Dr Liz Gordon: The first shake, ten years on


I was awakened by a shuddering, crunching shaking quite different from the gentle rolling of the deep North Island earthquakes I had experienced in the past.  I looked at my bedside clock. 4.37AM.  “Power’s still on”, I said to Garth.  At that moment, the power blinked out. All was darkness. That was, as Churchill might have said, the beginning of the beginning.

As Garth was on an oxygen machine, the loss of power triggered alarms that got me out of bed PDQ. Garth held a torch while I found yesterday’s clothes and some sturdy shoes. There was not much obvious damage on the way through. We had, fortunately, recently removed the chimney. I went outside and retrieved a few oxygen bottles.  We had supplies for about 12 hours before things became dire.

Garth and I settled in the lounge. I set him up like a king with pillows and duvets, surrounded by a drink and his precious oxygen.  On his head I put a headphone radio set, and I had my old Sony Walkman.  We listened to National Radio.  Vicki McKay was hosting the programme.  She felt the earthquake up in Wellington, but calls from locals in Christchurch confirmed that it was local to us. We were able to hear what was happening in other parts of the city.

As it got light, I fired up the barbeque and started boiling pots of water.  I made us a coffee then delivered water around to neighbours in thermos flasks. This was a way of occupying myself as my anxiety levels were pretty high, and the neighbours were pleased to get a hot drink.  One of the things that changed as a result of the quakes was that my house now has a little generator, a bright purple kettle, a portable propane stove and numerous torches.  At the time we had none of these things.  I haven’t had to use any of them, as yet.

The best account of the 2010 quake I know was the book that came out of the research a number of us did for the National Council of Women, which is free to download.

It is ten years on since that 7.1 earthquake.  There is no forgetting that Christchurch city is an earthquake survivor, the shiny new buildings alternating with empty land and the dirty, dusty shattered buildings that have yet to be repaired. I have always said there were both winners and losers from the quakes, and both are in evidence.

I am involved with Community Law in Canterbury, which is still helping the final group of people who have been unable to get their insurance claims completed.  My own house, repaired in 2013, is a mass of little cracks again as superficial fixes (painting over) failed in the many subsequent quakes (see picture above – this ceiling crack is right above the desk in my office).

The reverberations continue even though felt aftershocks have just about gone now.  Even this week an article in the Press claimed that Gerry Brownlee led the earthquake policy with “no dialogue, no transparency” and that National would have been terrible at handling the pandemic. Gerry sniped that he never reads the Press.  A local MP for 24 years does not read his city’s newspaper!  Go figure.

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It is ten years on.  That 7.1 quake is no longer the largest in recent memory – the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake was 7.82.  The Christchurch Mosque killings, and now the pandemic, have again shaken us to our roots. Garth died three years ago. There is lots to love here. Our city on the plains, between the mountains and the sea, flanked by two gigantic extinct volcanoes, is so beautiful. 

And apart from the Port Hills exploding like Vesuvius, turning us into a modern Pompeii, there is not a lot that can now be thrown at us that we have not already survived, although climate change may put much of the city under water in the future.

The legacy for the country may be an EQC that is fit for purpose.  Over the years since it was set up, the organisation had forgotten its purpose and become nothing more than an insurance company. It was in no space to lead the reconstruction of Christchurch. Now, there is a call to ensure the institutional knowledge that has been built up is not lost for the future: that the legacy of our disaster is a nation much better able to cope with its disasters.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. Great Post @ Dr LG.
    Ten years ago… wow.
    My partner and I were asleep… and then we were not !
    Our lovely old house on Beachville Road in Ch Ch was being flung about on its spindly little legs.
    It reminded me of when we were kids when mum used to give us hell rides on the old car trailer she’d tow flat out behind her Fordson tractor. She’d find every bump, sharp turn, ditch, turnip and tussock to try and dislodge us kids as we howled in terror and joy. One or two of us would lose concentration and be sent heaven ward to land arse up in Southlands winter muds. Fluro vests ? 0%. Great fun ? 100%.
    Then someone, probably mum, decided to tie blocks of hay to the tractor by long lengths of binding twine upon which we could sit while our cold wee fingers gripped the string. Top gear was engaged and here comes the thistles, muds, stones, bumps etc…
    Bruised arses and torn clothing was considered marks of great valour in our neck of the woods.
    Traffic cones? 0%. Joyous kids close to needing hospitalisation? 100%
    As the silly little earthquake did its silly little thing I remembered saying to my partner, ” Someone’s going to make a fuck of a lot of money outa this.”
    How’s New Brighton doing, I wonder? I was there just a few days ago and it looked more bleak than helen clark’s make up. There were empty sections and closed shops. The stupid fucking road that lined the pocketsesssss of mark munro and anthony gough is there as a reminder of money piss poorly spent. Then there’s the ridiculous $40 K plus children’s metal pipe climbing fish with the depressed and drooping plastic fins and the complete lack of class, style and grace. A spindly and skeletal reminder of just how poorly the financially hard up locals were, and are still, being treated by the soulless, greedy Ch Ch neo-riche. Aye Boys?
    You get new and swankier plast-houses while NB people got communal plastic shit cubes and vast swathes of empty land where communities used to live as best they could.
    And I kid you not. There are ominous little signs on the logical fallacy fences surrounded the red zone lands which read ” Danger! Authorised personal only! Pools of water may form without warning !”
    So, you can’t go onto ‘red zone’ land to walk the pup or pick the fruits from the abandoned trees because you might get pounced on by puddles ? That makes high speed, hay bale rodeo seem positively harmless doesn’t it?
    Let me ask you this? Do you ever feel like you’re sheep being herded into the freezing works and while your numbers far outweigh your abusers, you find yourselves mysteriously powerless to do anything at all about it?
    If so, it’s probably time to study the work of Professor Stanley Milgram.
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    There. Now you know.
    So? What are you going to do about it?
    ‘Thinking’ is only validated by action.
    One of mine. What do you reckon?
    Are you sick of rich wankers bullying you to make ‘good coin’ out of you? You are? Then, what are you going to do about it?
    The best way forward on that one is to refuse to allow them to exploit you. The best way to achieve that is to refuse to work for them until there’s an agreement made. Because right now, you’ve got fuck all and the earthquakes demonstrated that graphically.
    Or? You could vote for natzo’s and hope that ACT is their hanger-on party which will see in euthanasia so you could be snuffed out before you die of work related injuries and starvation at the end of your working life spent building plasti-houses and in support of the opening of new Ferrari dealerships. Then your masters can herd you into ACT’s freezing works with zero resistance.

  2. And yet Brownlee kept his job. My wife, 2 yr old son and I left Christchurch in 1996. We recall two tremors which felt terrifying at the time, with little knowledge of what was to occur in the following years. Everyone of our friends were affected in some way. I feel like others that a compassionate response would have ensured a different Christchurch today. Brownlees appalling attitude sums up Nationals eartquake response where money came first, people second. That is the massive difference between that Government and our current one. I suggest people read STUFF’S Munted series for a true perspective of the Christchurch earthquakes and Nationals response and see why I have no time for the man who is always first at the buffet table.

  3. Thank you Liz for your perspective.
    I moved to Christchurch three years ago after vowing that i would never live here and if you had said to me five years ago i would have bought a house in the eastern suburbs i would have said you are off your rocker.
    But as an ex Aucklander living in New Brighton i would not live anywhere else.
    I was in Christchurch a couple of days before each of the major quakes so i was fortunate but many here were not.
    I have endured some really good shakes but it is quieting down.
    I must admit it is very disconcerting when your house moves forward and then back like mine did after a real shaker a couple of years ago on a Sunday night and everyone in the city felt that one !
    I told the story to a visiting Aucklander who replied ” bugger that ”
    It has been a massive disaster and unprecedented in New Zealand with the sheer magnitude of the destruction to property , land and lives and it was unfortunate that a more people before profit government was not in a position to alleviate the worst of this disaster.
    The city has recovered since i have been here and while painfully slow there is progress and it will make its mark as a amazing city and that has not ever gone away.
    Those snow covered Alps on a fine day still captivate me.

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