As I awoke to the bedroom shuddering and rattling around me on Monday morning, my first thought was a frantic household census, followed by the realisation that I was alone at home and not responsible for anyone’s safety but my own. My second, before my eyes had even properly unstuck themselves from sleep, was: “Ugh, not this again.”
Moments later, the earthquake – a magnitude 5.9 shake that hit about an hour’s drive north of Wellington, New Zealand, where I live – was subsiding. It rattled the lower part of the North Island for just 15 seconds or so, long enough for a little tendril of fear to uncurl – would it build, or die away? Was this “the big one”?
Nearby, at New Zealand’s parliament, the prime minister Jacinda Ardern was live on air when the quake struck. She barely paused as the camera jolted and the room shook, and she cast her eyes at the ceiling.
“We’re just having a bit of an earthquake here Ryan,” she told the show’s host. Her calm demeanour drew admiration around the world, but many New Zealanders recognised themselves in her actions.
“This is kinda the NZ way?” a friend said on Twitter, adding a description of her own response as “hmmm, let me look around, assess if this is actually bad enough that I should take cover, nah, let’s give it another five seconds and see … ”
The prime minister’s was an especially cool performance; she didn’t even swear, which is more impressive than me. But New Zealanders are used to earthquakes; they’re scary but not shocking. Children are taught in school to “drop, cover and hold” – diving below a desk or table, and clinging on until the shaking stops – and we were raised knowing that one day, without warning, the quake we call “the big one” would hit.
There are about 15,000 earthquakes in New Zealand each year, according to our geological science agency, with about 100 to 150 of those large enough to be felt. The country lies across tectonic plates on the edge of the Pacific “ring of fire”, a 40,000km arc of volcanoes and ocean trenches.
There are several big earthquakes – magnitude six and above – each year on average; not all of them are felt everywhere in the country but many New Zealanders would have experienced at least one that was truly scary. You can only be so prepared, and so you prepare and then try to forget about it; occasionally you hear a distant rumble, cock an ear, and think to yourself, “Is that … ?” before realising the sound is a plane coming in to land or an especially heavy truck.
But sometimes, seconds later, the room starts to wobble and so you freeze as the prime minister did on Monday and make a quick mental calculation: is this getting stronger or weaker? The dying quakes sputter out within seconds, usually, and you’re back to whatever you were doing. In the wake of them, many New Zealanders log on to Twitter where a dedicated hashtag, #eqnz, has been in use for a decade. There, friends, enemies and politicians alike share advice, jokes, swearing, and relief – with levels of hysteria dependent on the earthquake’s magnitude – even if it’s the middle of the night.
The rare shakes that build – where the rumbling becomes a roar and it lasts long enough that you have time to realise you should drop for cover, dive for children or pets, grab your glasses and phone and shoes wondering if the house might fall down or if you might die – those are the kind we all dread.
My fear the moment that a serious shake begins doesn’t come from the unknown, but from the known: covering the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and remembering what that city looked like, what happened to people.
Hours after the February 2011 quake that killed 185 people, I watched a former flatmate being pulled alive from the rubble on the television news. Before Christchurch, earthquakes were common but the possibility that one could tear the ground apart under our feet seemed hypothetical. Now we know that’s not the case.
Instead, our seeming insouciance, like the prime minister’s, in the face of shakes comes from knowing “the big one” could happen any time, from thinking about it so much. Civil defence officials encourage households to plan what they’d do in the event of a quake and emergency kits are a common sight in homes.
In New Zealand earthquake preparation is a public business. Around my neighbourhood in Wellington, near the sea, a “tsunami zone” is demarcated, cheerfully, by blue lines that let you know when you’ve climbed high enough on a hilly street to reach safety. My husband and I secured our rental property immediately after a major quake in 2016 because the previous occupants – recent arrivals from Britain – had been so traumatised by the experience of fleeing a tsunami risk area in the middle of the night that they no longer wanted to live there.
We eyeballed the distance to the nearest raised ground – seven minutes away on foot, probably quicker if we thought we might die – and signed the lease. Besides, it was either that or a central city apartment building, and who knew whether that was any safer? “It’s Wellington,” we shrugged. “You’ve got to live somewhere.”
This afternoon as I worked, a rumble grew in the distance and I cocked my head. “Is that ?” I thought, and then the couch began to shake. I fired off a message to my boss: “Another ducking earthquake!” (I did not mean “ducking”), and paused, deciding whether to act. Was it building, or dying away? Moments later it was over; a car alarm wailed on my street, New Zealanders complained on Twitter, normal life resumed. I wondered what Jacinda Ardern was doing.
The post New Zealanders – like Jacinda Ardern – might not be shocked by earthquakes, but we do get scared appeared first on The Guardian.