Sunday, 14 August 2011


We are en route to the UK to finish the holiday so rudely interrupted last year by a series of earthquakes, which at the time, we had little comprehension as to how far reaching  the effects would come to be.
This is our story of how we have been affected , how we have survived and our hopes for the future.
On that fateful morning on September 4th, we had just left Portafino heading to Pisa when the cell phone began ringing - we thought - oh- just Kate and Peter arrived in Italy and wondering if we could join up for a little Vino o'clock. But after 2 message tones we decided we needed to get petrol pulled off the motorway and our whole world turned upside down.
Our daughter had texted us and I was immediately concerned that something was wrong with our family after all it was only just after 4am in NZ - so I rang - too concerned to read  the texts. I was stunned Christchurch had just suffered a major earthquake and though they were alright physically they were sheltering in the door frame, in total darkness, while they continued to be shaken by aftershocks. Our grandson did not wake initially but he was thrown out of his bed and Pascal struggled to find him - our newborn granddaughter was being sheltered in that time honoured way by her loving and protective mother - happily at the breast -no bottle feeding for this family.
Daylight brought shock -and the dreadful sight of all that nasty liquefaction - now part of our vocabluary - broken roads, bridges and buildings- but no lives lost. That was to come later  -in February. But in the meantime parts of Christchurch suffered dreadfully - living without electricity (open fires are a thing of the past in Christchurch - pollution producers) some areas without water and large areas of Christchurch reduced to using 'port-a-loos' .
The City itself, was relatively unscathed, some buildimgs down and damage appeared cosmetic - chimneys  and the like. But news was scant, and we had no idea what we were returning home too - we heard all the sensational stuff and no one at home knew what was going on for that first dawn.  Day after day they suffered aftershocks and many of them strong enough to further stress buildings and people. But  even though the 'experts' warned us to expect more we didn't really believe them - we didn't want too - we just wanted to repair and rebuild.
The Weston House had lost all its chimneys and there was extensive damage to slate and cracks to interior plaster but being covered by the 'magic' EQC (Earthquake Commission) insurance scheme instigated after the Napier Quake in 1929 we though we were ok. We also believed that all would be sorted and paid for with efficiency. Well that was dream number one!
We had the plans drawn up - all dutifully done by a heritage architect - and then we waited and we waited and the EQC didn't come - we could carry out emergency weather tight repairs up to a value of $2000 per repair (inc tax).Somehow by persistence and sheer bloody mindedness I got through and began to collect the names and phone numbers of real people not call centre operators out of Brisbane. Yes, I know call centre operators are not deliberately obstructive and initially the infrastructure wasn't there to deal with  the huge number of claims from an earthquake on this scale. They have a job to do but everyday since Sept 2010 we have had letter after letter to the paper complaining about the stone wall  that is the EQC and the frustration felt by claimants  would have you questioning their job training - do they have a training module called  'make 'em mad 101'  and  its companion  'Putting people on hold while playing soothing music - till they hang up'
Luckily,for us, payment came through within 6 weeks (damage was over their limit so a full payout was required) but could work start? Oh, don't be silly - no, it couldn't . We had the various CCC depts to deal with - Heritage, Building  etc etc etc. This was infuriating - we have a long history of conservation at TWH, we have obeyed all the rules, we have hired the right architects and craftsmen - our work has been acknowledged with awards. Did this count NO - we were put through the mill - every which way - I was teetering on losing the plot . But although they share the same buildings these people do not seem to talk to each other and if they can make life difficult they will - must be a power thing. Well I didn't have time or patience for this - I didn't appreciate being lectured to about the imortance of the building , we already knew this , after all it was one of the reasons we lavished so much TLC on it but we had a business to run and bookings to honour ( and of course now I can speak my mind - we no longer have an Historic House - the 'powers- that- be' no longer have any power as far as we are concerned )  but they made our life hell and ate up a large swag of cash in the process ...just doing their job - yeah right!
We planned to be back in business by O1 November and we scraped through mainly by making sure that some of the tradesmen were set finish dates well ahead of this. We generally employ small operators known to us and they have performed brilliantly for years . But the roofers - well less said the better - but another battle. They were great when they were a small firm but the earthquake was an opportunity for expansion and the quality went down .
November came and success, we were back up and running - our home still bore the scars internally and by now we decided this cosmetic stuff should wait - the Guest accommodation was back to pristine and the small plaster cracks on our side of the house could be explained and understood. Wine o'clock was back in business - Eggs Benedict were on form and the banter continued. Once again we shared our wonderful home with a stream of magic people from all over the world. We had our usual couple of days off at Christmas but in the early hours of 26th December that started to come unstuck with some nasty little blighters - shuddering, loud and close by. We were hit with a cluster of quakes within the City area.
I coped with the first 5 or 6 .... we had learnt not to be afraid... we were in fact quite laid-back by now. But at 10.30am we were hit within a minute by a 4.9 at AMI stadium (about 3km away - earthquakes are by direct route , don't follow the road and don't stop at the lights!) and one around 4.3 on the other side of Hagley Park. That scared the living 'bejesus' out of me - you see I was standing at the top of the stairs - looking down - and I watched our home twist as we were caught like the meat in a sandwich –TWH tried to tear itself apart . The house filled with mortar and chimney dust (including soot- ugh) and all the work we had completed inside was undone and then some. Large cracks appeared - some quite disturbing - I could no longer sleep upstairs and found I could not actually spend any large period of time up there. Large heavy nightstore heaters toppled - this was serious stuff.
We closed the B and B (hoping to re-open in time for the RWC 2011) - called in the architect again plus a seismological engineer and planned extensive repair and strengthening work - we still had faith in the repair process. I inwardly groaned at the bureaucrapsy that would follow - more petty battles - more ego massaging - more frustration. We were ready but they were not - we would have to move out - horror of horrors - while roofing was removed, floorboards lifted around the entire perimeter and strengthening commenced.
I suppose in a way the fact that decisions were, as usual, grinding exceedingly slowly saved zillions because on Feb 22 we were hit by the biggy - the record breaker - the soul destroyer.
As you know by now, Len and I were in the house - we both threw ourselves under tables - assumed the position - 'the turtle' - I prefer to call it fetal bordering on faecal. As Len dived under the table so many of you have eaten at - it was hit and damaged by a huge piece of plaster that fell of the ceiling - right where he was eating his lunch - he could have been killed.I threw myself under the desk in the office - hauled my office chair towards me - as the contents of the dresser in the office hurtled towards me. Of course I was terrified - but I didn't have time to think I could be killed and my life , even the interesting parts, did not flash before my eyes. I remained completely continent - which was a great relief. I was on the phone to Brian from Tomahawk (IT/Marketing people from heaven -small Ad break) - he heard the horrific noise, he heard the breaking of china, he heard me scream - then the phone died and poor soul he thought I had been killed. Yes, it was that bad - the media reports were horrifying in their descriptions but they under estimated the damage and the resulting trauma of the communications were out. Some time later Brian was relieved to hear we were ok ... it must have been horrible for him - not that I would have been such a loss to humanity - but it was a very nasty ear-witness account for anyone to experience.
When the shaking stopped ( and be aware here that it was 4 times stronger than that quake in Japan 3 weeks later, due to the trampoline effect of the location and surrounding ) all was deafeningly quiet and still ( but not for long within 10mins we had another biggy). By then Len and I were flying around like demented idiots rescuing treasures that had not been smashed - the story of which appeared in a previous blog. We were in 'leaping buildings in a single bound' mode - and believe you me with furniture having fallen and smashed it wasn't easy. The large Linen Press upstairs had fallen over and I crawled through the gap to rescue my jewellery for which both I and the Insurance Company are extremely grateful. We had a huge hole in the front of the house reaching from upstairs to down - we lifted and pulled my Granny's chaise-longue to safety away from the weather and the hole to be rescued later. We filled both cars with paintings, silver etc and yes, as you know, wine, knickers & perfume and retreated to The George car park to try and contact people. Pascal had called in to see us on his way home - the family were ok - the relief unimaginable.
The crowds streamed homewards or to shelter in Hagley Park in silence. It was all very strange and it was later that we realized many of these people had seen things that no one should witness in their lives - these scenes would be permanently etched on their brain and that suffering would take a long ime to fade- if ever.
(At the moment the plane is flying over Asia - it is turbulent and it's shaking about a lot - if I wasn't typing - I would be drinking or spilling it - this writing is very cathartic)
We arrived at the home of our dear friends Brian (different Brian)  and Dale around 4.30pm - via Papanui - and other than a bit of liquifaction and a couple of badly damaged buildings all seemed serene. Oh yes, they had been badly shaken too but the ground is shingle not peaty river sand of the Eastern Suburbs.
That night the damage was shown on TV and we were stunned - our Iconic Christchurch buildings were gone or too badly damaged to repair - 250 to 300 people were missing - our beloved City was in ruins. All within 30 seconds of intense shaking.
The Eastern seaside suburbs had damage beyound belief - roads, bridges , the estuary had sunk - the suburb of Bexley was knee deep in liquifaction and the cliff edges of Sumner and Redcliffs had crumbled taking many beautiful houses with them. Fabulous Fendalton homes were in ruins and destined for demoliton.
To date they estimate 10,000 homes will have to go..... That's the lives of at least 20,000 to 30,000 people in ruins. The scale of repair is huge and the cost astronomical - one of the highest claims in the world to date.Why? Because of the high numbers of home ownership in NZ and the availability of Earthquake Insurance ( bet that disappears - certainly has for unreinforced masonary structures). Some land is so badly damaged the Government is buying it from the owners so that they can rebuild elsewhere .
Our own home was mortally wounded.
But that was only the beginning of the end...what was to follow in the next 5 months - stretched our resolve to the very limit.
First - we were behinds the army/police cordon with 24 hrs - so inaccessible.Then we were "red-stickered' - too dangerous to enter.But they were on the front doors so we went round the back! With fleeting visits, hard hats, letting people know where we were , acting on the advice of our engineer we made fleeting adrenaline fueled raids to rescue our possessions.Our actions were not condoned by our family at all and I apologize to them for that - but Andrew snowboards in the French Alps in extreme conditions and Rebecca has travelled to frightening 3rd world countries over many years - so they got to share our stress - I am treading on thin ice here left alone. Afterall maturity is optional or preventable when one is over 60!
After 13 June , when we had the double whammy of the 5.8 followed an hour later by a 6.3 - that was it for us - what was left in the house would stay in the house .
Yet we still fought on - Council and Historic Places Trust - both determined it could be fixed - CERA ( the ultimate and unchallengable power - like martial law - that powerful) caved in and listed us for demolition on 20 June. Our south east wall had blown out and my clothing was either on view to all or at the bottom of a pile of bricks below. I was standing looking one day when a woman suggested that if we had a fishing rod we could 'score' that nice jacket - she meant no harm and I apologized for my response! Another day I was floored by the remark of a boy about 8 or 9 years old who asked me a question then said it must have been a very beautiful house. I could have hugged him but had to turn away to hide my tears.
But then the house was broken into on at least 2 occasions - electrical and computer equipment was strewn around the property..must have been done at night and things were stacked for removal and then they must have been disturbed ...
The worst and darkest day was yet to come - and that was not the day of demolition - it was the days before - when the salvage people moved in. I didn't want them in the house - it was too risky by that stage - and I didn't want any deaths or injuries on my conscience. I thought they would take the obvious salvage like doors , windows, fireplaces...beyound my control and  subcontracted by Demolition company - I suppose it is implied permission , disguised in small print in a contract signed with the insurance company.
But they stripped our house - I was numb - everything left went. Is this the way of the world?
Is this ok? Was I given a choice...well after a confrontation about my presence (they didn't know who I was - but very soon did!) I asked for a pair of shoes in a distinctive box....answer straight out of Catherine Tate - "Shoes , dear? No, dear -  they went two hours ago ".
They offered to let me into my own house - but I couldn't go in - it wasn't safe and I knew that  seeing what was left  would be my final impression - leave me to my dreams I said and walked away - heart broken. Some things were returned after huge protest - photos and a very small part of my Mother's Spode  dinnerset - minus the dinner plates  and luncheon plates! The doors we had specifically requested turned up the day before we left for the UK  - thanks to the intervention of the insurance company and the demolition firm ( in no doubt due in some small part to my constant bitching - did I say that???? You bet I did - Maxine  and Me - we rock!)
Two days later the house was demolished.
Where our future is we have no idea..... but I will let you know - we have firm friendships with so many of you - how could we not - anyway we may visit you for a drink and a natter someday. I can't see us operating a Bed and Breakfast again - how could you top TWH?
Since Sept 1010 we have been shaken , stirred and scarred but our story is one of many shared experiences with our fellow Cantabrians . None of us have gotten off scot-free many have suffered pain beyond description but we are all grateful for you concern and support.
Our homes and our city may be gone but our memories are intact . Len and I were priviledged  to have owned, lived in and loved one of NZ's most beautiful homes -we were blessed. We were able to share this with many wonderful guests - we were doubley blessed. Our Christchurch family have survived and our son Andrew, in France ,was not here - we were tripley  blessed. We have a lot to be grateful for.
My heart goes out to Pedro from Pedro’s Restaurant who lost his home in September then his restaurant  in February and his beloved only son on the same day – our loss pales into insignificance in comparison. He is one of many who’s losses are too dreadful to contemplate.
We are all a very small speck of dust in the geological history of the world....and here we are off to riot torn London on board a plane that has just spilt my wine...I must have words with the Pilot!
God bless you all.

ROSS BECKER'S PICASA ALBUMS OF OUR SHATTERED CITY - ROSS HAS BECOME THE OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER OF CHRISTCHURCH'S HORRIFIC JOURNEY. His photographs chronicle the tragedy that has hit our city  - this is a nation's sorrow. A photo taken of TWH appears here RossBeckerNZ/InsideThe4AvenuesNotRedZone

Please (if you have time) go back through my previous earthquake blogs - these are our personal stories but there are many links to various websites which contain information which explains the events that have changed our history.


Brian said...

Hi Stephanie and Len

Thanks for posting this very moving story.

Enjoy your European holiday and let's catch up when you return.

lots of love and best wishes.

teresa said...

Hello Stephanie and Len,
I've just had the pleasure of meeting you today at Pencarrow.
My name is Teresa and tonight as I was tootling round the web I thought I would check out your lovely old home and blog...and there you were! What a story you have to tell and what a nice couple you are- it was SO nice to meet you and have the time to talk. I consider that "meant to be"...and quite special. My husband's played Christschurch and remembers it well and fondly.
All my very best,