My hometown – Christchurch, New Zealand – got smashed in an earthquake today

My hometown – Christchurch, New Zealand – got smashed in an earthquake today


Most of the people reading this probably don’t know New Zealand. Ours is an impossibly small country. There are not six degrees of separation here – maybe two. New Zealanders are constantly amazed at the regular occurance of what seems to be an unlikely linking of friends of friends. I imagine that 65 people are connected in some way to every person in New Zealand. That may seem unlikely, but if you’ve driven from Dunedin to Wanganui and met Matthew at a bar who used to play bass in your cousin’s band, then you will know what I mean. It takes something like an earthquake to really make you worry about separation.

The morning of the quake, I woke up and got into an argument with my girlfriend. It was stupid and I was being over-sensitive. She lives in Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand. I grew up there, but three years ago I moved to Auckland, in the North Island. It’s been long-distance for almost five months now, so arguments like this happen from time to time. Digital technology, despite letting us look at each other over Skype most nights, is often the cause of these arguments. This one, for example, came about because an email failed to send. Mostly, the technology between us is a good thing, but sometimes I feel totally useless in the face of this inability to physically support her, like I’m the most impotent person on the planet.

We resolved the argument – basically, I just had to stop being stupid – and I left the house. I got a job yesterday, and today I had to go in and return signed contracts. The job is at an intermediate school and the contracts were all written in comic sans. I was biking up a hill when I got a text message from my girlfriend at around 1 p.m. It said, “You need to ring me.” I thought it was about the argument we’d had, that perhaps I’d gotten the wrong idea when I thought we’d gotten through it. She answered immediately and told me there had been a large earthquake in Christchurch.

This one wasn’t like the one last year – a 7.3 magnitude earthquake. This one was smaller in magnitude, but a lot shallower, and the epicenter was much closer, causing a lot more damage. The last one happened in the night, when people were in bed. This one happened in the middle of the day, when people were out buying and eating lunch.

My girlfriend was frightened. I didn’t know what to do. I asked if she was okay. She said she was scared and sounded like she was crying. I wanted to turn my bike around and develop some kind of calf-based-rocket system to get me to Christchurch. I wanted to grow big, big, big hands and hold onto the ground so that it wouldn’t shake anymore and then scoop her up hold her up in the air in case more earthquakes happened. I wanted to do everything but I couldn’t do anything. I told her it would be okay. I told her I loved her. I yelled it because the reception was bad and loud seemed to find her easier. There was another woman on the same street who was talking into a phone in a very fast and focused way. She was probably talking to someone in Christchurch. My girlfriend was facing a natural disaster and I had nothing, no armour or enchantments or weaponry, to help her. I became that much more impotent. She told me she needed to call her family, and me said goodbye for a bit.

I realised my family was there too so I called my mother. She has multiple sclerosis and her mobility is limited. I called her and the phone was ringing and I was thinking that she would have fallen on the ground and be rolling around and might be crushed by the bookcase in my old living room, which houses my father’s substantial Peanuts collection. She didn’t answer her phone. My imagination intensified. A large crack opened up at my family home and down it my mother fell. She didn’t answer again. I called my brother. The phone line seemed to be down. I text messaged him. Sons are supposed care for their mothers, it’s in every movie. Sons can resent it, but they can’t not do it. And I’m not in the same city as my family. I can’t do anything from here. I called my girlfriend. She told me about her house. Flooding by way of burst pipes. Ceilings had become wrought with cracks. “Everything fell down. Everything fell down. We have nothing now.” My girlfriend was living through the death of everything and I was on Ponsonby road. My brother sent me a message. My brother was okay. I texted him asking about mum. I tried to sound extremely desperate in the text message. I text messaged my dad as well.

I got on my bike and looked at everyone. People in cars were smiling. They were listening to the radio, because everyone does when they’re driving, and the radio must know about this, so the radio would have told them, so why the fuck are they smiling? I biked past people renting DVDs, somehow not realizing they shouldn’t be watching “Eat, Pray, Love” and a time like this. I biked past people eating at cafes – also, not the time for eggs benedict, people. Everyone on the phone was probably talking to people in Christchurch. I was cool with those people. We all had the same look – a look of hopelessness.

I bought some food. The eftpos machines were down. People were blaming the earthquake and acting like calling loved ones was a selfish thing to do. I bought a spinach and feta danish and two chocolate hot cross buns because there was nothing I could do and I had to be doing something.

I got to my job and did all of my stuff. I got  several messages – everyone in my family was fine. I called my best friend. He told me he was holding his newborn baby when the earthquake happened. He was sheltering his baby and I was eating a vegetarian pastry.

I went to the library and watched the news footage of people, minutes after they’ve been rescued from a toppled building, getting interviewed. Everyone was looking at the big, library television. There were some people using the free wi-fi, looking at people watching tv. I felt like they were assholes and that at least one of them was making a snide remark on Facebook or Twitter about the earthquake.

I called my girlfriend again. She was worried about her grandmother and was going to see her. She had gotten in contact with her parents. Everyone I know seemed to be okay. I look at the tv and wished I was helping people or just talking to my family. I wanted to be sleeping in my girlfriend’s bed. I went to the graphic novels and read one by Jason. It made me laugh, and then feel bad. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway measured eachother’s dicks and I enjoyed that on “Our darkest day.” (New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key).

My family is pretty hardy I guess. They’re all ok. There are sixty-five confirmed deaths. ‘They” say that number could rise to anywhere between two and four hundred.

I didn’t feel any overwhelming emotions today. I remember when I was about 11 and my first real pet, a guinea pig, died. I cried and was angry and was confused. Guinea pig bodies got flat when they die, as if they’re been smashed. Today my hometown got smashed by an earthquake. I don’t know what I am supposed to do and I if I think really hard, I think there’s only nothing. I hate that so much. I am the most impotent person on the planet.

Joseph Harper

  • Wow, awesome story Joe. I totally relate to your feelings in this.