pleased everyone is ok :)

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Yes, it was incredibly lucky that it wasn't near a city, and that nobody has been killed. The same magnitude of earthquake killed 10,000 people in China.

Also the rolling nature of the quake seems to have mean that there wasn't so much damage. I noticed that my house seemed to be riding with the quake rather than jolting against it.

Mary McCallum said...

fantastic write-up PC - I felt a jolt here in wellington, that's all - but my brother-in-law rang from Canada very worried about the tsunami warning as we live by the sea too... and that's when I read about the scale of the 'jolt' [loved the bedhead knocking you]

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Well Mary, it's not often that Dunedin has a bigger earthquake than you get in Wellington!

The issue of the tsunami warning is a tricky one. A quake of that size out to sea could well have created a dangerous wave. What level of threat would make a person leave their warm home on a cold night? How many people would have perished if there HAD been a wave? Scary.

lmrb said...

You love earthquakes! They freak me out, a bit like contemplating the universe - beyond my comprehension. I've experienced them here in Sydney too. Something woke me around dawn, it seemed eerily quiet, I toddled off to spend a penny. As I perched on the throne, the kingdom shook. Uncanny timing. The Newcastle earthquake was a freak out too - I was at my dining table and suddenly my head hit the wall, followed by an incredible rumbling that said earthquake. Stay safe folks.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Hi lmrb, I'm glad to hear the land of OZ has earthquakes too. That's one of things I would miss if I moved away from the shaky isles.

Must say I was also once on the loo for an earthquake. It was quite a major jolt and sent me running for the doorway in a most undignified fashion.

Listened to the radio, rang arund various people to check on eyewitness reports, and after about 40 minutes I returned to the lav to finish the business.

I kid you not, but as soon as I sat down, an aftershock struck!

lmrb said...

I'm chuckling still - what a hoot.

ps. I'm from Dunedin, been away for too long. Think I must take the shakes with me - I even experienced an earthquake in England - very odd.