Thursday 17 November 2016

5 things I now understand about earthquakes that I didn’t a week ago

This wasn’t going to be the topic of my next post, but you know, shit happens, and as somebody who considers themselves an outsider to this New land we call Zea, as well as somebody with an addictive habit for writing about everything, it seemed appropriate to give you some thoughts from the front line of shudder city.

You can’t predict the damage
The earthquake that hit near Kaikoura on Sunday night/ Monday morning was much bigger than the one that gave destroying Christchurch a really good go in 2011. The Kaikoura area has been badly damaged but the devastation is nothing like the scale of that which followed the Christchurch quake. This tells me two things:
1.       It’s not always the size of the quake on the Richter scale that’s the true indicator of how damaging an earthquake can be, but where the epicentre is and how deep underground it is, and
2.       The risk to personal safety is vastly reduced when a quake happens during a time of day when people are not at work or travelling.

In terms of the effects on Wellington, buildings across the town centre and University campuses have suffered and are now closed off, some people were left without power for the first 24 hours, while others on the seafront had to evacuate to higher ground when the tsunami alarms sounded. Many peoples’ woes were further compounded on Tuesday by torrential downpours and flooding in the Hutt Valley. But none of this compares to the losses suffered by people down South. Homes and businesses have been ruined, people are still being evacuating from dangerous areas, and months, if not years, of rebuilding and restoration will need to follow. Two minutes of earth shaking can have a massive impact, and two people lost their lives as a result, so while it’s a relief that the loss of life was not on a larger scale, any death is nothing less than tragic.

I think the main difference between looking from the outside in at such events to being on the inside looking out, is the understanding of how bad it can feel as an overall experience, even if, on a global severity scale, it barely registers. What I mean by that is, if I read about an earthquake in NZ before I moved here, and saw that the following day things were mostly back to normal and the loss of life was minimal, I would think it sad but not a particularly world altering event. Especially when you compare it to the more devastating quakes that have happened not only in NZ, but across the world. But the side effects I didn’t anticipate were the effects on people, and myself, emotionally and mentally. In those two minutes which felt like two of the longest minutes of my life, a lot people thought ‘this is it.’ If you consider the psychological outcome of that, everyone was essentially in a near-miss accident. Imagine being told that this accident could happen again, at any time, and there is literally nothing you can do to predict or prevent it. It’s weird-ass feeling, that’s for sure.

Aftershocks are constant and horrible
I’ll be honest, I assumed if we did experience an earthquake here, unless it was a really destructive one, that once the rattling was done and everywhere damage checked, I’d put the kettle on and have a cup of tea and shake off any concerns with a ‘well, that was close’ sigh of relief.

But it doesn’t work like that.

The aftershocks are alarming and continual, particularly during the first two days after the event. That’s why I’ve been bitching all week about motion sickness. On the Monday morning I slept for three or four hours because I was shattered, but the tremors were constant during that time. After I was shaken awake by two bigger aftershocks, I surprised myself by being quite sick. In reality this is more likely to be a delayed shock reaction, but the erratic rocking of the earth can’t have helped. I’m ashamed to admit it, but the small quakes we’ve experienced before were almost a novelty. A little flutter or jiggle and then it’s all over (that’s what she said). So we went into this one expecting the same, and it’s only when the shaking got stronger, and kept escalating, that we realised that, okay, shit just got real. There was this horrible moment during it when I thought it was over, and then the house rolled and thudded back in the opposite direction. This feeling makes sense now that it’s since been explained that it was probably two quakes in quick succession that we were feeling, one from the South and one from further North.

But these aftershocks have completely thrown my internal balance dudes, half the time I don’t know whether it’s me shaking or the world, and everyone else has the same feeling. The really big ones tend to be universally noticed, but it gets to the point with the after-tremors where nobody is able to trust their own perception. It’s like being in a perpetual state of having just stepped off a roller coaster, and not a sensation I ever expected to experience. Like, really guys, I was super used to the earth and ground being constants!

There is no safe place in the world, it’s just that the risks are different
Here’s the thing, when I lived in Sài Gòn, I got used to being on edge. I quickly learned that every time I walked out of my apartment, the outside world would be a. stupidly hot at all times and b. potentially dangerous. The danger came from a wide variety of sources. Traffic was a big one. There is such mass of people constantly moving about in great numbers with little to no consideration given to safety. For example, during rush hour periods, mopeds drive along the pavements in every direction, and dealing with this requires constant vigilance. The moment you get distracted is the moment you get hurt. It was kind of like having to practice mindfulness with a loaded gun to your head.

Then there was the risk of personal attack, from attempted muggings to assaults. I know I gave some of you an overview of this via Facebook, because it was a way for me to deal with my shock and process my reactions, but ultimately these things just became part of life. There are more stories from that time than I will ever tell you, because at some point it becomes as much a part of reality as the desk you work at. On a good day, I was still likely to be ripped off, shouted at, spat on, or just generally made to feel like the alien I knew I was. This doesn’t mean that all of my experiences were bad, far from it, but it is a very specifically strange environment to be in, and I got used to having to be a certain way to get through the day.

Now, because New Zealand really is so goddamn beautiful, laid back, and quiet, it took a few months but eventually, I just started to take that more relaxed feeling for granted. That’s because the risks seemed so few and far between here. And, on a social and practical day-to-day level, there is less risk. It’s hard to explain why, but I think this is largely due to population as well as attitude. There aren’t enough people here to have the same level of crime that other cities and countries experience, perhaps? There is crime here, and there are social problems, it’s just that the general level of risk seems considerably less than any other place I’ve lived. But with the earthquakes, I now understand, that there is a large risk associated with living here, and it’s a risk that’s beyond anybody’s control.

The important thing to remember is that it is rare- really, really rare- to have earthquakes like that here. Most people I’ve spoken to have said that’s the worst quake they’ve experienced here for at least two decades. For that reason, despite my being an outsider, I was not the only one taken off-guard by the events of Monday morning. The slightly surreal reality is this, there might not be another one for decades, there might be a massive one in the next half an hour. My ability to survive what I experienced in Việt Nam was based around a system of calculated risk and that risk being quantifiable. There were precautions I could take daily that would reasonably reduce the risk to my person. Of course, each lesson was hard learnt, but once learnt it wasn’t forgotten. This risk is not quantifiable, there are no precautions I can take to reduce or predict it. At any moment, the earth might decide to turn my home or my workplace into something that could kill me and the people around me. All I can do is make sure there is an emergency kit ready and hope for the best. I’ve now taken to carrying my torch and Swiss army knife around with me again. Because apparently there isn’t a place in the world where you don’t have to be Batman sometimes!

Life returns to normal pretty quickly, but the consequences are complicated
Once the initial situation has been assessed, people try to, and do, get back to it. Things very quickly become business as usual, despite the ongoing judders. But what I’m finding is that every hour we hear about another building in the capital being evacuated, another road closed, and the risk of buildings falling down or apart only continues to grow, because the aftershocks take that initial damage and keep shunting it about. So even if buildings didn’t fall in the first day or so, it doesn’t even mean that they won’t in the coming days, which is also something I’d never even considered as a prospect. Events that I’m directly involved at work have had to be moved or changed to accommodate the new conditions, and the knock on effects of some of these changes only remains to be seen. And from a people-y, emotional point of view, us humans don’t like uncertainty, we like absolutes, and nobody is able to give these, to anybody else, about anything.

As a Brit, I found myself heading to the BBC news website by default when looking for quake updates, but quickly realised that it was daft to do so, because, ultimately, as much as it was reported a bit, it’s just not really news to people back in the UK. When something is relevant to you, you feel frustrated when it doesn’t feel as relevant to your peeps, y’know? But I’m in a different world right now, and that was always going to be the case. The best I can do is observe it and tell you how it felt.

When I was in Việt Nam, a lot of the news stories there tended not to get out to the wider world because of the various government lock-downs when it came media and the internet. I assumed that a lot of these events, such as the mass of sexual assaults that took place on women during the opening of a water park in Hà Nội last year (because they incited unwanted attention by wearing swimming costumes in a swimming pool, of course) would have shocked the world at large should they be leaked. And I guess they would have, initially, but the world is a BIG place, and the news is a constantly rolling entity, so the idea that events have greater significance beyond the country they happen in is somewhat unrealistic (notable exceptions this year being Brexit and the US Election, but that is only because people fear the consequences of these on a global scale). But maybe that’s part of what living abroad for a while is all about, realising and seeing that it's all relative, and that it all matters, it’s just that our awareness of events shifts in accordance with the perspective we're surrounded by.

Remember to be grateful
So, here’s a shocking secret for ya, earthquakes are really fucking scary. But I'm feeling so grateful right now - so, so, so incredibly grateful on all the levels. I'm amazed by the response of the Civil Defence teams across the country, and how the systems and processes that were put in place for this exact eventuality, sprung to life effectively and fluidly. Like I said in the first point, you can't predict the damage, but you can be prepared to respond to it based on past experiences. That's what NZ has done since the Christchurch quake, people have prepared for it to happen again. Which it did. I'm grateful that my experience was the one it was and not worse, and grateful for the wake-up call. Take it seriously, Chrissy, natural disasters are no longer an abstract concept that happens elsewhere, for as long as you live here, they are a risk of being here. Here in this wonderful, kick-ass country, built on some disgruntled plates. I'm grateful for the lesson - a reminder that there is a potential cost to being here. Everything comes with a cost. I already knew that, it's just easy to forget it sometimes until your house shakes the crap out of you. 

Concluding thoughts (that have little to nothing to do with earthquakes)
I had the most awesome remembrance on Sunday, way before any of that earth shaking nonsense. It was while I was sitting watching the clouds and spotting shapes in them. Our lives are just a narrative. And sometimes, it’s great to step out of the narrative and into the place where you just exist in the moment, glowing in the love you have for other people and the love you know they feel for you. I've always enjoyed that place, it's a brilliant place to be in. But you have to return to your narrative, you can't sit within it, because you're an individual. You were meant to experience life in the exact manner you do because life is infinite and each of us is a part of it. Everything happens not for a reason but because every potential thing has to play out somewhere. Some of your bits will be awesome and others will be resoundingly shit. You are a unique individual, all of your experiences and your interpretation of them have created, and continued to create, your perspective. You are positioned to be the best and only you ever to have existed, and there is power in that. You have an obligation to your existence to be authentically you, whatever that may mean.

The quake was just a reminder that all of that narrative can be thrown into chaos by a world around you that you can't control. That's life, that's reality, that's us. So when thinking about the narrative of your life, try to consider, are you happy where you are right now? Are you doing the things you do for the right reasons for you? I only ask those questions of you because I've asked them of myself recently and have been surprised by my answers. Of course, life is more complicated than that because you do, and should, have empathy and understanding for all of the other narratives playing out around you. But within that, you have to value your own narrative and feelings, which is something I’ve always struggled with, finding a balance within which I can live my own life. I make so many assumptions, all of the time, about perspectives I can't understand because I think by doing that I can somehow remain in that safe space of being connected, but doing so only takes me further away from the person I am. Some feeling of control over the infinite helps us to cope, some of it is fake nonsense we tell ourselves to feel better about the chaos we're so deeply a part of. Chaos exists within all of us, the same chaos that is at the centre of the earth that causes these tectonic mash ups, there is a spark within us that we cannot control.

I’m aware that this post ended up in a different space to where it started, but that’s okay, after-quake shake ups are to be expected, so I’ve now learned. As ever, thank you for taking the time to read my meanderings and now that I’ve reached some manner of conclusion, let’s go back to riding the wave while keeping our wits about us. Our ability to be flexible and adaptable as we continue onward is really important, because, and this is just a hunch, I think we’ve got one hell of a bumpy ride ahead.

I’ll leave you with the song that’s been running through my head this week, which should come as no surprise at all. Love ya ma blueberries ;) 

No comments:

Post a Comment