This post could also be called “The Morning After . . . on 4.5 hours of sleep.” In other words, please bear with me and my probable typos and grammatical mistakes.
As you all probably know by now, Christchurch New Zealand was struck by a Magnitude 6.3 earthquake a few minutes before 1pm on Tuesday (New Zealand time, which would make it about 7pm Wednesday, Eastern Time in the United States). Instead of being in Dunedin or Wellington where I will be studying for the next 9 months, I was in Christchurch. I was part of a Forum called the Future Partners Forum, which was part of a larger US-NZ Partnership Forum. There are press releases to both forums, but suffice it to say that business and political leaders from both countries were attending to discuss the US-NZ partnership, and we were asked to discuss its future. It was quite an honor, but not the point of this post.
The Future Partners consisted of 9 United States Fulbright Fellows and 11 New Zealanders. We all had vastly different backgrounds, and the Americans and kiwis met for the first time on Sunday evening. That is important to this story. To keep this somewhat short, I am using bullet points and focusing on “as luck would have it.” At the end, you will know why.
As luck would have it . . .
· We were an over-anxious and productive group. We had a “brown-bag” lunch. Instead of being in the center of town, and all spread amongst different restaurants, where the vast majority of the Forum was, we were all together working through our lunch break when we could have been socializing, etc. In other words, we were together as a community. Readers of my other blog will know the importance of community to me, and if you are curious, here is a link to 12 blog posts on it.
· We were in a particular room of the rugby stadium. As the floor started to shake, the building did exactly what it was supposed to do. It shook violently, and water glasses fell, a little of the soft ceiling fell (so someone told me, but I did not see it), and the windows and walls stayed intact. My CA training kicked in, and I protected my head before my computer, which got a little water damage and saved immediately after the shaking ended, but my head came first.
· We were in New Zealand. I am from CA, but little did I know how unusual the phrase “Duck and Cover” is to the vast majority of Americans. The kiwis made sure we were all under tables. They felt they had an obligation to protect us in their most common natural disaster that makes CA look calm by comparison. Not only did our kiwi counterparts scream to get under tables, but I heard that other Americans were dragged under tables by the kiwis they were with.
· We were in New Zealand. Within seconds, and I mean seconds, crew from the stadium were in the room, on radios, evacuating us from the room and the building.
· I have a blackberry. Ok, this is purely personal, but as we were walking from the 5th floor to the outside, I emailed my four parents to tell them I was safe. This was before the phone lines got clogged, and I could still get through. They heard that I was safe before they heard there was an earthquake.
· We were in New Zealand (are you seeing a theme here?). The entire staff was outside with us, comforting us, taking care of us. They all live in Christchurch, and they were concerned about their family and friends and their homes, but they stuck with us until a bus arrived.
· There was a home across the way. Let’s just say that within minutes several of us had to use the facilities. We walked across the street and were welcomed into what can only be described as a college house of boys. Clean or not, they had a toilet, and they let many of us use it. (Later, as we left the area, they had set up a card game outside – not for us, but they were doing it, probably because they were bored, and there was little power in the city.) They were really, really kind to let us use their home.
· We are Americans (and our kiwi friends were not leaving us). The embassy acted fast! Some of the Partnership Forum was also in the stadium and found us about an hour after the earthquake. The rest of the people started to migrate back. Before 5pm (now that I think about it, that was about 4 hours after the earthquake when roads were nearly at a standstill and the city was in shock), a bus was there for all of us ready to take us to the Antarctic Center. We were all accounted for, and reaccounted for, before we got on that bus. We made sure our kiwi friends got on with us. This was the Partnership Forum, after all, and we are partners . . . and now friends. The embassy took them with us!
· We were with some VIPs, and the military cares about us. We were at the Antarctic Center less than an hour when it was decided that we would be evacuated by NZ Air Force jets to Wellington. They made sure that we future partners signed up for our boarding passes first and foremost. We were getting out! But more importantly, being with these people made us all feel safe. Without going into specifics, people trained in disaster preparedness, who have helped with some of the largest most recent natural disasters in the world, were there, and they were working together to make sure we were all cared for properly.
· We were with some caring people. This was the first trip on a C130 for most of us, and for many, this was their first earthquake. One VIP in particular spent the pre-flight once we were on the plane ensuring we had earplugs and ensuring that we were ready for a different sort of air trip. (We also passed out sick bags for those that were worried.) That same VIP realized that several of my friends were a tad nervous, and he chatted with one for 15 minutes about her work, her boyfriend, etc., just to distract her. We had to scream to hear, and even then it was hard. The outpouring of love and support to everyone was amazing.
· We have an amazing Ambassador. Here is a link to his official blog. Let me just say that it was his call that we were safely removed. It was him on the tarmac as we got off the plane. It was him who ensured that we had housing last night. It was him who made sure that a Navy Captain was there to pick us up and take us to our lodging. The embassy staff, along with the Ambassador, ensured we had everything. I have rarely before been so impressed with a group of people.
· I was wearing Flourite. Ok, odd one, but I’m putting it here. I bought this bracelet about two years ago, and it is both pretty and useful. Apparently, florite sold out after 9/11 because it has a calming effect. I don’t know if it helped, but I’m glad I have it on.
· We are alive.
That last point is, of course, the most important. As I talked to people who saw the damage, and the news came through that at least 65 people had died, the cathedral I had photographed that morning to show my parents a view from their hotel where they are set to stay in a month, had collapsed, and hotels and buildings around the city still contained missing persons, the last point hit home harder and harder. We are alive, uninjured, and together.
These next few days will be about processing. I beg of you to think of those in need right now. I was treated the way I would expect royalty to be treated, perhaps because I was with the VIPs of both countries, but also because I know how much the Fulbright program means to our current Ambassador. I feel like I do not deserve such treatment, but I am grateful for the support and caring that we received.
I have been in many, many earthquakes in my life, but this was, by far, the roughest (though not worst magnitude). The last time I went through one that resulted in a state of emergency I was 7. Today I can grasp what happened. I woke up this morning in a strange but safe bed unsure of what I experienced yesterday. There will be more posts, but I wanted you to all know that I feel “lucky.” I do not actually believe in luck, so the better word is grateful, incredibly, incredibly, incredibly grateful. Wow!
It is now several hours later, and I have not had internet access to post this, so I am adding to it. I am actually on a flight from Wellington to Dunedin as I type this, and as I read the newspaper, the survivor guilt sunk in. Why me? Not only did I survive, but I got to leave the city – in a military jet. I know it is the embassy’s job to ensure our safety, but after being in a devastating earthquake my biggest inconvenience is that I had to buy a toothbrush at the airport, wear the same clothes two days in a row, and get back to Dunedin about 15 hours after I was supposed to arrive there. Oh, and some of my stuff is still in Christchurch. That is hard to stomach, really hard. But yes, I am grateful, and I know that this Forum / Partnership is going to do what we can to send whatever help we can to the people who have been hurt, killed, displaced, etc.
Namaste and Blessings!
© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.