We thought we prepared for an earthquake... we were wrong.

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We thought we prepared for an earthquake... we were wrong.

Photo Credit: Ross Setford

Written by Steph Pemberton, New Zealand

It was just after midnight when the shaking started.

Initially it was enough of a jolt to wake us all up, but not enough to get me out of bed.

Once I realized it was a big one, and I mean a BIG one, it was already too late. The earth was rumbling like a freight train and the house was swaying side to side. I tried to run for cover, but the power of the earthquake threw me sideways into a chest of drawers.

Winded and bruised, I made it to a doorframe while we waited for the shaking to stop.

It didn’t stop.

The earthquake lasted for two minutes- an eternity.

Once the ground finally settled, an eerie silence filled the house. Whether out of motion sickness or absolute pure fear, I ran to the bathroom to be sick.

After trying to settle back to bed with our hearts racing a million miles an hour, our house suddenly illuminated with a bright light. We went to investigate, assuming the streetlights or a neighbor with a flashlight as the likely culprit.

Instead we witnessed the sky light up in swirls of green and blue, apparently a common, yet terrifying phenomenon after earthquakes. Almost like the earth was reminding us we really have no control of anything.

We gingerly crept back to bed thinking it was over, but an hour later the tsunami sirens sounded and within 60 seconds we were out the door. Five of us, plus a dog, piled into our car and headed for the hills.

When it came to earthquakes, we thought we were prepared. After the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, the whole country was on edge.

Trying to be proactive, I headed off to my local hardware store to put together an emergency kit. And I went all out. Flashlights, batteries, dust masks, a fire extinguisher, first aid kits, blankets, a radio, gloves, food, and toilet paper – you name it, I bought it. There were enough supplies to look after five housemates and a dog for three days.

“She’ll be right” is a typical Kiwi attitude, so some laughed at what they deemed as me being excessively over-prepared. Just you wait, I joked, you’ll come begging for some supplies in the next earthquake!

I packed up my emergency kit into a large container and gave myself a pat on the back.

But fast-forward to the 7.8 earthquake we experienced two weeks ago, I was kicking myself.

Of course it was a great idea putting together an emergency kit, but with mere minutes to evacuate, we couldn’t take the kit with us, because a) it weighed 70 pounds, b) the container was too big to fit in the car, and c) it was in the laundry cupboard under a heavy toolbox.

While it would have been ideal if we were stuck in our house, in the instance of getting evacuated we couldn’t take it with us.

Panicking and unable to decide what to take, we left with the clothes we were wearing and nothing else.

The power in the whole city was out, and at 1am it seemed like peak hour traffic down our quiet street. 

We took shelter at a friend’s house on the hill with some others also trying to get to higher ground. Huddled around a tiny radio, we sat in the dark waiting to hear news about the possible tsunami. It wasn’t until four hours and no tsunami later that we got the all clear to go back home.

Our house was unscathed aside from a few items smashed on the floor, but the full extend of the damage wouldn’t be known until the sun came up.

Roads torn up, buildings on a lean, the coastline uplifted, entire towns cut off from landslides, and the downtown of Wellington, the capital city, closed down. Two people died, one crushed underneath his home.

New Zealand Earthquake

Photo Credit: Anthony Phelps

Growing up in New Zealand, we practice earthquake drills at school. But you never prepare for the biggest earthquake in New Zealand’s history to hit at midnight.

Bewildered and without power, it’s hard to make sense of the situation and figure out what to do. And although we had an emergency kit, we couldn’t get to it in time and it was too heavy to carry if we were unable to use our car. We needed something lighter, that we could grab in an instant.

Everyone in Wellington knows the risks of where we live. The city is situated right on top of the collision zone where the Australasian Plate meets the Pacific Plate – which often makes for a bit of a bumpy time.

So it’s surprising how unprepared we all are. We know big earthquakes are coming, we know we should plan for it, but we don’t think about getting around to it until it’s too late.

Two weeks after the earthquake, many organizations are still locked out of their offices – some are too dangerous for people to go back inside, and some are now being earmarked for demolition.

The first thing we did when we got back to work was to check our emergency packs. We each have one under our desks with essential items, and practically, it’s in a backpack.

Why didn’t I think of using a backpack? It seems so obvious now. We’ve learned we need to have something we can grab at a moment’s notice if we’re being evacuated again.

The most important thing is to get to a safe area as fast as possible. So an emergency kit in a backpack is perfect for this.

It’s not about being equipped for every scenario, but taking practical steps that will help you get through.

Organizing a portable and practical emergency pack for your home and for your office is the simplest way to be prepared.

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  • Zach Miller
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