War Cry spoke to four Cantabrians from The Salvation Army who were only kids when the 2010/2011 earthquakes struck. They generously shared what it was like to experience the natural disaster as young people, what they learned and how Christchurch has changed in the 10 years since.
I mostly slept through the first earthquake in September. I would have been 12 or 13 years old. It didn’t really affect our house; it was just scary. In the second major earthquake in February, we had a half day at school. I got off the bus and was walking back into our subdivision when the earthquake hit. I could see the road warping and bouncing. I didn’t get super freaked out at the time, because there were other kids walking home and I ended up helping them. My mum was stuck at her school and didn’t get home for hours. My dad was able to come and get me; coincidentally, he was on the way home because he had a haircut around the corner. All of the neighbours were taking care of us. People were obviously scared, but their first response was to help everyone else.
I was off school for four months because our school had fallen down. Even when we went back, I was doing half days at Burnside High School from 1pm to 6pm. My dad was a loss adjuster, so he was absolutely slammed doing insurance claims, not coming home until really late at night. My uncle was part of the Search and Rescue team, and he stayed with us. Some of the things he would see through the day and process with us when he got home were crazy. I was interested at the time, and I don’t think I realised how much it affected me. I ended up staying in my parents’ room on a mattress. At the start, it was because my grandparents had come to live with us, but after they moved out, I stayed in there for another four months. When you’re grown up, you see how freaked out you were. I wasn’t young enough to forget, and I wasn’t old enough to fully understand.
We had great corps officers who were really speaking into the fact that God is sovereign and looking after us, no matter what. To know that truth and take it out into the community when I was at school or when we were out helping people who were uncertain or upset, was something we had to lean on. I think other people ended up seeing that. We did a few things with the corps, like helping to clean up people’s houses, but I was at an age where I wasn’t super involved. I was sticking close to home; I don’t think Mum wanted me out too far. My sister, who was a bit older, was really involved with all the older youth group kids.
In the last two years, things have actually started happening—people thought things were going to happen a couple of years after the earthquakes, but it’s taken this long. I like the development of town, because that is all I have known—they’ve created green spaces to come together in, and we’ve got cool buildings that have been designed and renovated. The atmosphere has definitely changed because of that.
In February, I was aged 10 or 11 and at intermediate. I was on top of a climbing wall in the playground when everything started shaking, so I quickly made my way down. It was chaotic. We had to shift where the school was congregating a couple of times, because where we were was overtaken by liquefaction. After what seemed like hours, my mother came and picked me up, along with my brothers and one of my brother’s friends. My dad came home shortly after. We didn’t have power or water. I don’t remember too much about that afternoon. I think we were tidying up what was broken and coming off an adrenaline rush. We spent time at my nana’s house, because she’d had liquefaction that we were helping to shovel, and we could use the power there.
Even though it was bad in Christchurch, particularly during the February earthquakes, my family wasn’t hit that bad. We didn’t lose our home. We didn’t lose any cars. I didn’t know anyone who passed. I had really understanding parents and was blessed with a support network who helped me cope. It was a lot worse for a lot of other people.
Everyone’s empathy was dialled up to 11, and we made a more conscious effort to get alongside people that we may not have normally. It was nice to get involved with the community. Volunteering is a good way to gain a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation. After September, we volunteered at the Addington Raceway, giving out food to people who were without homes and were quite obviously in a rough spot. In February, we spent time at my school with the community shovelling liquefaction.
After four weeks, we went back to school and everything kind of restarted. Because I was a child, I had a childlike view. I wasn’t thinking about the structural integrity of our home and how this was going to impact on insurance; I wasn’t thinking about how we were going to get power or water back—I never had any control of that. I’m sure it was quite frightening for my parents, and I’m sure they were extremely worried about me.
It is very hard to believe it was ten years ago. In Christchurch, we’ve been through a lot and come out the other side. I think everyone is well-practised in coming together and supporting each other. Particularly after the mosque shootings, there was this sense of: we know what we’re doing, we know how to help out and we know how to be kind. That was a change for the better. There was a big push for: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’. Maybe something else that Christchurch has taken from it is having a better understanding of trauma and mental illness, which you’d hope in turn leads to more funding towards initiatives to support that.
For the 6.3 earthquake, I was in my last year of intermediate and it was lunchtime. As a Year 8, I was one of the leaders and I remember a little child got shaken off the monkey bars. She’d fallen and scraped all up her arm, so I took her into the sick bay. All the teachers were crying, trying to get in contact with their families. I remember telling them off, and telling them to pull their heads together, because there were children who were very scared. It was quite chaotic, really.
I didn’t see my father for quite some time, because he does the body recovery for Search and Rescue and New Zealand Police. It was about three days, which was quite hard. That was a long time for an 11-year-old to wait. We couldn’t contact him because phones were down, and when we finally did see him and talk to him, he was sleeping in a pipe. When the buildings would fall around them every time there was an earthquake, a siren would go off and they would run into these pipes and put their gas masks on. These were the kinds of stories that my father would come back and tell us. It was all great learning, and it’s good to be there in support. He saw the front line, so seeing all that can be challenging and the best way to talk about it is with your family. But as a young child, I was exposed to so much more than other 11-year-olds.
I did see a lot of fear. A lot of people did feel a lot safer at home rather than going into big buildings. Christchurch City Central was not somewhere that people wanted to go. As an 11-year-old, that’s the time when you’re really challenging the whole idea of, Is it real? Is it not? When things like this happen and people die, that’s always a question young people ask: ‘How can God be real if this happens to people that are good people?’ That’s a big spanner in the works. But everyone in my life was very safe, so it’s times like that when you say, ‘People are looking out for us’. As a community, The Salvation Army always pulls together and supports in every way.
Cantabrians are very caring people. In Christchurch, we’ve been through a lot in the last 10 years and it pulls community together on a whole other level. People care about people more. People check up on people more. Rebuilding a city, rebuilding relationships … all that is definitely a good thing. I’m really proud of Christchurch.
During the February earthquake, I was 16 and in science class. We had 12 different chemicals and had to mix them to make a list of what happened. I’ve got a good sense of humour about this stuff, but looking back, it was a bit funny to think, wow, it was good nothing went really wrong. We were cowering under the tables, looking up and thinking, hope one of those doesn’t spill.
That afternoon felt split into two halves. There was the half at school, waiting for Mum to collect us. We could see clouds in the distance over the hills where there had been landslides, and in the city, from what we didn’t know at the time, where the building collapsed. It was an atmosphere of curiosity, almost ignorance. We were making jokes. There was a bunch of liquefaction, so everyone was throwing it at each other. In that moment, the school was all our world was.
After Mum had picked us up and we were listening to the radio, we started hearing about people trapped in buildings and rescue teams being deployed. Rapidly, we started realising it was much bigger. It’s hard to answer where God was working in that because there were so many questions—why wasn’t he in that situation, and why wasn’t he in that situation? I know he was but, at the same time, those questions are still there.
The next morning, we served breakfasts to international travellers who had lost their hotels and people who had nowhere to live. We also helped out with the recovery centre at Riccarton Park Racecourse. Where I live wasn’t terribly hit, but the local schools had a lot of liquefaction. The community all went back into the building after it had been cleared and shovelled the classrooms. We ended up making this mountain, probably a good 5–6 metres tall, of liquefaction.
One guy I chatted with, years after, was a butcher in the Eastern suburbs. He had lost power and wasn’t going to be able to save his produce, so he got a barbecue out and spent the day cooking for whoever walked by. For so many people, the logical thought would be: the business is ruined, we’ll focus on surviving. His thought was: how can I turn this into a blessing for other people?
It’s given the city a great chance to reimagine itself. Part of a disaster is learning from it, realising where we fell short as a city. That learning has improved what the future will look like. There might be a young man working in a hotel in the city whose life is saved because we learnt from what previously happened. But it’s always got that context—in the back of my mind, at least—of being built upon the legacy of disaster. You’ll see three containers stacked up against a building, or ruins, or empty parking lots, it hasn’t taken away from the city, but it is that stark reminder.
I definitely noticed the influence of the people who flew down and helped out, even doing mundane tasks. The input of those people made a difference to so many lives. If I could say anything, it’s just thank you to anyone who did come and offer to help. Their impact on people in this city was felt incredibly strongly.