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Bar News - April 15, 2011


Surviving an Earthquake: A First-hand Account

By:


Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand was heavily damaged in a February earthquake.
Editor’s note: About noon on February 22, NH attorney Simon Leeming survived a devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Since that time, of course, another crushing earthquake and the resulting tsunami have struck Japan. However, says Leeming, because the Christchurch quake was so close to the earth’s surface and its epicenter so near the city, it is considered one of the most violent and powerful ever recorded. His first-hand account follows. On February 22 at 12:51 p.m., I was alone in the dining room of my cousin John’s home in Christchurch, New Zealand, reading a paper on the forum I had attended the day before, when the earth began to tremble. Instinctively, I dived under the dining room table. The floor heaved up beneath me, the walls rocked and swayed, and the earth rumbled. As the table slid back and forth across the floor, I scrambled to stay under it, while pictures fell off the walls, china crashed down, furniture toppled, and bottles came flying out of the liquor cupboard in the corner of the room. As the earth continued to shake, I thought “this is probably it, my swan song.” I expected the walls to collapse on me. Not all the possible malpractices of my life flashed before me, but as many as could fit into a crowded queue….

And then, after an eternity of thirty seconds or so, it all stopped.

I picked myself up and looked around. The house had survived, but much else had been destroyed. The power was out. Water was still surging in waves from the in-ground pool, flooding the backyard lawn.

I texted my wife back in New Hampshire, and my daughters Caroline and Tory at their universities in Dunedin and Wellington. and a close friend or two, to report I was safe – then all cell service died. A second shock struck, almost as violent and long-lasting as the first, and many strong aftershocks were to continue throughout the day and into the evening.

Shortly after the second shock, Kristin, my cousin’s wife, returned from shopping, quite distraught. I was outside with the neighbors; we surveyed the damage and checked to make sure local residents were okay. Then we picked up my cousin’s three children from school, their youthful trust in “terra firma” forever shattered. Thankfully John showed up an hour or so later, too, safe and sound.

Through his downtown office window he had seen the spire of the historic Christchurch Cathedral tumble into the nave, a symbolic augur of Christchurch’s darkest day.

Before and After

Christchurch is called the “Garden City” and for good reason. The pride of the city has always been its city center, with the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, built in the mid-1800’s, as its crown jewel, surrounded by a thriving business district. Beautiful Hagley Park lies nearby, with the picturesque Avon River threading through it. From its earliest days when it was conceived as a religious and utopian community, Christchurch has grown to be the attractive and orderly city it was on the morning of February 22 before the quake.

John described the death and destruction, the dust, smoke, fire and panic that had marked the city center after the quake. He, along with all other non-emergency personnel, was soon ordered out of the central area. As he left, he saw the bodies of those who did not make it out alive, and many injured being tended to. The ten-story building where his office was located has since been condemned and will be demolished.

Since I had grown up near Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, a region which is on an active fault line, I was no stranger to small quakes. In “Earthquake 101” we had been taught to seek shelter under the nearest table if/when one occurs.

Although I was neither born nor raised in Christchurch, I consider it my ancestral home. Five generations ago my forbears came to the area from England and Ireland to work the land and mine the mines. My relatives “saturate” the region and both my parents were Christchurchians.

The forum that brought me back to the city had made for a homecoming of sorts….

In 1986 New Zealand had declared itself nuclear free, one consequence of which was that US Naval vessels that were nuclear powered, or carrying nuclear weapons were prohibited from entering its waters. The declaration created a huge fault line between our two nations, and threatened the close relationship with the US that went back to New Zealand’s beginnings in the early 1800’s, ran through two world wars, and into their continuing relationship as Pacific neighbors.

The US-NZ Council was founded in Washington, DC, shortly after the nuclear-free declaration. The council’s objectives included repairing the rift, and furthering the relationships between the two countries. The counterpart NZ-US Council was subsequently formed in New Zealand for the same purposes. Christchurch was the site of the fourth forum, and it had begun on February 20th, with a vespers service at the historic cathedral.

My attendance at the Forum was as a member of Preti Flaherty, my law firm, as a long term board member of the US-NZ Council, and as New Zealand’s Honorary Consul to the six New England states. The US Delegation was led by recently retired US Senator Evan Bayh, 10 US Congressmen and Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific. I have jokingly referred to my role, as one of the few New Zealanders on the US side, as the official “interpreter” between the two delegations.

As the forum began we were reminded a few times of the 7.1 scale earthquake that had struck Christchurch on September 4th of 2010. Although it had caused a lot of damage, fortunately no lives had then been lost. Those not familiar with earthquakes were instructed as to protective measures, in what all thought the unlikely event the earth might quake again.

The keynote dinner was held at the Christchurch Antarctic Center, a place emblematic of the great relationship between the two nations and the staging area for NZ and US Flights to their Antarctic bases. For me, the evening ended at a local pub [where] a local city councilor regaled us with colorful stories of the September quake. All the while, deep below, the tension that would be so violently released the next day, was building up….

I had left early that last day of the forum to catch a 3:00 p.m. flight to Dunedin, 200 miles to the south, to visit Caroline, in her third year at the University of Otago. When the airport was closed by the quake, she borrowed a car and drove up to get me. She arrived in the early morning hours and we headed south, away from the scenes of destruction, while streams of emergency vehicles, milk tankers filled with drinking water, and trucks carrying heavy equipment were all heading north to the stricken city.

No Measure for Disaster

The tragic events in Japan have eclipsed the Christchurch earthquake, but they have not diminished the damage, nor its difficult aftermath. Because the quake was so close to the earth’s surface in Christchurch, and its epicenter was so proximate, it has been deemed one of the most violent and powerful ever recorded. The entire central business district was destroyed, with its many office buildings and the cathedral itself. Ten thousand homes were demolished and 80,000 people have left the city, many never to return – and 180 lives were lost. A large part of the city is still without water or sewer service, with the roadways and infrastructure decimated.

The people of Christchurch (and New Zealand) have acted with grace and courage in the face of such adversity. The United States, Australia, and the rest of the world have provided much help, and shown great generosity – but it will take many years to rebuild, and although plans are afoot to restore the cathedral, it will be a long time before its historic spire once again reaches skyward in Christchurch – and the crown jewel will be returned to the Garden City.

No Measure for Disaster

The tragic events in Japan have eclipsed the Christchurch earthquake, but they have not diminished the damage, nor its difficult aftermath. Because the quake was so close to the earth’s surface in Christchurch, and its epicenter was so proximate, it has been deemed one of the most violent and powerful ever recorded. The entire central business district was destroyed, with its many office buildings and the cathedral itself. Ten thousand homes were demolished and 80,000 people have left the city, many never to return – and 180 lives were lost. A large part of the city is still without water or sewer service, with the roadways and infrastructure decimated.

The people of Christchurch (and New Zealand) have acted with grace and courage in the face of such adversity. The United States, Australia, and the rest of the world have provided much help, and shown great generosity – but it will take many years to rebuild, and although plans are afoot to restore the cathedral, it will be a long time before its historic spire once again reaches skyward in Christchurch – and the crown jewel will be returned to the Garden City.

If you would like to contribute to the Christchurch earthquake fund, contact lpoulin@preti.com.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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