Friday, 28 March 2008

Q = Quakes

Just ten minutes away from our tranquil little suburb, with wooden houses covering the hills and where church bells ring down in the valley on Sunday mornings, is the harbour and the CBD. Every time we drive into the city, we drive along the Wellington faultline, and most of the time we don’t give it a thought.

But every so often the earth moves. And every single Wellingtonian wonders if this time it will be “the big one.” After all, evidence of Wellington’s dramatic and at times violent geology is hard to miss: an earthquake raised the land that is now the city’s airport; the motorway northeast along the harbour tracks the faultline.

(X = my house ... approximately)

If you have ever seen the movie “LA Story” there is a scene where an earthquake occurs when the main characters are at a restaurant. The LA natives continue eating as the earth shakes, the table rattles, cutlery is juddered across the table, pretending that absolutely nothing is wrong. That scene is very familiar to Wellingtonians, who are generally very blasé about earthquakes. Outwardly at least. I have worked with civil engineers, who stand by the windows taking an unnatural interest in how high-rise buildings around them behave (do they sway as intended etc?) during an earthquake.

I grew up in a part of the country with the lowest incidence of earthquakes, and spent my first 23 years in blissful ignorance of what it means to live on an earthquake faultline. But moving to Wellington I was horrified to be reminded of this on a daily basis – the public department where I worked had “what to do in an earthquake” posters everywhere! Like most Wellingtonians, we have emergency earthquake supplies. Bottles filled with water, cans of food, torches and candles, a red cross medical kit. We live in wooden houses – they move in earthquakes and are less likely to suffer structural damage – on the side of a hill. We joke that when the earthquake comes, we won’t need our own emergency kit but hope that the people in the houses under us at the bottom of the valley have enough to share, as that is where we will end up.

But fear does come when the ground shakes beneath us.

I have often wondered what it must be like to live in the US tornado belt, and can’t understand why people would choose to live with the constant knowledge they could be destroyed by nature’s power. But I live on a faultline. I don’t get even a warning if an earthquake is about to destroy me. How reckless is that?

The “big one” is overdue, but in geological terms it could come now, or in a few hundred years. So, like my husband and his family, neighbours, friends and colleagues - even the Prime Minister whose official residence is adjacent to the fault - I adopt the head in the sand approach, and hope it won’t come just yet.


  1. I live at one of the bigger confluences of American rivers (Missouri and Mississippi), on the edge of Tornado Alley, and close enough to the New Madrid fault line to worry about the masonry foundation of my house (houses are about 4 feet apart on my block, they will fall like dominoes).

    Yeah, we're dumb. But then I look at New Orleans and San Andreas and think maybe not so much.

    My sister once, in high school, took a map of the US with all those areas tagged--fault lines, hurricane paths, flood plains, tornado alley--and found that certain parts of Minnesota were the safest places to live in the US. But then...there's winter... :^)

  2. and the woodchipper.....have you been to Napier, Mali? Is it as cool as it sounds, or a bit dowdy?

  3. We all live with dangers. And so many people have very little choice about where they can live...

    Wonderful post. Hope your vacation was lovely...

  4. Before I moved to Tokyo I read about the 1923 earthquake there, and became paranoid about the possibility of another one occurring because they are also due for the next "big one". After a couple of years of living with the occasional tremor and jolt we became quite blasé, and even ignored the few occasions that the earthquate warning alarms were triggered. It's probably less stressful to live with your head in the sand than in a state of low-grade fear about something that may never happen in your lifetime.

  5. Wow Bridgett, you got me researching the New Madrid fault and I now know all about intraplate faults and earthquakes, whereas because we are right on the Ring of Fire we focus on earthquakes caused by two plates. Typically we can blame Australians, because we are right on the boundary of the Australian plate and the Pacific plate!

    Mrs S: Yes I've been to Napier. It has some great Art Deco buildings, and these are now well maintained and protected. Also the wine is fantastic and so definitely worth a visit!

    IB: thanks my vacation was perfect. Will put photos up on my travelalphablog.

  6. Mrs. S: I just got that. Ha!

  7. And Mali, that got me to go over to Wikipedia and read up. I knew about the big one back in 1812. I did not know, living in total denial, how precarious it really is along this river. Oy. Something new to think about.


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