The night the earth shook: A mother’s story of the Kaikoura quake

By Alison Dight

It is absolutely terrifying to think that your family is about to die. I can’t begin to understand everything that went through my head just after midnight on the 14th of November 2016. The East Coast of the South Island in New Zealand was hit with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which lasted over 2 minutes.

I woke to a slight shaking at around 12.02am with my 2-year-old son, Oliver, and my husband, Nick, in bed with me. I quickly woke Nick and within 10 seconds our world began to fall apart. What started as a slight rolling feeling quickly became violent and the screaming started. My 7-year-old, James, screamed from his bedroom as things started to fall over and off walls and shelves. I scooped up Oliver and made a mad dash for the door frame as Nick pushed past us to reach James’ bedroom. Having been a hot night, we were only in our underwear! We managed to get to the door frames just as the worst hit.

Trying to stand up in a door frame holding a 13kg toddler or a 23kg seven-year-old became impossible and we had to sit in order to keep our balance. Even sitting, we were thrown in and out of the door frame as our drawers fell over in the bedroom and we could hear things being thrown from the cupboards in the kitchen. I covered Oliver’s body with mine and screamed at Nick to do the same with James. It’s amazing how the parenting protective instinct automatically kicks in and you don’t give a second thought about protecting yourself as long as you can protect your children. I tried to stay upright in the frame but kept losing my balance as Oliver tried to get out of my arms and run away in panic.

The noise was incredible. By this point only around 40 seconds had passed. I cried out to Nick, certain the house was going to collapse at any moment and that we would be trapped underneath. The windows rattled and the doors kept trying to swing shut on us as we shook with fear in the frames. The boys were crying and we couldn’t hear each other over the noise. Then the power went out and we were thrown into pitch black darkness.

Being in a massive earthquake is one thing. Being in a massive earthquake when you can’t see a thing and can only hear the screams and crashing and roar of the earth is horrifying. I couldn’t tell if the house was damaged and falling apart and couldn’t see my family. Our bodies were being knocked around as we huddled over the boys. My legs and bottom are still sore 4 days later.

Finally the shaking stopped – we caught our breath for all of 10 seconds before the first of the large continuous aftershocks hit. It seemed to go on forever. During a break of about a minute between quakes I passed Oliver to Nick and dashed into our bedroom to hurriedly grab some clothes for us to put on. Twice I had to run back to the door as another quake shook the house. We dressed whilst the boys were physically shaking in fear and crying. During a longer break, Nick managed to hunt out his head lamp and we grabbed our phones. We had no network signal for about 15 minutes and couldn’t find out what was happening. I tried for 30 minutes to call my parents in Australia whilst my husband tried frantically to contact our family who live close by.

Little did we know that the quake had caused so much devastation, particularly to a town and rural area around 90 minutes away – Kaikoura. Houses were demolished, roads and fields ripped apart and thrust meters into the air, train tracks torn from their footing and thrown into the ocean. At the moment the death toll stands at two people. Many more were injured and many residents and tourists have been displaced and cut off from the help they need. Thankfully the New Zealand Defence Force along with help from other countries is finally getting water and supplies to these people along with beginning evacuations.

We were lucky. Our house is structurally safe. Our township (Blenheim) did not suffer too badly in damages although there are cracks in some of the roads and several buildings suffered minor damage (windows, stock, etc). As the morning creeped ever closer we camped out in our car for several hours, too scared to stay inside, to listen to the emergency broadcast on the radio. People up and down the entire east coast of New Zealand were evacuated as a Tsunami warning went out. Thankfully we live about 10km inland so were able to stay put. The boys struggled to calm down and each aftershock sent them into panic again. We finally got hold of family both close by and overseas via text and Facebook as it was still impossible to get through on the phones.

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Hiding in the safety of the car

The boys finally fell asleep around 3.30am under the table in the archway of our lounge/dining room as all four of us huddled under it on blankets. Nick and I listened to the broadcast as the power finally came back on at 4am and we were able to access the internet. We would almost be asleep when another quake would shake us and the boys wake. We passed out from exhaustion around 5am only to be woken around 6.45am with another big quake. We got up and went to check on family in the area. The news poured in of the devastation around the country.

In the days since the first quake we have had over 2,000 aftershocks with over 50 of them being magnitude 5 or more. We have also suffered from flooding as a storm passed over the area a day after the first quake with some of our dams close to bursting their banks due to quake damage and the rainfall.

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Flooding in Koromiko

As we begin to pick up our lives, the children head back to school, people head back to work, it’s really begun to settle in what we’ve just lived through. The adrenaline has gone now (but comes back with each large aftershock) and we’ve been left to reflect on our experiences. Our boys have calmed down a lot however are still sleeping close to us. James has been taking his soft toy dog ‘Darcy’ to school and clutches him close. He doesn’t like being apart from the family and spends his time at home still hiding and playing under the table where he feels safe. Oliver is finally sleeping better after waking up crying every 30 minutes the first night after the quake. Both boys still tremble when they feel an aftershock but we are doing our best to reassure them that we are protecting them and that they are safe.

However, predictions are that this isn’t over yet. Experts are saying we are still to expect large aftershocks and possibly another significant ‘event’. Almost all other large earthquakes in New Zealand’s history have had a large follow up quake which has often caused more damage (as was the case with Christchurch in 2011 and Seddon in 2013). So as we reassure our children, we prepare for future quakes and try not to panic.

Each time I enter our bedroom or pass under the door frame, I have flash backs of that awful night. I am so thankful that we are alive and safe. I am so thankful for all the help people around the country and around the world are giving. Most of all I am so thankful for my family, friends, and our community which is pulling together and supporting each other. May we now have some peace.

Alison is a mother of 2 boys. Qualified as a Babywearing Consultant, Post-natal Fitness Instructor, Counsellor, and currently studying human development,  she is passionate about creating healthy, thriving families with a particular focus on Attachment theory.  She lives in a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand.

You can find more from Alison at her website, Together My Child.

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