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  • On shaky ground

    Katherine Palmer Gordon

    Our correspondent was in Wellington, New Zealand when a M7.8 earthquake struck in November. Her experience illustrates what could be in store for Victoria. Last year geoscientists confirmed a major, active fault within a few kilometres of our own Downtown.


    I WAS WOKEN BY THE FIRST HEAVY JOLT at 12:02am. The bed started swaying madly, like a hammock in a windstorm. Dishes rattled noisily in the kitchen. The walls creaked and groaned, and I heard the thud of a picture falling in the living-room. The noise outside was terrifying: a berserk, non-stop roaring sound that was almost impossible to comprehend. My mind still dazed with sleep, clutching the side of the bed, I simply lay there, appalled, frozen. It didn’t even occur to me to try and get up or run to a doorway, let alone to drop, cover and hold.
    Both noise and motion ended as suddenly as they had begun, at 12:04am. Somewhere on the hill below the apartment I could hear gushing water pouring out of broken water pipes. Lights were coming on in houses all over the neighbourhood. From Downtown I could hear sirens start up.

    I leapt out of bed, and straight onto the internet. The news reports were that a 15-kilometre deep 7.8 magnitude earthquake had just occurred 60 kilometres from Kaikoura, a small coastal South Island town 150 kilometres south of Wellington, where I live. The extent of any damage was unknown.

     Astoundingly, nothing was broken in the apartment. I peered outside, but apart from the sound of running water down the hill, the neighbourhood was quiet. It didn’t look as though the earthquake had much impact in our area, but it was too dark to really judge. Downtown Wellington was lit up like a Christmas tree, but there was next to no information about the city on the internet yet. Eventually, despite frayed nerves but with little other option, I went back to bed.

    There was no more sleep for thousands of other people in the city that night, however. A friend in Lyall Bay—a low-lying beachside neighbourhood similar to Oak Bay—was also jolted awake at 12:02. A few moments later, tsunami warning sirens started to blare. Leaping out of bed, Trina threw a coat over her pyjamas, grabbed her emergency kit, her dog, and her 93-year-old mother, and bundled them all into her car to join a panicked stream of traffic snaking its painfully slow way to higher ground.

     As she drove, she tried to remember how long you have to get away from a tsunami. Half-an-hour? Fifteen minutes?  She and her mother spent the rest of the sleepless hours until dawn in her car, parked on a suburban street as high up as she could get. Even when the sirens stopped, Trina was too scared to return home in the dark.

    In Wellington’s central business district, hundreds of frightened shift-workers, apartment dwellers, hotel guests, and late-night revellers poured into the streets, dodging broken glass and fallen concrete. They were shepherded into cramped shelters hastily arranged by emergency workers. United in their fear and uncertainty, university students, partiers and tourists huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with exhausted business travellers and office cleaners, sharing blankets, water bottles, and nervous jokes. At dawn, they were finally given the all-clear to head home or back to their hotels.

    Dramatic as the night had been for Wellingtonians, it quickly became clear the next morning that it was Kaikoura that had borne the brunt of the M7.8 quake. A small whale-watching tourist centre on the arid and steep east coast of the South Island, Kaikoura (population 3740) is famous for its crayfishery (“Kaikoura” literally means “place to eat crayfish”). It’s also the mid-point on the South Island’s only major south-north route, State Highway One between Christchurch, 150 kilometres to the south, and Wellington, 150 kilometres north over Cook Strait via the interisland ferry system. Like the portion of the Island Highway between Campbell River and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, there are only a handful of tiny settlements in between.

    Scientists believe at least ten large faults ruptured around Kaikoura, a phenomenon that manifested itself with staggering brutality. In just 90 hellish seconds, the north-east tip of the South Island moved more than two meters. Kaikoura moved a metre north.

     As many as 100,000 landslides were triggered, destroying roads and damming rivers. Several of the biggest obliterated large sections of the state highway were on either side of Kaikoura, each covering areas up to 500,000 square metres in size—the equivalent of two-thirds of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park being covered in rubble dozens of metres thick, several times over. All road access to the town was completely blocked.

     Inland, massive new ravines up to ten metres deep and running for hundreds of metres in length were created. New lakes formed overnight. On the coast, huge stretches of foreshore tilted sideways, exposing massive beds of highly prized paua (abalone) to dehydrate and die in the open air. Commercial fishing boats and whale-watching launches were stranded at their wharves, their keels suddenly mired in a seabed that had risen two metres in height since they had docked the previous evening.

    Power and phone lines were wiped out. Multiple bridges were destroyed. Water supply and sewerage pipes and infrastructure were severely damaged. Dozens of houses were also badly damaged, their contents smashed and strewn across floors. Astoundingly, only one person died, when a century-old farmhouse collapsed. By comparison, Wellington appeared to have escaped lightly. At least, so it seemed at first.


    WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND'S CAPITAL, and Victoria share many similarities. Wellington’s small harbour is ringed by government offices, museums, hotels, theatres, apartment buildings, and shopping streets. The university is located in a pleasant residential suburb not far from downtown. The greater Wellington regional district, population 500,000, encompasses several municipalities and electoral areas with bedroom communities, parks, shopping malls, light commercial industry, and small farms. On sunny days, the Wellington waterfront is typically full of runners, tourists, and office workers taking their lunch break.

    Both Wellington and Victoria are also in earthquake/tsunami zones.

    Devil's Mountain Fault diagram.jpg

    On the morning after the earthquake, however, with news reports urging people to stay home until the extent of any damage could be properly assessed, the central business district was a ghost town. From the news images, things didn’t seem too bad. No tsunami had eventuated. The roads were fine, except for a few small rockfalls. The impact on buildings appeared superficial, limited to broken windows and small amounts of fallen rubble on a couple of streets.

    But as the hours and then days went by, it became clear that the severity of the damage was considerably worse than initially thought. Waterfront paving at the industrial port had been torn into gaping holes, leaving heavy machinery stranded. Stacks of shipping containers teetered precariously like imbalanced domino tiles. Some of them had toppled over altogether, crushing whatever was beneath them. Piles of raw logs awaiting shipment to China had fallen and scattered like matchsticks.

    Out in the harbour, five inter-island ferries floated at anchor, unable to dock. Twenty-four hours later, with the passenger bridge at the downtown terminal seriously damaged, they were still waiting. On the other side of the Strait, the passenger waiting lounge at Picton had dropped by a metre. It took another day for the ferries to be able to dock, and a week before full service between the islands could be restored.

    Three days after residents of downtown apartment buildings returned to their homes, thinking the worst was over, hundreds of them were ordered out again with no warning.  Following closer inspection, several buildings had been deemed too dangerous to permit continued occupancy.  Residents were given just minutes to leave. People who had already left for the day were not allowed back inside. It may be several months before they can return.

    Wellington building being demolished.jpg

    More than 30 other government buildings, commercial high-rises, schools, and parking buildings were closed for structural assessment and clean up. Three buildings were immediately red-stickered for demolition. More than 100 small businesses adjacent to the condemned buildings were cordoned off, deemed too close for comfort if an aftershock should occur before demolition can take place. Most of them are still closed, weeks later. Many will not survive an economic disaster of this scale, especially during what should have been the lucrative Christmas retail season.

    Several key government buildings, including those that house the Treasury and the Departments of Defence, Environment, Statistics, and Conservation, remain closed with extensive structural damage. Government officials are trying frantically to carry on business from makeshift premises elsewhere, limited by a lack of access to paper files and central computer servers. It too is a situation that may carry on for months.

    Down in Kaikoura, temporary water pipes have been set up pending proper repairs, which could take months. A boil-water advisory is in place indefinitely. The sewerage system is operating, but also requires extensive repairs.  Anyone who doesn’t need to be there has been encouraged to leave to reduce pressure on the systems.

    The government has just announced a $2-billion remediation package for State Highway One. Bulldozers are already working on clearing the highway, but it won’t be open again before Christmas.

    Even then, I won’t be driving on it. The slips may have been cleared away for now, but much of the highway remains in the shadow of ominously steep and unstable cliffs. Some experts believe the road realistically cannot be safely remediated and that a new route needs to be built further inland.

    State Highway 70, notionally an alternative inland route to Kaikoura from Christchurch, is currently little more than a country lane. It was also badly damaged in the quake. Even army trucks were initially not permitted to attempt traversing it. A month later repairs are still under way, and it remains closed to any traffic other than essential supply runs into Kaikoura. Heavy rainfall or another landslip could take it out again in a heartbeat.

    With their season’s profits wiped out, local fishermen and businesses that rely on tourism are contemplating a lean year ahead. Unsurprisingly, few tourists have come to town since the quake. Even if road access was available, fear of aftershocks is keeping them away. Friends of ours from Gabriola visiting the South Island cut the rest of their holiday short, booking the first flight out of the country they could get. It’s hard to blame them.


    DESPITE THE EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION, both physical and economic, I can’t help thinking that it could have been a lot worse. It could have happened in the middle of the day. If it had, it’s beyond doubt there would have been many more fatalities.

    The landslides would almost certainly have killed drivers in the typical daytime nose-to-tail traffic on State Highway One. The passenger lounge at the Picton ferry terminal might have collapsed completely under the weight of a full sailing load of people waiting to board. People in Wellington office buildings where structural beams gave way, filing shelves crushed desks, indoor plants flew across rooms and whiteboards embedded themselves in walls—as they did in an office where I frequently have meetings—would surely have died.

    Such speculation inhabits my thoughts these days. My state of mind has changed. I fill empty wine bottles with water and store them in the pantry, silently thanking the New Zealand wine industry for using screw tops these days instead of corks. I repeatedly make lists of emergency supplies. I avoid going downtown if I don’t have to. I take my phone with me everywhere I go, even to the bathroom. What if it happens while I’m in the shower?

    Empty chair installation in Christchurch.jpg

    The fatal 2011 Christchurch earthquake was preceded six months earlier, in September 2010, by a shake eerily similar in impact to the November 14 event. I wonder if that’s what’s coming next for us. I question whether we should move away from Wellington. Ironically, at the same time I contemplate cancelling our holiday plans. What if it happens in our absence and we lose everything? Should we take all our important papers with us just in case?

    Even though it has been more than a month now since it happened, I still flinch when a heavy truck on the road below makes the windows rattle or a gust of wind makes the apartment shake.  I follow @GeoNet on Twitter obsessively. On December 12, the seismic hazard monitoring agency reported that the total number of aftershocks since November 14 was standing at 8735, a staggering average of more than 310 a day.

    Most of them have been too weak to be noticeable. But dozens of them have still been strong enough to make the walls of the apartment creak and my office chair rock from side to side. The gaps between the shakes are getting longer, but every time I think things might finally have settled down, another short jolt reminds me not to relax just yet. The latest one was yesterday.

    I’m sure it won’t be the last.


    The Canadian Club of Victoria is presenting “A Guide to Earthquake and Tsunami Preparedness: Learning from Christchurch NZ” at their January 17 luncheon at Harbour Towers Hotel, 345 Quebec St, 11:45am. Rajpreet Sall and Tanya Patterson from the City of Victoria’s Emergency Management Division will review the types of earthquakes we might expect, provide some tsunami modelling, outline recovery procedures, and provide information about emergency kits and supplies. Members $28, non-members $33. Reserve at www.eventbrite.ca or 250-370-1837.


    Katherine Palmer Gordon is an author and land claims negotiator. She is currently dividing her time between her two homes on Gabriola Island, BC, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. She invites readers to share their own experiences with earthquakes at www.focusonvictoria.ca.

    Also see Katherine Palmer Gordon’s “Is Victoria ready for the Big One”

    and David Broadland’s “Devil’s Mountain Fault: the frightening implications for Victoria”


    Edited by admin

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