3 Things I Learnt from the Christchurch Earthquake

3 Things I Learnt from the Christchurch Earthquake

As we’ve just passed the two year anniversary for the Christchurch earthquake (or the most damaging one at least), I, like many Cantabrians no doubt, have been reflecting on that moment and everything that has changed in our lives since then.

My wife and I bought a house not long before the first quake. As home owners, we could really have suffered during the quakes but instead we’ve been hugely fortunate – our house suffered superficial damage and we’ve already had the repairs and renovations taken care of thanks to EQC. In fact, and don’t tell the insurance companies this, our place is probably looking better now than it did before the earthquake thanks to all the new plasterwork and fresh paint.

While we’ve been very fortunate, we do live close to areas that are far, far worse off. Sensibly, we’ve taken stock of our lives and have made a number of decisions to best place us in the event of any future disasters.

Army working in Christchurch

A young soldier keeps his checkpoint tidy.

As someone who has now lived through such a large earthquake, I thought I’d share some of those steps with you in the hope that you’ll consider putting these in place whether you’ve been through a disaster or not.

Step 1: Check Your Insurance

The Christchurch earthquake makes one hell of a case study for insurance firms. I think I read somewhere that it’s the world’s third largest insurance claim. On the EQC website they state that they are currently paying out $4 million per day in claims which totals $4.3 billion to date!

When it comes to insurance policies, you really want to be checking every box – and by that I mean make sure you have all the ‘big ones’, such as:

  • Car insurance
  • Home insurance
  • Contents insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Business insurance including loss of income (if you own a business)

Sadly the chimney on my house rolled off (staying almost completely in one piece) and landed on my neighbour’s car. I was completely covered but the insurance company said that the claim would have to be made by my neighbour under his own insurance as the event was an ‘Act of God’. He wasn’t insured despite needing to use the vehicle for his work so that caused all sorts of problems for him. Meanwhile things were a little awkward between us as it was my chimney! Quite an odd scenario but just one of many reasons that you want to make sure you’re well covered.

Chimney Damaged by Earthquake

Our chimney that landed against the neighbour’s van.

Again, we’ve been very lucky in that we haven’t lost anyone close to us but the earthquake helped us to realise the things that are most important to us – not material possessions such as cars and clothing, but the things that really matter in life like the well-being of each other. As the main ‘bread-winner’, I would hate to think what my wife would have gone through having to deal with the house, the car, and everything else without any income coming into the household.

So despite other forms of insurance perhaps being more ‘common’, I’d say that life insurance is something you should really get sorted as soon as possible – plus it’s probably the one type of insurance you haven’t bothered with yet. After all, you have insurance for your car and your house, what else can go wrong? If you already have it, check your policy and get in touch with your provider to make sure you’re on the best possible option for your circumstances. There are plenty out there but I can say that AA Life Insurance have been pretty great to deal with.

Step 2: Prepare Communication Channels

Communicating. When you do too much of something, I think you forget how important it can be. I work in a digital communication role and am constantly communicating messages to thousands of people, most of it probably quite mundane. However, when a disaster strikes, you suddenly realise how important communication channels can be.

With no power across the city (I think it was a couple of weeks before we had power back at our house) and with the telephone networks reduced to the bare minimum network thanks to broadcast towers going down, it was a good few hours before I first spoke to my wife over the phone and what a relief that was!

With no power at home, we quickly realised that our landline phone could only operate with mains power. Shortly afterwards, we bought a cheap basic corded phone that drew power through the phone line itself and finally we could connect with the world again. We still keep that phone in a drawer in the kitchen.

Communication isn’t limited to phones either. An organisation near where I live was pleading for batteries and hand-held radios just after the quake so that they could communicate with all of the volunteers that were pouring in. Our biggest source of information about the earthquake and recovery efforts came from radio. We could use the car radio but access to petrol was highly limited and we didn’t want to risk draining the car battery so instead we got hold of a wind-up radio that also served as a flash light – I can’t tell you how much we used that thing over the next couple of weeks! Literally family gathered around the candle-lit living room listening to the radio. So this is what it was like pre-TV!

So yes, buy a cheap corded telephone and a wind-up radio!

Step 3: Get Your Emergency Kit Sorted

I swear to God I know people living in Wellington right now that don’t have an emergency kit, or anything close to it, in their house despite everything we’ve gone through.

As well as the obvious – tins of food, matches and candles, water – there are a few others that we Cantabs quickly found out that we needed. Things like antibacterial hand-wash that you could use without water (digging in silt all day alongside broken sewer pipes makes you really wish you had running water at home!) and petrol so that you can fill up the car and get supplies from unaffected areas. Luckily we had a car with a full tank and so could drive out to our friend’s place just south of Timaru. There was one petrol station open in Christchurch and the queue went right around the block and they were limiting supply. Even Ashburton had huge queues and were running out of petrol!

Earthquake Supplies!

Earthquake Supplies!

I won’t go into this too much further as I wrote a blog post way back in September 2010 with a more substantial earthquake survival kit list.

Bonus Step 4: Beef up Security

Had to throw this one in as well as it’s quite important. The internal repairs to our house were managed by a builder who was ‘EQC approved’. That’s great and he turned out to be a top guy – but he had to employ around 16 other people who all spent a lot of time in our home, often on their own. Plasterers, painters, carpet…ers, and all sorts. A lot of them were third party contractors employed by our site manager. At any time, any one of them could have been left in our house on their own for a good 5 or 6 hours with one of our door keys. I don’t mean to be negative but that’s a really good opportunity to scope out the existing security system and make a copy of the key at the local mall.

Not only that, but the key was kept in a lock-box outside the house with a combination lock. The combination was given to heaps of people during the 3 or 4 weeks of repairs and even left open while there were workers at the house (meaning that passer-bys could look at the displayed combination number).

So with that in mind, we changed the locks on our house immediately after the work was completed. As a side note, we also have a large German Shepherd which we kept in the garage while workers were here. Quite a few of them asked if he was dangerous and every time they asked, we always replied “only to intruders!”

Basically, make sure you don’t end up having to write on your own garage like this guy …

Crime After the Earthquake