When we were traveling in Costa Rica about 10 years ago, we woke up in the middle of the night to the bed and building shaking — dirt and dust coming down from the ceiling and a muffled sound that you couldn’t quite identify but it sounded just… wrong. Brains fuzzy from sleep, we figured out it was an earthquake but we couldn’t decide whether to run for the bathroom, run for the door, or grab a mattress and cover ourselves. We were lucky, it was a strong quake but I don’t believe anyone was killed and we were uninjured.
That is the only time in my life that I’ve experienced a really strong quake. We had them all the time when I worked in Alaska but they were small — most of the time you’d only know an earthquake had hit by the slight rocking of the trailers that the fish were shipped in.
New Zealand is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and (according to Wikipedia) gets about 20,000 earthquakes a year with about 200 of them strong enough to be felt. Keith Woodford does an excellent job of showing where the big ones have been in NZ in his blog. And SciBlogs has a map that shows where the fault lines and main activity are.The pic here is from their site. Auckland can still get earthquakes but Wellington and the South Island see them more often.
In 2011, there was an earthquake near Christchurch in the South Island of NZ. It was ‘only’ a 6.3 on the Richter scale but it was devastating. 185 people died, most of them from the Canterbury Television building which collapsed.
I went to Christchurch for the first time back in December. It was almost 5 years after the quake. Much of downtown has been rebuilt, but there are many many areas that have not. And there are many buildings that are still standing but are empty and haven’t been demolished yet. Entire neighborhoods no longer exist — the houses were completely torn down. You drive through suburbs and you can see the trees and shrubs that once adorned the yards but the houses themselves are gone and the land is empty. It’s very sobering.
Building codes evolve and now a lot of buildings in NZ are being retrofitted to better withstand future earthquakes. We saw a lot of earthquake projects going on in the South Island and I notice that buildings in Wellington advertise their seismic rating. I laughed at that the first time I saw a sign about it. And then last time I was in Wellington there was an earthquake — not a big one, but it rocked the bed a bit and definitely could be felt. So no more laughing for me.
Updated 10 September 2016:
There was a 7.1 earthquake in the early morning hours on 2 September — we woke up to a slow but unmistakeable rocking in Auckland that lasted for about 15 seconds. It looks like everyone was okay and it was a long way from here but so disconcerting! When I posted this blog originally I was comforted to see that Auckland wasn’t in the dangerous zone but mother nature scoffed at that.