When the Big One hits

The Stedmans (clockwise from back left) Conrad, Bridget, Samuel (7) and Meg (11) have a 1920s...
The Stedmans (clockwise from back left) Conrad, Bridget, Samuel (7) and Meg (11) have a 1920s roughcast bungalow on sand dunes backing on to St Clair beach, Dunedin. Photo by Bruce Munro, graphic by Jeremy Gordon.
Research published in June suggests a one-in-three chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake on the Alpine Fault sometime in the next 50 years. Bruce Munro spoke to scientists, civil defence staff and couples living in Dunedin, Queenstown and on the Maniototo to create this fictionalised account of how we might be affected if it happens this Wednesday.

Haowhenua-e-rua, the second land swallower, shook and shattered Otago lives in less than a minute.

At 2.30pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2012, the magnitude 8.1 earthquake unleashed the first of a destructive series of shockwaves from its epicentre, 3km deep and 115km south of Franz Josef Village, on New Zealand's West Coast.

It took less than a minute for a 350km-long section of the Alpine Fault to "unzip" northwards, spilling 295 years of pent-up energy like a bulging basket of tightly coiled serpentine dragons suddenly split open.

These taniwha of pure energy surged up and outwards, diving and twisting across and through the land at a rate of 6km a second.

Within 15 seconds they were upon Wanaka and Queenstown.

The Duncan family (clockwise from back left) Geraldine, Johnny, Toby (5), Jock (5), and Briar (6)...
The Duncan family (clockwise from back left) Geraldine, Johnny, Toby (5), Jock (5), and Briar (6) live on a 5890ha beef, sheep, and dairy farm on the Maniototo. Photo by Bruce Munro, graphic by Hayden Smith.
Joy Luke, who was replacing a light bulb in an executive suite of The Lodges on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, was thrown from her ladder as the unit shook violently and windows sprayed shards of glass across the room.

A quarter of a minute later the first waves had split, chewed and shaken their way across Central Otago and were tearing down on Johnny and Geraldine Duncan's 5890ha beef, sheep and dairy farm in the shadow of North Rough Ridge, 20km southwest of Ranfurly, on the Maniototo.

Mr Duncan was driving down a straight dusty gravel road, on his way to tag more lambs when a growing roar suddenly engulfed the 4WD ute as the ground bucked, shunting the vehicle into a roadside bank.

Forty-two seconds after the earthquake began, shock waves which had reverberated easily through Otago's schist bedrock, slowing only slightly in looser ground, were descending unsatiated into Dunedin.

Conrad Stedman was standing at the kitchen table of the family home built on sand dunes at seaside St Clair. A real estate agent, he was in the middle of a quick call to a client on the Taieri before popping down to St Clair School to pick up his children Meg (11) and Samuel (7), when the phone went dead.

He had barely registered the silence in the earpiece when the world around him erupted.

With a roar, the quake slammed into the 1920s roughcast timber-frame bungalow Mr Stedman and his wife Bridget had been modernising. Window glass exploded as walls, floor and ceiling began to rock and twist.

Mr Stedman leapt instinctively for the door frame between the kitchen and lounge, narrowly missing being hit by the gleaming stainless steel fridge which toppled forward from its alcove. With difficulty he braced himself in the doorway, trying to keep his footing as crockery and food flew out of cupboards.

On the other side of the door, the flat-screen television, a ceramic statue and wall-mounted pictures were flung at a lounge suite adrift in the middle of the room.

For four long minutes the rolling waves continued to batter the house. In distant rooms Mr Stedman could hear furniture smashing into walls, and bookcases and sets of drawers toppling and disgorging their contents.

As it began to subside, he pulled out his cellphone and quick-dialled his wife. He got through only because he already knew the landline was out. But she did not pick up.

The brief message he left was the last time he would successfully use his cellphone in the next three days. Within a minute cellphone networks throughout the country were gridlocked.

Mr Stedman, who had been a policeman, switched to emergency response mode. The house could wait. The children were his first priority.

Outside, he scanned towards the school, visible only a couple of blocks further inland. The neighbourhood looked like a proverbial war zone. Built on old seabed and reclaimed swamp, South Dunedin had been hit hard.

The shock waves had slowed and lengthened in the loose soils, causing fiercer horizontal shaking, which had buckled this section of Victoria Rd and rocked houses on their foundations. Brick-clad homes were partially denuded.

Chimneys left gaping holes where they had crashed through tile roofs. Across the road a wooden villa had only a few cracks in its walls, but a downed power pole had smashed the roof above a bay window.

Liquefaction was beginning to bubble and pool in some sections as dazed and shocked people cautiously emerged from their houses.

Telling himself it was time to "man up", Mr Stedman jumped down the now-broken front steps of his home and set out towards the school.

Across town, Mrs Stedman was calming a distressed patient at her central city York Pl dental surgery. Twenty minutes later she was in her car turning south off Moray Pl into Princes St, when the first aftershock struck.

Slamming to a halt in the middle of the road, she had a perfect, unsettling view of Dunedin's old commercial heart, built on the ancient meeting point of seabed and rock, shuddering in a wash of energy interacting unevenly with the unseen mix of loose and hard ground.

A couple of hundred metres away she could see small and large chunks of ornamental masonry falling from gold rush-era buildings to the footpath several storeys below.

Little did she know, she was witnessing Dunedin's one earthquake fatality.

It took an hour to drive the 4km to St Clair School, often back-tracking to try another road hopefully not blocked by power lines, trees or liquefaction.

By 6pm, once Mr Conrad had dispensed of his duties as school board of trustee member, the family was back together, inside their broken home, clearing the lounge as a base for eating and sleeping.

Annie the golden retriever-poodle cross was limping but fine. Freckles the goldfish was given a quick burial.

The gas cylinders, secured to the outside of the house, seemed to be intact, providing hot water and the ability to cook food.

Without electricity for the heatpump, however, it was going to be a cold night, Mrs Conrad thought. She cast a dubious glance at a dozen 2-litre bottles of water. They were not going to last long.

Once the children had fallen asleep in sleeping bags on mattresses dragged into the lounge, the couple talked together in hushed whispers.

They had heard Dunedin City Council Civil Defence manager Neil Brown on the radio summarising the situation in Dunedin. The city was cut off to the north by slips and damage to the Northern Motorway, so supermarkets and shops would be limiting customer purchases until supply lines were expected to reopen in three to five days.

Electricity generation had stopped throughout the South Island until dams and other plant had been checked.

Limited electricity was being fed south through the Cook Strait cable, and householders who had electricity were asked to minimise use. Many parts of the city were without electricity, and underground water and sewerage pipes were broken in several suburbs. Dunedin Hospital and Dunedin Central police station, however, had their own generators and water supplies.

Portable toilets would be set up on street corners in affected areas and water tankers would begin daily deliveries on Saturday. Ships bringing fuel could not reach Port Chalmers until the Otago Harbour shipping lane had been checked, so service stations would be rationing supplies and emergency vehicles would have priority.

In Dunedin one person had been killed and seven seriously injured. Hospital wards were being cleared where possible to make room for the injured being brought in, mostly by helicopter, from settlements closer to the epicentre including devastated West Coast townships.

Dunedin International Airport would reopen by the weekend, but the backlog of passengers was expected to take several more days to clear.

Residents were encouraged to check on neighbours and to expect to fend for themselves for several days, Mr Brown said.

The knowledge they had full insurance, including income protection insurance, was a bright spark of hope for the Stedmans. They would get through, they reassured each other.

But when the next aftershock rolled through, waking the children with startled cries, Mrs Stedman began calculating how quickly and by what means they could escape to her brother's large home on Waiheke Island, in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf.

At midnight Mr Duncan and his sharemilker were still herding several hundred dairy cows along narrow gravel roads eastwards across the moonlit Maniototo.

Mr Duncan had not heard from his wife Geraldine, a teacher at St John's School, in Ranfurly, since the quake struck. But he expected she would have stayed at the school until parents had been able to collect their children, and then would have taken Briar (6) and Jock (5) along to the kindergarten to get their youngest, Toby (3), before heading to her parents' place just out of town.

At least, he hoped that was what had happened.

But right now his focus had to be on moving these cows, heavy with milk, to a still-working dairy shed 15km away.

His own rotary shed, and that of the nearest neighbour, were knocked out by the first quake which had struck during milking, injuring several cows.

The CB radio had come into its own, enabling farmers across the Maniototo to check on each other, assess damage and offer pasture and the use of plant and equipment.

Mr Duncan's 1170 dairy cows would be milked, albeit 17 hours late. But given what he had heard about slips on the highways to Palmerston and Dunedin, it was likely the milk would have to be sprayed on to paddocks for a day or two until milk tankers were able to get through.

Not long after dawn Mr Duncan drove up to the farm homestead. He did not like what he saw.

He had already checked in on his parents in their new house on the farm, closer to the Highfield-Puketoi road, and was relieved to find they had fared reasonably well.

Here, however, the nearest end-wall of the 1930s single storey double-brick house had collapsed, leaving a gaping hole into the kitchen. The two chimneys had toppled. One was a pile of bricks at the front of the house, while the other seemed to have disappeared through the roof. Thank goodness no-one was at home at the time, he thought.

Catching some sleep in his own bed was no longer an option, so he reclined the driver's seat, slipped his hat down over his eyes and was soon fast asleep.

When he woke, he drove off without going inside.

The next several hours were spent checking stock, moving animals from roadside paddocks where power poles had been downed, turning off water leading to broken pipes, and assessing damage to the farm's remaining four houses, two cottages, two woolsheds, three haybarns, covered yards and implement sheds.

Late in the afternoon he collected a diesel generator from the Naseby ice rink. The farm had been making an annual donation to the ice rink for several years, in case of just such an emergency. The generator would be put to great use in the days, and perhaps weeks, to come.

On Friday morning, Mrs Luke woke with a start in her Queenstown apartment.

It was too quiet. Then she remembered.

There were no guests. Four thousand domestic and international visitors who had been enjoying Queenstown on Wednesday afternoon, were now anxious refugees crowded in to either the Queenstown Event Centre, at Frankton, or the Queenstown School hall, not far from the main shopping area.

And there was no escape.

Rock falls and slips had blocked the Kawarau Gorge road, the road to Kingston, and the Crown Range road to Wanaka. The Crown Range road was likely to be the first to reopen, perhaps in just a couple more days, she had heard.

The other routes could be blocked for weeks. And the runway at Queenstown airport, built on a gravel fan, had been damaged to such an extent that the only large planes landing or taking off from here for some time to come would be air force Hercules.

Mr Luke stirred and looked out the glassless, curtainless window. It was a beautiful day.

He could see across the calm lake to the majestic, snow-capped Remarkables, bathed in sunlight and wreathed with a trail of light cloud.

What he could not see from here, but knew all too well, was that this town built to honour and exploit nature's beauty and power had been dealt a deadly blow by it.

All around them hotels, motels and apartments, particularly multi-storey buildings constructed before the 1980s, had suffered extensive damage. Collapsed walls were not uncommon. Even buildings retrofitted to meet more modern building standards had some damage.

Later this morning, as chairman of the Queenstown Motel Association, he would be part of a high-level meeting briefed by Queenstown Lakes District Council emergency management officer Jon Mitchell.

At that meeting he would hear Haowhenua-e-rua - named after a massive, 15th-century earthquake that had rearranged Wellington harbour - had inflicted 12 fatalities and about 700 injuries in Queenstown. The town's police, fire and ambulance crews, as well as the newly established Alpine Lakes Emergency Response Team, had been working tirelessly.

They were being assisted by a national Search and Rescue (SAR) team, but the bulk of national and international SAR resources were being directed to the much more seriously affected West Coast towns which lay on or close to the Alpine Fault.

Extensive damage to the town's infrastructure meant electricity, water and sewerage systems were likely to be down for weeks, possibly months.

Sewage leaks into Lake Wakatipu meant it should not be used for drinking or bathing. With food and fuel running low, the priority now was to get visitors out of town and supplies in, Mr Mitchell would tell them.

By midday Mr Luke would be helping co-ordinate the transfer of visitors from emergency welfare centres to the Frankton marina.

There, vessels of all shapes and sizes - any that had not been swamped by a landslide-triggered wall of water after the first aftershock - would be bringing in supplies transported by road as far as Kingston, and returning with relieved visitors looking forward to a bus ride to Invercargill Airport which, for the next week at least, would serve as an international airport.

By mid-afternoon, the stress and lack of proper food would have pushed Mr Luke's blood sugar levels low; the hunger and shakiness forcing the insulin-dependent diabetic to pause for a sugar top-up. He would be grateful he still had a 10-day supply of insulin.

By night he would return to their unit exhausted and allow himself to wonder how he and the other 21,000 permanent inhabitants of Queenstown, so many of them dependent in one way or another on visitors, would get through.

The Lukes' own three adjacent Lake Esplanade properties, The Lodges, Lake Front Apartments and Lakeside Motel, totalling about 300 beds, had protected their terrified inhabitants. But it remained to be seen whether they would be economic to repair.

Hot water cylinders in the units, not fixed to the walls, had torn loose from their pipes, spilling what could have been a precious emergency water supply and further damaging walls and flooring.

One way or another insurance should take care of that. The bigger concern was what the earthquake would do to the tourism market in the coming months and years.

Right now he just wanted to lie in bed a minute longer and draw strength from the enduring beauty beyond his window.

Quake drill this week

At 9.26am on Wednesday more than one million people will participate in the New Zealand ShakeOut earthquake drill.

Wherever people are at that time, they are encouraged to drop, cover and hold - the right action to take in an earthquake.

If you are inside a building when an earthquake begins, move no more than a few steps, then drop to the ground, take cover by getting under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on until the shaking stops.

Most earthquake-related injuries and deaths are caused by collapsing walls and roofs, flying glass and falling objects.

In most buildings in New Zealand you are safer if you stay where you are until the shaking stops.

If you are outdoors when the shaking starts, find a clear spot away from buildings, trees, streetlights and power lines, and then drop, cover and hold.

If you are driving, pull over to a clear location, stop and stay there with your seatbelt fastened until the shaking stops.

Source: Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management


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